“Someone remind me why this was a good idea?” Gwyn panted beside Nesta, sweat running along her face as they went over their basic sword-work.
“Remind me, too,” Emerie grunted. Nesta, too winded to speak, simply grunted with her.
Cassian chuckled, and the sound raked itself down her body. He’d taken her hand in the library last night, leading her up to her room, his eyes still soft. But that had faded when he’d spied a copy of Gwyn’s chapters about the Valkyries on Nesta’s desk. She’d been reading about them, she’d explained when he’d picked up the pages and leafed through them.
His only answer had been to kiss her deeply before lying on the bed, positioning her above his face so he could feast on her leisurely. Nesta endured all of a minute until she’d needed to touch him, and had pivoted, letting him continue devouring her while she’d stretched down his body and taken him into her mouth.
She’d never done that—feasted and been feasted upon—and he’d come on her tongue just before she’d come on his. They’d waited only a short time, panting in silence on her bed, before she climbed over him, stroking him with her hand, then her mouth, and when he was ready, she’d sunk onto him, taking in each marvelous, thick inch. With him stretching and filling her so deliciously, she’d climaxed swiftly. He’d chased her pleasure with
his own, gripping her hips and bucking into her, hitting that perfect spot and sending her climaxing again.
She’d been slightly, pleasantly sore this morning, and he’d winked at her across the breakfast table, as if aware of how tender certain areas were while sitting.
There was no trace of that smug satisfaction now as Cassian said to them, “I’d thought today would be a good day to integrate the eight-pointed star, but if you’re already complaining, we can wait until next week.”
“We’re not complaining,” Gwyn said, sucking in air. “You’re just running us ragged.”
The newest priestesses working with Az were already wobbling on exhausted legs.
Cassian caught Nesta’s stare. “Some Valkyrie unit you have.” Gwyn whirled on Nesta. “You told him?”
“No,” Nesta and Cassian said together. Cassian added, “You think I haven’t noticed the breathing techniques that let you get that calm, steady look even when me and Az are pissing you off? I sure as hell didn’t teach you that. I can recognize Mind-Stilling a mile off.”
They just gawked at him. Then Gwyn asked, “You know the technique?”
“Of course I do. I fought beside the Valkyries in the War.”
Stunned silence rippled. Nesta had forgotten how old these Fae were, how much Cassian had seen and lived through. She cleared her throat. “You knew the Valkyries personally?”
Gwyn let out a high-pitched noise that was nothing but pure excitement. Azriel, on the other side of the ring with the rest of the priestesses, half-turned at the sound, brows high.
Cassian flashed a grin. “I fought beside the Valkyries for five battles. But that stopped at the Battle of Meinir Pass.” His smile faded. “When most of them died to save it. The Valkyries knew it was a suicide mission from the start.”
Azriel returned to his charges, but Nesta had a feeling the shadowsinger monitored every word, every gesture from his brother.
Even Gwyn stopped smiling. “Why did they fight, then? Everyone there knew it would be a slaughter. But I’ve never been able to find anything on the politics behind it.”
“I don’t know. I was a grunt for an Illyrian legion; I wasn’t privy to any of the leaders’ discussions.” He looked to Nesta, who was gaping at him. “But I had … friends who fell that day.” The way he hesitated on friends made her wonder if any had been more than that. And even though they were honorable, fallen dead, something ugly twisted in her chest. “The Valkyries fought when even the bravest males would not. The Illyrians tried to forget that. I fought against males who were my superiors, arguing to help the Valkyries. They beat me senseless, chained me to a supply wagon, and left me there. When I came to, the battle was over, the Valkyries slain.”
This was the male she’d taken to her bed, who’d left again last night without kissing her good-bye. “Why didn’t you mention this when you saw the pages about them on my desk?”
“You didn’t ask.” He unsheathed his Illyrian blade. “Enough history.” He drew four lines in the dirt, all intersecting to form an eight-pointed star. “This is your map for striking with a sword. These eight maneuvers. You’ve learned six of them. You’ll learn the other two today, and we’ll start on the combinations.”
Gwyn asked, “Why don’t we use the Valkyrie techniques, if you admired them so much?”
“Because I don’t know them.”
Nesta smirked. “If we are to be Valkyries born again,” she said, “maybe we should combine the Illyrian and Valkyrie techniques.”
