Watching Nesta climax had been as close to a religious experience as Cassian had ever had. It had rocked him to his very core, and only pure will and pride had kept him from spilling in his pants again. Only pure will and pride had made him back off the bed when she’d reached for him. Only pure will and pride had made him leave the room, when all he’d wanted was to plunge his cock into that sweet, tight warmth and ride her until they were both screaming.
He couldn’t get her perfect taste out of his mouth. Not as he washed for bed. Not as he pumped himself dry, soaking his sheets. Not as he ate breakfast. Couldn’t stop feeling the clamp of her around his fingers, like a burning, silken fist. He’d washed his hands a dozen times by the time he faced Nesta in the training ring, and he could still smell her there, could still feel her, taste her.
Cassian banished the thought from his mind. Along with the knowledge that Nesta might have felt good on his fingers, on his tongue, but it would be nothing compared to how she’d feel on his cock. She’d been tight enough that he knew it’d be paradise and madness—his undoing. And she’d been so drenched for him that he knew he’d do deplorable things to be allowed to taste that wetness again.
The Nesta who emerged into the training pit was the one he saw every morning, though.
No hint of a blush, or a sparkle in her eye to tell him she’d enjoyed herself.
But maybe that was because Azriel walked in behind her.
His brother took one look at him and smirked. Az knew. Could either scent Cassian on Nesta, or could already scent Nesta on Cassian, even from across the ring.
Cassian didn’t regret what he’d done with her. Not at all. And maybe it was the fact that it had been two years since he’d had any sort of sex, but he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been so ridden by his own base need.
Some small, quiet part of his brain whispered otherwise. He ignored it.
Had ignored it for a long time now.
“Morning, Az,” Cassian said cheerfully. He nodded to Nesta. “Nes.
How’d you sleep?”
Her eyes flashed with the anger that was like kindling to his own, but then she smiled coolly. “Like a babe.”
It was to be a game, then. Which one of them could pretend that nothing had happened the longest. Which one of them might seem the least affected.
Cassian threw her a grin that declared he was in. And he’d make her crawl before the end.
Nesta merely began to unlace her boots.
He jerked his chin toward Azriel. “Why are you up here?”
“I thought I’d do some training myself before heading out for the day,” Az said, his shadows lingering in the archway, as if fearful of the bright sunlight in the ring. “I’m not interrupting anything, am I?”
Cassian could have sworn Nesta’s fingers stalled on the laces of her boots. He drawled, “Nothing at all. We’re starting on hand-to-hand combat.”
“My least favorite,” Azriel said.
Toeing off her boots, Nesta asked, “Why?”
Az observed her, striding barefoot into the ring. “I like swordplay better. Hand-to-hand is too close for my tastes.”
“He doesn’t like getting a face full of someone’s armpit sweat,” Cassian said, chuckling.
Azriel rolled his eyes but didn’t deny it.
Nesta watched the shadowsinger with a frankness that most people shied from. Azriel returned the look with a stillness that most people ran from.
Even Feyre had been hesitant around Az initially, but Nesta considered him with the same unflinching assessment she laid upon everyone.
Maybe that was why Azriel had never said a bad word about Nesta. Never seemed inclined to start a fight with her. She saw him, and was not afraid of him. There weren’t many people who fit that bill.
Nesta said, “Show me how you two fight.” Azriel blinked, but she added, “I want to know what I’m up against.” When neither of them said anything, she asked, “What I saw in battle was different, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” Cassian said. “A variation of what we do here, but it requires a different sort of fighting.” Shadows clouded her eyes, as if the memory of those battlefields haunted her. He said, “We won’t start battle training for a while yet.” Years, probably. Az was watching her as if he, too, had marked the shadows in her eyes. Cassian asked him, “You want to do a little sparring? It’s been a while since I wiped the floor with you.”
He needed to get the energy out—the lingering, addling desire from last night. Needed to burn it from his body through movement and breath.
Az rolled a shoulder, unruffled and calm, eyes glittering as if he marked Cassian’s need to expel that coiled-up energy. But Az peeled off his jacket and his shirt, leaving the Siphons atop the backs of his hands, anchored in place around the wrist and through a loop on his middle finger. Cassian did the same as he removed his own shirt.
Nesta’s stare seared him from across the ring. Cassian might have flexed his stomach muscles as he approached the chalk-lined circle. Az shook his head and muttered, “Pathetic, Cass.”
Cassian winked, nodding to his brother’s equally muscled stomach. “Where have you been exercising these days?”
“Here,” Azriel said. “At night.” After he returned from spying on their enemies.
“Can’t sleep?” Cassian took up a fighting stance.
A shadow curled around Azriel’s neck, the only one brave enough to face the sunlight. “Something like that,” he said, and settled into his own stance across from Cassian.
Cassian let it drop, knowing Az would have told him already if he’d wanted to share what had been hounding him enough to exercise at night, rather than in the morning with them. Cassian explained to Nesta, who stood a few feet outside the chalk ring, “We’ll go full speed, then stop, and I’ll break it down for you. All right?”
