Chapter no 60

A Court of Silver Flames

Cassian had been gone for five days. Five days, to inspect every single one of the Illyrian legions, and remember how to behave like a normal, sane male rather than a lovesick puppy. But somehow, by the time he returned, a shift had occurred.

Not just the world-altering shift that had happened on Winter Solstice between him and Nesta. But a shift between Nesta and Emerie and Gwyn.

He emerged into the frigid morning to find the three of them already in the practice ring. They stood around the beam, the ribbon drifting gracefully on the icy wind. Gwyn held a blade in her hand, and Emerie and Nesta stood a few feet away. All three wore braided, colorful bracelets with silver charms dangling from them.

Cassian lingered at the doorway as Nesta murmured to Gwyn, “You’ve got this.” Azriel came up beside him, silent as the shadows that wreathed his wings.

Gwyn stared the ribbon down like an enemy on a battlefield. It rippled in the wind, dancing away, its motions unpredictable as any foe.

“Do it for the miniature pegasus,” Emerie said. Cassian had no idea what it meant, but Gwyn’s lips twitched upward.

Nesta laughed.

The sound might as well have been a lightning strike to his head for how much it rocked him, that laugh. Free and light and so unlike anything

he’d ever heard from her that even Azriel blinked. A true laugh. “The miniature pegasus,” Nesta said, “was an illusion. And is now back in his make-believe meadow.”

“He loved Gwyn most,” Emerie teased. “Despite your efforts to woo him.”

They fell silent again as Gwyn shifted her feet, angling the blade. The wind waggled the ribbon again, as if taunting her.

Cassian glanced over at Az, but his attention was fixed on the young priestess, admiration and quiet encouragement shining from his face.

Gwyn whispered, “I am the rock against which the surf crashes.” Nesta straightened at the words, as if they were a prayer and a summons. Gwyn lifted the blade. “Nothing can break me.”

Cassian’s throat tightened, and even from across the ring, he could see Nesta’s eyes gleaming with pride and pain.

Emerie said, “Nothing can break us.”

The world seemed to pause at the words. As if it had been following one path and now branched off in another direction. In a hundred years, a thousand, this moment would still be etched in his mind. That he would tell his children, his grandchildren, Right then and there. That was when it all changed.

Azriel went wholly still, as if he, too, had felt the shift. As if he, too, were aware that far larger forces peered into that training ring as Gwyn moved.

Smooth as the Sidra, swift as the wind off the Illyrian Mountains, her entire body working in singing harmony, Gwyn lunged toward the ribbon, twirled, and as she spun, her arm opened up, executing a perfect backhanded slice that cut the winter morning itself.

Half the ribbon fluttered to the red stone.

A flawless, precise slice. Not one frayed strand rippled in the wind as the severed ribbon hanging from the beam flapped.

Nesta bent down, picked up the fallen half of the ribbon, and solemnly tied it around Gwyn’s brow. A makeshift version of what the priestesses wore atop their heads with their stones. But Cassian had never seen Gwyn display her Invoking Stone.

Gwyn lifted trembling fingers to her brow, touching the ribbon with which Nesta had crowned her.

Nesta’s voice was thick as she declared, “Valkyrie.”



It became the ritual: to cut that ribbon, to be crowned with its severed half and anointed Valkyrie.

Gwyn was the first. Emerie the second. By the end of training that morning, Nesta became the third.

It made facing Cassian only slightly easier. Even if the need within her had only grown worse, clawing at the underside of her skin, begging to get out. To get to him.

Every time she met his stare, or got within a few feet of him, it roared at her to strip off her clothes and offer herself to him. She focused on the white ribbon around her brow, focused on what the three of them had accomplished.

The lesson finished, and she might have dragged Cassian down to her bedroom had he not simply taken to the skies and left. He didn’t come back until the following morning.

He was avoiding her.

But the next morning, she understood why—or at least he had a reason for his vanishing act.

The training ring had been transformed again.

An obstacle course lay all around it, coiled like a snake throughout. Nesta was one of the last to arrive, and joined the crowd of females who lingered by the door, murmuring about it as Cassian and Azriel turned to them all. Cassian said, “Valkyries were fearless and brilliant warriors on their own. But their true strength came from being a highly trained unit.” He motioned to the obstacle course. “Alone, none of you will be able to get through that course. Together, you can find a way.”

Emerie snorted.

Cassian leveled a grin at her. “Looks simple, doesn’t it?” Emerie had the good sense to look nervous.

Azriel clapped his hands, and all the females straightened. “You’ll work in groups of three.”

Gwyn asked Az, her teal eyes bright, “What do we get if we finish the course?”

Az’s shadows danced around him. “Since there’s no chance in hell any of you will finish the course, we didn’t bother to get a prize.”

Boos sounded. Gwyn lifted her chin in challenge. “We look forward to proving you wrong.”



Proving Azriel and Cassian wrong would take a while, it seemed.

Gwyn, Emerie, and Nesta made it the farthest in three hours: a grand, whopping halfway.

Roslin, Deirdre, and Ananke made it to the obstacle behind them before time was up, and Ananke’s golden hair was matted with blood from the blow she’d taken to the head from a spinning, many-armed wooden thing.

“Sadistic monsters,” Gwyn hissed as the three friends limped toward the water station, defeat heavy on their shoulders.

“We try again tomorrow,” Emerie swore, sporting a black eye thanks to the swinging log that had knocked her on her ass before Nesta could grab her. “We keep trying until we wipe that smug look off their stupid perfect faces.”