She’d meant it in jest, but the words rumbled through the space, as if she’d spoken some great truth, something that made fate sit up. Azriel turned to them fully this time, eyes narrowed. Like those shadows had whispered something to him.
A chill breathed down Nesta’s spine.
Cassian stared into their faces. Like he beheld something he hadn’t seen there before.
At last, he said thickly, “Today, we learn Illyrian techniques.” He nodded to Gwyn. “Tomorrow, you bring me whatever information you have
on the Valkyries’ style.”
“It’s an enormous amount,” Gwyn said. “Merrill is writing a book on it. I could get you a copy of the current manuscript, since it has most of the information in one place.”
Cassian seemed to gain control of whatever emotion had taken hold of him, for he rubbed his jaw. Nesta’s blood thrummed in response. “Something new,” he said more to himself than to them. “Something old becoming something new.”
He grinned again, and Nesta found her mouth twitching to answer with a grin of her own.
Especially as Cassian’s eyes brightened. “All right, ladies. First lesson about Valkyries: they don’t whine about being sweaty.”
“Valkyries?” Feyre asked from across the dining table in the river house, fork half-raised to her lips. “Truly?”
“Truly,” Cassian said, sipping from his wine at dinner that evening. He’d come down to the manor to discuss what to do with the weapons Nesta had Made—to learn what Feyre’s vote would be. She hadn’t hesitated before saying that Nesta should be informed. But when she’d volunteered to tell her, Cassian had stepped in. He’d tell Nesta, when the moment was right.
The only one who hadn’t voted was Mor, who remained in Vallahan to keep coaxing its rulers to sign the new treaty, her absence marked by a place of honor set for her at the table.
“We never heard of them in the human lands,” Elain said. She’d been as riveted as Feyre to hear Cassian tell of it: first of Nesta and the others’ interest, then of the brief history of the female fighters. “They must have been fearsome creatures.”
“Some were as lovely as you, Elain,” Rhys said from beside Feyre, “from the outside. But once they set foot into the arena of battle, they became as bloodthirsty as Amren.”
Amren lifted her glass in salute. “I liked those females. Never let a male boss them around—though I could have done without their foolish king. He
is as much to blame for their deaths as the Illyrians who walked away during that battle.”
“I can’t argue with that,” Cassian said. It had taken him a long, long time to get over that battle. He’d never been back to that pass in the Gollian Mountains, but rumor claimed its rocks remained barren, as if the earth still mourned the females who’d given their lives with no hesitation, who had laughed at death and embraced life so fully. His first lover beyond the Night Court’s borders had been from the Valkyries’ ranks—a bold-hearted female named Tanwyn with a smile like a storm. She’d ridden into that battle at the head of the Valkyries and had never come out of the pass. Cassian added after a moment, “Nesta would have fit in well with them.”
“I always thought she was born on the wrong side of the wall,” Elain admitted. “She made ballrooms into battlefields and plotted like any general. Like you two,” she said, nodding to Cassian, and then, a bit more shyly, to Azriel.
Azriel offered her a small smile that Elain quickly looked away from. Cassian tucked away his puzzlement. Lucien was certainly not here to snarl at any male who looked at her for too long.
Feyre at last took her hearty bite of food. “Nesta is a wolf who has been locked in a cage her whole life.”
“I know,” Cassian said. She was a wolf who had never learned how to be a wolf, thanks to that cage humans called propriety and society. And like any maltreated animal, she bit anyone who came near. Good thing he liked being bitten. Good thing he savored the bruises and scratches she left on his body every night, and that her unleashing when he was buried in her made him want to answer it with his own.
Elain leaned forward. “You only think you know—you haven’t seen her on the dance floor. That’s when Nesta truly lets the wolf roam free. When there’s music.”
“Really?” Nesta had told him once, when he’d dragged her out of a particular seedy tavern, that she’d been there for the music. He’d ignored her, thinking it an excuse.
“Yes,” Elain said. “She was trained in dance from a very young age. She loves it, and music. Not in the way I enjoy a waltz or gavotte, but in the
way that performers make an art of it. Nesta could bring an entire ballroom to a halt when she danced with someone.”