He needed to expunge this energy before he’d dare let himself be that close to her.
Nesta crossed her arms, face so neutral he wondered for a moment if he’d dreamed some wild fantasy last night of his head between her legs.
Shaking off the thought, he again looked to Az. Their eyes met, Az’s face as unreadable as Nesta’s, and Cassian gave a nod. Begin.
It started with footwork: a slow circling, an assessment, waiting for the other to reveal his first move.
Cassian knew Az’s tricks. Knew which side Az favored and how he liked to strike.
The problem was, Az knew all of his techniques and shortcomings, too.
They circled each other again, Cassian’s feet pounding a steady beat on the dry ground.
“Well?” he asked Az. “Why don’t you show me what all that nighttime brooding has resulted in?”
Az’s mouth curved. He refused to take the bait.
The sun beat down on them, warming Cassian’s bare skin and hair. “Is this really all it is?” Nesta asked. “Circling and taunting?”
Cassian didn’t dare look her way. Not even for an instant. As soon as he so much as blinked at her, Azriel would strike, and strike hard. But—
Cassian grinned. And glanced toward Nesta.
Az fell for his deception, launching toward him at last.
Cassian, waiting for it, met the fist Az sent flying for his face, blocking and deflecting and counterstriking. Az caught the blow, ducked the second Cassian had waiting, and aimed one for Cassian’s exposed ribs.
Cassian blocked, counterpunched, and then the sparring unfolded.
Fists and feet and wings, punch and block, kick and stomp, breath sawing out of them as he and Az tried to break past each other’s defenses. Neither of them put the full force of their bodies into the blows—not the way they’d do in a real brawl, when one punch could shatter a jaw. But they used enough power to make Cassian’s ribs bleat at the impact, to make Az whoosh out a breath as Cassian landed a lucky hit to his stomach. Az was spared from having the air knocked out of him by twisting, otherwise the fight would have ended right then and there.
Around and around the ring, fists flying, teeth bared in fierce grins, they lost themselves to sweat and sun and breathing. They’d been born for such things, endured centuries of training that had honed their bodies into instruments of violence. To allow their bodies to do just what they wished was its own sort of freedom.
Faster and faster they fought, and even Cassian’s breathing became labored. Though Cassian had more bulk, Azriel was quick as hell—they were evenly matched. They might be at this for hours, if they were truly facing each other as enemies. Might have been at it for days, if they’d been opponents in one of the old wars, where entire battles had come to a standstill to watch great heroes go head-to-head.
But time wasn’t unlimited, and he did have a lesson to get through with Nesta.
“Right,” Cassian panted through gritted teeth as he blocked Az’s kick and bounced a step back, circling again. “Whoever lands the next blow wins.”
“That’s ridiculous,” Az panted back. “We go until one of us eats dirt.”
Az had a vicious competitive streak. It wasn’t boastful and arrogant, the way Cassian knew he himself was prone to be, or possessive and terrifying like Amren’s. No, it was quiet and cruel and utterly lethal. Cassian had lost track of how many games they’d played over the centuries, with one of them certain of a win, only for Az to reveal some master strategy. Or how many games had been reduced to only Rhys and Az left standing, battling it out over cards or chess until the middle of the night, when Cassian and Mor had given up and started drinking.
They circled again, but Az snapped his head toward Nesta, eyes wide.
Cassian looked, heart leaping into his throat—
Azriel struck, a punch to the jaw hard enough that Cassian staggered. Reeling, steadying himself, he cursed.
Az let out a soft laugh, eyes flickering. He’d wielded the same deception that Cassian had used at the start of this, played the one card that would get Cassian to remove his focus from an opponent.
It had happened before—against Hybern. Nesta had screamed his name, and even in the midst of the battlefield, he’d abandoned his soldiers and rushed for her, not caring about anything other than reaching her, saving her.
Only, Nesta had saved him. And she had screamed his name to get him out of the Cauldron’s range.
His soldiers had been blasted apart a moment later. And when he’d looked at her face, he’d understood something—something that the past year and a half had shredded apart and turned cold.
Cassian rolled his shoulder, hand at his jaw as he said to Az, “Bastard.” Az laughed again, and they turned toward Nesta.
She remained a pillar of cool calm, but a line of color stained her cheeks.
There was no wind to blow her scent to him, but from the way her throat bobbed as she glanced between them …
Azriel let out a cough and walked toward the water station. “You’re drooling,” Cassian said to her, and Nesta went rigid.
“If there was anything enticing,” she hissed, entering the ring, “it was seeing Azriel punch your face.”
Cassian motioned for her to get into her fighting stance. “Keep telling yourself that, Nes.”
“What do you know of the Dread Trove?”
“The what?” Gwyn turned from the desk where Nesta had found the priestess singing softly to herself, situated just outside Merrill’s shut office door.
