The rain kept falling for two days, the temperatures plummeting with it. Leaves lay scattered around Velaris, and the Sidra was now a silver snake, sometimes hidden by the drifting mists. The females showed up every damn day without fail.
But only Nesta stood at his side as he knocked on the door of the small blacksmith’s shop on the western outskirts of Velaris.
The gray-stoned, thatched-roof shop hadn’t changed in the five centuries he’d been patronizing it—he bought all his non-Illyrian weapons there. He’d have taken her to an Illyrian blacksmith, but they were mostly backward, superstitious males who wanted females nowhere near their shops. The ruddy-skinned High Fae male who opened the door for them was skilled and kind, if gruff.
“General,” the male said, wiping his sooty hands on his stained leather apron. He opened the door wider, delicious heat blasting out to meet them in the chilled rain. The blacksmith’s dark eyes swept over Nesta, noting her soaked hair and leathers, the calm intensity of her features despite the awful weather.
She’d had that same look on her face, in every line of her body, while training this morning. And when Cassian had issued the invitation to join him here during the lunch hour. He’d invited all of the females, but Emerie had to return to Windhaven, and the priestesses had been unwilling to leave
the mountain. So only Nesta had come with him to the small village, with the city looming on its eastern side and broad, flat plains stretching away toward the sea to the west.
“How can I assist you?”
Cassian nudged Nesta forward with a hand to the small of her back, and grinned at the male. “I want Lady Nesta to learn how a blade is made. Before she picks up a real one.”
The blacksmith surveyed her again. “I don’t need an apprentice, I’m afraid.”
“Just a quick demonstration,” Cassian said, keeping his smile in place as he glanced to Nesta, who was staring over the blacksmith’s broad shoulder into the workshop behind him. The blacksmith frowned deeply, so Cassian added, “I want her to learn how much work and skill goes into the process. To show her that a blade is not merely a tool for killing, but a piece of art as well.” Flattery always helped smooth the way. Rhys had taught him that.
Nesta’s gaze shifted to the blacksmith’s face, and for a moment, they stared at each other. Then Nesta said, “Whatever you can show me, in whatever free time you have, would be much appreciated.”
Cassian tried not to show his surprise at her polite words. The hint of deference.
It seemed to do the trick, as the blacksmith waved them in.
Nesta listened while the dark-haired male explained the various stages of forging a blade, from the quality of the ore to the proving. Cassian kept near her, asking questions of his own, since she said little herself. One of the few times she’d spoken had been to request to move away from the roaring fires of the forge room to the quieter, cooler dark of the workshop proper. But as the blacksmith finished going over the design process for more ornate blades, Nesta asked, “Can I try it?” At the blacksmith’s hesitation, Nesta stepped forward, eyes on the doorway beyond them, filled with the bellowing of the forge. “Hammering the blades, I mean. If you have any to spare.” She glanced at Cassian. “You’ll be compensated, of course.”
Cassian nodded. “We’ll pay for the blades if they’re damaged.”
The blacksmith surveyed Nesta again, as if testing the ore in her, then nodded. “I’ve got a few you could try your hand at.”
He led them back into the heat and flame and light, and Cassian could have sworn Nesta was inhaling and exhaling in a perfect, controlled rhythm. She kept her gaze only on the blacksmith, however, as he carried over a half-made sword and laid it upon the anvil. Pretty, but ordinary. A common, everyday sword, the blacksmith said. After a swift, flawless demonstration, he handed her the hammer. “Brace your feet like so,” the blacksmith said, and Nesta followed his instructions until she lifted the hammer above one shoulder and swung down.
A clanking thunk sounded, and the sword clattered. A clumsy near-miss. Nesta gritted her teeth. “That’s not as easy as it looks.”
The blacksmith pointed to the sword. “Try again. It takes a while to grow accustomed to it.” Cassian had never heard the male speak so … gently. Normally their conversations were swift and to the point, free of formalities or personal tidbits.
Nesta struck the sword again. A better hit this time, but still a sorry blow. Coals popped in the forge behind them, and Nesta flinched. Before Cassian could ask why, she’d gritted her teeth again and struck the sword a third time. Fourth. Fifth.
By the time the blacksmith brought out a dagger, she’d gotten the hang of it. Was even smiling slightly. “Daggers require a different technique,” the blacksmith explained, again demonstrating. So much work and skill and dedication, all for an ordinary blade. Cassian shook his head. When had he last stopped to appreciate the craftsmanship and labor that went into his weapons?
Sweat beaded Nesta’s brow as she hammered at the dagger, blows and body surer now. Pride wended through his chest. Here she was, that female who’d been forged during the war with Hybern. But different—more focused. Stronger.
Cassian was only half-listening when the blacksmith brought out a great sword.
But he snapped to attention as Nesta fell upon it in one smooth movement, the hammer striking clear and true.
Strike after strike, and Cassian could have sworn the world paused as she unleashed herself with the same intensity she brought to training.
The blacksmith smiled at her. The first time Cassian had ever seen the male do so.
Nesta’s arm arched above her, the hammer gripped in her clenched fingers. It was a dance, each of her movements timed to the ringing echo of the hammer on the blade. She pounded the sword to a music no one but she could hear.
Cassian let her keep at it, the rain and wind rustling the thatched roof a distant counter-beat above them, and began to wonder what would emerge from the heat and shadows.