Indeed, Azriel and Cassian had just leaned against the wall, arms crossed, and smiled at them the entire time.

Gwyn threw Azriel a withering stare as she strode past him. “See you tomorrow, Shadowsinger,” she tossed over a shoulder.

Az stared after her, brows high with amusement. When he turned back, Nesta grinned. “You have no idea what you just started,” she said. Az angled his head, hazel eyes narrowing as Gwyn reached the archway.

“Remember how Gwyn was with the ribbon?” Nesta winked and clapped the shadowsinger on the shoulder. “You’re the new ribbon, Az.”



The obstacle course remained impossible.

The bastards changed it every night. Each new morning was a different, harder challenge. But one that had an overall pattern: it usually began with some array of footwork, whether doing a swift run of knee-to-chest steps through a ladder on the ground or balancing on a suspended beam. Then came mental testing—puzzles that required them to think together, and then rely on each other to get through. And when they were thoroughly exhausted, the feats of strength came in.

The three of them made it to the third stage only once in the next two weeks.

Roslin, Ananke, and Deirdre were close on their heels, propelling Gwyn to push her group harder. She wanted to be the first. Wanted Nesta and Emerie and her to be the ones who wiped the smirks from Azriel’s and Cassian’s faces. Especially Azriel’s.

Never mind that, after the first day, they only had an hour to get through the course. The other two hours were spent as a group, working on military training: marching in formation (harder and stupider than it looked), fighting side by side (more dangerous than it seemed), and learning how to move, think, breathe as a unit.

But they kept at it. Marched in Valkyrie phalanxes. Fought as one, with Cassian and Azriel playing their opponents. Learned to hold their shields in place against the onslaught of the Illyrians’ Siphons, their towering male forms. Every bit of Valkyrie endurance training paid off: every infernal squat or lunge now allowed them to brace their shields with little effort. To hold steady against an enemy attack.

They exercised as one, in precise lines as they did their abdominal curls to the same beat. Did push-ups together. If one collapsed, they all had to start over again.

But they kept going. Through sweat and breath and blood, they forged themselves together.

And sometimes, when the evening services were over, the three of them would gather in the library and read about military strategy. About Valkyrie lore. About the techniques of the ancients.

More of the priestesses cut the ribbon—Roslin. Deirdre. Ananke. Ilana.


Everything Azriel and Cassian threw at them, they took and threw right back.

And every night, Nesta ran the stairs of the House. Farther and farther and farther. She hadn’t been able to reach the bottom again since that fight with Amren, but she kept trying.

No longer did memories and words send her rushing down it. Now she was driven by pure, unrelenting purpose.

Nesta, Gwyn, and Emerie defeated the obstacle course two months to the day after it had been brought in. Of course, it was on a day when all the priestesses had been summoned away by Clotho for some special ceremony, so there was no one to witness it other than Cassian and Azriel. Only Gwyn had been exempted from the ceremony, apparently.

And when Gwyn reached the finish line, bloody and panting and grinning so wildly her teal eyes glowed like a sunlit sea, she only extended her battered hand to Azriel. “Well?”

“You already have your prize,” Azriel said simply. “You just passed the Blood Rite Qualifier. Congratulations.”

Gwyn gaped. Nesta and Emerie halted. But Gwyn said to him, “That was why you invited them?”

Nesta had no idea what the priestess was talking about, but followed her gaze upward, to the lip of the pit, where a stone-faced Lord Devlon and another male peered in, scowling.

No doubt this was the reason the other priestesses had been occupied today.

Cassian murmured to Nesta, “I had a feeling today might be the day.”

Devlon seemed ready to erupt, his face purple with rage, but he looked to Cassian and nodded tersely.

“You told the priestesses not to come?” Nesta asked Cassian and Azriel. “We informed Clotho that we might have some observers today,” Azriel

answered, eyes full of ice and death as he stared down Devlon. The male looked away from the shadowsinger before grunting to his crony and flying eastward toward Illyria. Azriel went on, watching them vanish, “Clotho explained it to the others—and they chose to find other ways to fulfill their day.”

Nesta asked Gwyn, “But it seemed like you didn’t know what we were doing.”

“Cassian and Azriel warned me that we’d be watched by males today, but didn’t specify why. I had no idea it was the Blood Rite Qualifier.” Her eyes shone bright above the dirt smudged on her face.

Emerie had blanched, though. She asked Cassian, “We’re not entering the Blood Rite, are we?”

“Only if you want to,” Cassian assured her. She alone of all the females here would understand the true horrors of the Blood Rite, Nesta knew. “But we wanted Devlon—and whoever he tells—to understand that you’re as talented as any Illyrian unit. This was the only way they’d get it. Being a Valkyrie means nothing to them, and you certainly don’t need their approval, but …” He glanced to Emerie again. “I wanted them to know. What you’ve accomplished. That even though Valkyries don’t have something akin to the Blood Rite, you’re as trained as any warrior in Illyria.”

“The courses?” Gwyn asked.

“Different routes,” Azriel said, “from various Qualifiers over the centuries.”

Cassian grinned. “Short of partaking in the Blood Rite, you’re now as close to being Illyrian warriors as you can be.”

Silence fell. Then Nesta said, wiping the blood from the corner of her bruised mouth, “I’d rather be a Valkyrie.” The females murmured their agreement.

Cassian laughed. “Gods help us.”

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