“The Dread Trove,” Nesta said, wincing at her sore body’s protestations as she took a seat on the edge of Gwyn’s desk. “Three ancient artifacts …”
Gwyn shook her head. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”
Nesta was still sweaty from the lesson with Cassian and Azriel. They’d walked her through the punches and kicks and steps they’d done with ease, though neither had laughed when she was clumsy or ungraceful.
Seeing them spar had been overwhelming. Their beautiful forms, tattooed and scarred and carved with muscle, gleaming with sweat as they fought with a viciousness and intelligence she’d never seen … She’d been sweating herself when they’d finished, wondering what it’d be like to be between those two male bodies, letting them turn all that lethal attention on worshipping her.
Elain would faint to hear such thoughts. And to hear that Nesta had already had two males in her bed not once but twice, and had enjoyed every second of it. But the males Nesta had shared herself with hadn’t looked like Cassian and Azriel. Hadn’t been Cassian and Azriel.
Nesta had made herself focus during the lesson, but as soon as she’d left them in the training ring, filthy thoughts had poured in, leaving her half-distracted while she’d walked down to the library. The thought of Cassian pumping into her mouth while Azriel pounded into her from behind, the two of them working her in tandem—
Talking to Gwyn about the Dread Trove had sobered her up fast enough.
“It seems like the Trove has a glamour to make people forget that it exists,” Nesta said to Gwyn, and succinctly explained what it was, along with vague details about why it was wanted. She didn’t mention Queen Briallyn, or Koschei, or the Cauldron. Only that the Trove must be found quickly. And that Gwyn should not mention it to anyone.
Nesta supposed that in doing so, she directly disobeyed Rhys’s order for silence, but … to hell with him.
When she was done, Gwyn was wide-eyed, her face so pale that her freckles stood out in stark relief. “And you must find it?”
“I don’t have the faintest idea where to begin looking. Which one to find first.”
Gwyn chewed on her bottom lip. “We do have an extensive card-cataloging system,” she mused idly, but peered toward the stacks beyond them, to the open pit at the bottom of the library. “But they don’t list what’s below Level Seven.”
Gwyn angled her head. “So why come to me?”
“You’re clearly good at what you do, if you’re working with someone as demanding as Merrill. If you have a spare moment, any help would be appreciated. Or just point me in a direction.”
“Let me finish proofing this chapter and then I’ll see what I can discover.”
Nesta offered a tight smile. “Thank you.”
Gwyn waved a hand. “Finding objects to help our court protect the world is rather exciting. About as exciting as I’m willing to get these days, but it shall be an adventure.”
“You could come to training if you want another sort of adventure,” Nesta said carefully.
Gwyn offered her a tight smile. “That’s not for me, I’m afraid.” “Why not?”
Gwyn gestured to Nesta’s fighting leathers, the overlapping scales. “I’m not a warrior.”
“Neither am I. But you could be.”
Gwyn shook her head. “I don’t think so. If I wished to be a warrior, I would have gone that route as a child. Instead I offered myself as an acolyte
—and that is what I am.”
“You don’t have to give up one thing to be the other. Training is exercise. Learning to breathe and stretch and fight. Aren’t you researching Valkyries for Merrill? That might even give you further insight.” Nesta patted a thigh. “And I already have muscle building up. Two weeks, and I can tell the difference.”
“Why would a priestess need muscular thighs?”
Nesta narrowed her eyes as Gwyn went back to her work. “Is it Cassian?”
“Cassian is a good and honorable male.”
“I know he is.” She’d always known it. She pressed, “But is it Cassian’s presence that makes you hesitate?”
There had been no hint this morning as to what had gone on between them last night. As if the debt between them had been paid, and he had no further interest in touching her. Like she was an itch scratched, and that was it. Or perhaps he had not enjoyed it as she had.
It unsettled her, that she spent so much time thinking about it.
Gwyn didn’t answer, and Nesta knew she had no right to push, not when color stole over Gwyn’s cheeks and her head bowed slightly. Shame
—it was shame and fear.
Something in Nesta’s chest tightened as she began to walk away. “All right. Let me know if you learn anything regarding the Trove.”
Nesta mulled the conversation over during the hours she worked. When she checked the sign-up sheet as she left the library at sundown, no names had been added.
She felt Clotho’s eyes on her as she surveyed the empty page. Nesta at last turned toward the priestess, seated at her desk with her hands folded before her. Silence stretched between them, but Nesta said nothing as she left.
She went to the stairwell rather than to her room or the dining room, and stared down into the curving redness of the steps.
Nesta began the descent, slower this time, contemplating each placement of her foot. Let each step downward be a thought, a piece of one of Amren’s puzzles, that she sifted through.
Down and down she went, turning over each word and glance from Gwyn during the time Nesta had worked in the library. Step to step, she told herself with each burning, trembling movement of her legs. Step to step to step.
Again, she replayed the conversation. Each step was a different word, or motion, or scent.
Nesta was on step two thousand when she halted. She knew what she had to do.