Learning swordplay was no easy task—it required repetition and muscle memory and patience—but Nesta, Emerie, and Gwyn were game.
No, Cassian realized as he watched them put away their swords in the icy rain that continued the next day. They were more than game: they trained with a newfound, steady focus. No one more so than Nesta, who now shelved her sword and took up a length of linen. She began wrapping her hands, rolling her neck as she did so.
They hadn’t spoken after the blacksmith lesson yesterday afternoon, though she’d thanked him quietly upon returning to the House of Wind. She’d had that intensity upon her face again, eyes distant—as if focusing on some invisible target. So he hadn’t sought her out last night, even though every part of him had screamed to do so. But he’d give her time. Let her initiate when she was ready. If she wanted him again.
Cassian shut down the thought. Allowed the icy rain to cool his desire, his dread.
In silence, Nesta approached the punching block, a fallen tree trunk that had been wrapped in thick blankets. She approached it as if she were facing an opponent.
She glanced over her shoulder to Cassian as she stopped before it, a question in her eyes.
He nodded. “You want to use the last fifteen minutes to spar, go ahead.”
That was all she needed, and he was too pleased to say more as Nesta took up her fighting stance and began punching.
The first impact of her knuckles against the padded wood hurt. But she hit where she was supposed to, and her thumb remained where she’d made it learn to stay, and when she pulled her arm back, the pain became a song. She threw another punch, eliciting a satisfying thunk from the wood.
Good—it felt good. To get it out, to channel it this way.
Her breathing was sharp as a blade, but she threw a left hook, then two jabs of her right fist.
She didn’t feel the rain, didn’t feel the cold.
Every punch carried her fear, her rage, her hate out of her body and into that wood.
For three days, she’d had fire in her blood. For three days, she had dreamed of swords and stairs and combat. She couldn’t stop it. Had fallen into bed so tired that she had no chance to even read before she was unconscious. There certainly had been no sex with Cassian. Not even a smoldering glance over the dining table.
Azriel’s presence helped. He now trained the newest recruits, quiet and gentle yet unfaltering, and if she didn’t know better, she’d swear at least two of the priestesses—Roslin and Ilana—sighed every time he walked past.
Some small, awful part of her was glad they didn’t sigh over Cassian. She punched that thought out of herself, too. That pathetic, selfish thought.
Just as all of her was pathetic, and selfish, and hateful.
One-two, two-one-one; she punched and punched, throwing all of herself into the wood.
“By the Cauldron,” a familiar male voice said beside Cassian, and he turned to find Lucien in the archway to the training area. The rest of the priestesses and Azriel had left ten minutes earlier. Nesta hadn’t even noticed. “Feyre said she was training, but I hadn’t realized she was … well, training.”
Cassian nodded his hello, keeping his eyes on Nesta where she punched the padded wood over and over, just as she had for the last twenty-five minutes straight. She’d gone into a place Cassian knew too well—where thought and body became one, where the world faded to nothing. Working something out from deep inside of herself. “Did you think she was filing her nails?”
Lucien’s mechanical eye clicked. His face tightened as Nesta threw a spectacular left hook into the wood beam. It shuddered with the impact. “I wonder if there are some things that should not be awoken,” he murmured.
Cassian cut him a glare. “Mind your own business, fireling.” Lucien just watched Nesta attack, his golden skin a little pale.
“Why are you here?” Cassian asked, unable to help the sharpness. “Where’s Elain?”
“I am not always in this city to see my mate.” The last two words dripped with discomfort. “And I came up here because Feyre said I should. I need to kill a few hours before I’m to meet with her and Rhys. She thought I might enjoy seeing Nesta at work.”
“She’s not a carnival attraction,” Cassian said through his teeth.
“It’s not for entertainment.” Lucien’s red hair gleamed in the dimness of the rainy day. “I think Feyre wanted a progress assessment from someone who hasn’t seen her in a while.”
“And?” Cassian bit out.
Lucien threw him a withering look. “I’m not your enemy, you know.
You can drop the aggressive brute act.”
Cassian gave him a grin that didn’t meet his eyes. “Who says it’s an act?”
Lucien let out a long sigh. “Very well, then.”
Nesta threw another series of punches, and Cassian knew she was leading up to the knockout blow. Two left jabs and a right hook that slammed into the wood so hard it splintered.
And then she stopped, her fist pressed against the wood.
Her panting breath swirled from her mouth in the frigid rain.
Slowly, she straightened, fist lowering, steam rippling through her teeth as she turned. He caught a flicker of silver fire in her eyes, then it vanished.
Lucien had gone still.
Nesta stalked toward the two males. She met Lucien’s stare as she approached the archway, and said nothing before continuing into the House. As if words were beyond her.
Only when her footsteps vanished did Lucien say, “Mother spare you all.”
Cassian was already walking to the wooden beam.
A small disc of impact lay in its center, through the padding, all the way to the wood itself. It glowed. Cassian raised shaking fingers to it.
To the burn mark, still sparking like an ember.
The entire wood block was smoldering from within. He touched his palm to it. The wood was cold as ice.
The block dissolved into a pile of cinders.
Cassian stared in stunned silence, the smoking wood hissing in the rain.
Lucien came up beside him. He only said again, voice solemn, “Mother spare you all.”