Cassian set down his wine. “She mentioned dance lessons to me a few weeks ago.” He’d assumed those lessons were why Nesta had quickly mastered her footwork and balance, despite her initial difficulty. The muscle memory must have remained intact. But if dance had been drilled into her as ruthlessly as he’d learned to fight—
“She wouldn’t have gone into much detail about it,” Elain said. “Nesta was only fourteen at the last ball we went to before—well, before we were poor …” Elain shook her head. “Another young heiress was at the ball, and she positively hated me. She was several years older, and I’d never done anything to provoke her hatred, but I think …”
“She was jealous of your beauty,” Amren said, an amused smile on her red lips.
Elain blushed. “Perhaps.”
It was definitely that. Even though Elain would have been barely thirteen at the time.
“Well, Nesta saw how she treated me, her casual cruelties and snubs, and bided her time. Waited until that ball, when a handsome duke from the continent was there to find a bride. His family had run out of money, which was why he’d deigned to come over at all—to nab a rich bride to refill their estate’s coffers. Nesta knew the heiress had her sights set on him. The girl had bragged about it to all of us in the powder room at every ball for weeks leading up to it.
“Nesta spent a small fortune on her gown and jewels for that night. Our father was always too scared of her to say no, and that night … Well, she truly looked the part of the daughter of the Prince of Merchants. An amethyst silk gown with gold thread, diamonds and pearls at her neck and ears …” Elain sighed. Such wealth. Cassian had never realized what wealth they’d possessed and lost.
“The entire ball stopped when Nesta entered,” Elain said. “She made an entrance of it, perfectly cool and aloof, even at fourteen. She barely glanced the duke’s way. Because she’d learned about him as well. Knew he grew
bored of anyone that chased him. And knew that the wealth on her that night dwarfed anything that heiress was wearing.”
Amren was grinning now. “Nesta tried to win a duke out of spite? At
Elain didn’t smile. “She lured him into asking her for a dance with a few well-placed looks across the ballroom. The same waltz that heiress wanted for herself, had boasted would be all she needed to secure his marriage bid. Nesta took that dance from her. And then took the duke from her, too. Nesta danced that night like she was one of you.”
“If you’ve seen Cassian’s dancing,” Rhys muttered, “that’s not saying much.”
Cassian flipped off his High Lord as Feyre and Az chuckled.
Elain continued, voice hushed with near-reverence, “The duke was vain, and Nesta played into that. The entire room came to a standstill. Their dancing was that good; she was that beautiful. And when it ended … I knew she was an artist then. The same way Feyre is. But what Feyre does with paint, that’s what Nesta did with music and dance. Our mother saw it when we were children, and honed it into a weapon. All so Nesta might one day marry a prince.”
Cassian froze. A prince—was that what Nesta wanted? His stomach clenched.
“What happened to the duke?” Azriel asked.
Elain grimaced. “He proposed marriage the next morning.” Rhys choked on his wine. “She was fourteen.”
“I told you: Nesta is a very good dancer. But that was what my father said—she was too young. It was a graceful exit, since my father, despite his faults, knew Nesta well. He knew she had taunted that duke into making a marriage offer just to punish the heiress for her cruelty toward me. Nesta had no interest in him—knew she was far too young. Even if the duke seemed more interested in just … reserving her until she was old enough.” Elain shuddered with distaste. “But I think some part of Nesta believed she would indeed marry a prince one day. So the duke went home with no bride, and that heiress … Well, she was one of the people who delighted in our misfortunes.”
“I’d forgotten,” Feyre murmured. “About this, and about her dancing.” “Nesta never spoke of it afterward,” Elain said. “I just observed.”
Nesta was wrong, Cassian realized, to think Elain as loyal and loving as a dog. Elain saw every single thing Nesta had done, and understood why.
Amren asked pointedly, “So your mother twisted Nesta’s creative joys into a social climber’s arsenal?”
Feyre cut in, “Our mother was not what one would call a pleasant person. Nesta has made her own choices, but our mother laid the groundwork.”
Elain nodded, folding her hands in her lap. “So I’m very pleased to hear of this Valkyrie business. I’m happy that Nesta finds interest in something again. And might channel all of … that into it.” That, Cassian knew, meant her rage, her fierce and unyielding loyalty to those she loved, her wolf’s instincts and ability to kill.
They moved on to far merrier subjects, but Cassian mulled it over throughout the evening. The fighting was only one part of it. The training would sustain her, funnel that rage, but there had to be more. There had to be joy.
There had to be music.