Nesta didn’t bother to go to the wine cellar. Or to the kitchen. They’d be locked.
But she knew where the stairs lay. Knew that particular door, at least, would not be locked.
Still snarling, Nesta yanked open the heavy oak door and peered down the steep, narrow stairwell. Spiral stairs. Each a foot high.
Ten thousand steps, around and around and around. Only the occasional slitted window to offer a breath of air and a glimpse of progress.
Ten thousand steps between her and the city—and then a half-mile walk at least from the bottom of the mountain to the nearest tavern. And awaiting, blessed oblivion.
Ten thousand steps.
She was no longer human. This High Fae body could do it. She could do it.
She couldn’t do it.
The dizziness hit her first. Winding around, over and over, eyes trained downward to avoid a slip that would kill her, caused her head to spin.
Her empty stomach churned.
But she focused, counting each step. Seventy. Seventy-one. Seventy-two.
The city below barely drew any closer through the occasional slitted windows she passed.
Her legs started to shake; her knees groaned with the effort of keeping her upright, balancing on the steep drop of each step.
Nothing but her own breathing and the sound of her scuffing steps filled the narrow space. All she could see was the endlessly curving, perfect arc of the wall ahead. It never altered, save for those tiny, too-rare windows.
Around and around and around and around and around—
Down and down and down and down—
She halted, no window in sight, and the walls pushed, the floor kept moving—
Nesta leaned into the red stone wall, let its coolness sink into her brow.
Nine thousand nine hundred steps to go.
Bracing a hand on the wall, she renewed her descent. Her head spun again. Her legs wobbled.
She got in eleven more steps before her knees buckled so suddenly she nearly slid. Only her hand grappling at the uneven wall kept her from wiping out.
The stairwell spun and spun and spun, and she shut her eyes against it.
Her jagged panting bounced off the stones. And in the stillness, she had no defenses against what her mind whispered. She couldn’t shut out her father’s final words to her.
I loved you from the first moment I held you in my arms. Please, she’d begged the King of Hybern. Please.
He’d snapped her father’s neck anyway.
Nesta gritted her teeth, blowing out breath after breath. She opened her eyes and stretched out her leg to take another step.
It trembled so badly that she didn’t dare.
She didn’t let herself dwell on it, rage about it, as she turned around. Didn’t even let herself feel the defeat. Her legs protested, but she forced them upward. Away.
Around and around again.
Up and up, one hundred and eleven steps.
She was nearly crawling by the last thirty, unable to get a breath down, sweat pooling in the bodice of her dress, her hair sticking to her damp neck. What the hell were the benefits of becoming High Fae if she couldn’t endure this? The pointed ears, she’d learned to like. The infrequent cycle, which Feyre had warned would be painful, had actually been a boon, something Nesta was happy to worry about only twice a year. But what was the point of it—of any of it—if she couldn’t conquer these stairs?
She kept her eyes on each step, rather than the twisting wall and the dizzying sensation it brought.
This hateful House. This horrible place.
She grunted as the oak door at the top of the stairwell became visible at last.
Fingers digging into the steps hard enough for the tips to bark in pain, she dragged herself up the last few, slithering on her belly onto the hallway floor.
And arrived face-first in front of Cassian, smirking as he leaned against the adjacent wall.
Cassian had needed some time before seeing her again.
He’d updated Rhys and the others immediately upon returning; they’d received his information with dour, somber faces. By the end of it, Azriel was preparing for some reconnaissance on Briallyn as Amren pondered what powers or resources the queen and Koschei might possess, if they had indeed captured Eris’s soldiers so easily.
And then Cassian had been slapped with a new order: keep an eye on Eris. Beyond the fact that he approached you, Rhys had said, you are my general. Eris commands Beron’s forces. Be in communication with him. Cassian had started to object, but Rhys had directed a pointed look at Azriel, and Cassian had caved. Az had too much on his plate already. Cassian could deal with that piece of shit Eris on his own.
Eris wants to avoid a war that would expose him, Feyre had guessed. If Beron sides with Briallyn, Eris would be forced to choose between his father and Prythian. The careful balance he’s struck by playing both sides would crumble. He wants to act when it’s convenient for his plans. This threatens that.
But no one had been able to decide which was the bigger threat for them: Briallyn and Koschei, or Beron’s willingness to ally with them. While the Night Court had been trying to make the peace permanent, the bastard had been doing his best to start another war.
After an unusually quiet dinner, Cassian had flown back up to the House. And found the oak door to the stairs open, Nesta’s scent lingering.
So he’d waited. Counted the minutes. It had been worth it.
Seeing her claw her way onto the landing, panting, hair curling with the sweat sliding down her face—completely worth his generally shit day.
Nesta was still sprawled on the hall floor when she hissed, “Whoever designed those stairs was a monster.”
“Would you believe that Rhys, Az, and I had to climb up and down them as punishment when we were boys?”
Her eyes shimmered with temper—good. Better than the vacant ice. “Why?”
“Because we were young and stupid and testing boundaries with a High Lord who didn’t understand practical jokes regarding public nudity.” He nodded toward the stairs. “I got so dizzy on the hike down that I puked on Az. He then puked on Rhys, and Rhys puked all over himself. It was the height of summer, and by the time we made the trek back up, the heat was unbearable, we all reeked, and the scent of the vomit on the stairs had become horrific. We all puked again as we walked through it.”
He could have sworn the corners of her mouth were trying to twitch upward.
He didn’t hold back his own grin at the memory. Even if they’d still had to hike back down and mop it all up.
Cassian asked, “What stair did you make it to?” “One hundred eleven.” Nesta didn’t rise.
Her fingers pushed into the floor, but her body didn’t move. “This stupid House wouldn’t give me wine.”
“I figured that would be the only motivator to make you risk ten thousand stairs.”
Her fingers dug into the stone floor once more.
He threw her a crooked smile, glad for the distraction. “You can’t get up, can you.”
Her arms strained, elbows buckling. “Go fly into a boulder.”
Cassian pushed off the wall and reached her in three strides. He wrapped his hands under her arms and hauled her up.
She scowled at him the entire time. Glared at him some more when she swayed and he gripped her tighter, keeping her upright.
“I knew you were out of shape,” he observed, stepping away when she’d proved she wasn’t about to collapse, “but a hundred steps? Really?”
“Two hundred, counting the ones up,” she grumbled. “Still pathetic.”
She straightened her spine and raised her chin.
Keep reaching out your hand.
Cassian shrugged, turning toward the hall and the stairwell that would take him up to his rooms. “If you get tired of being weak as a mewling kitten, come to training.” He glanced over a shoulder. Nesta still panted, her face flushed and furious. “And participate.”
Nesta sat at the breakfast table, grateful she’d left her room soon after sunrise to make the trek up to the dining room.
It had taken her double the time it normally would, thanks to her stiff, throbbing legs.
Getting out of bed had required gritted teeth and a litany of cursing. Everything afterward had only gotten worse. Bending to put her legs into her pants, going to the bathroom, even just heaving open the door. There wasn’t one part of her legs that didn’t ache.
So she’d left her room early, not wanting to give Cassian the satisfaction of seeing her limp and grimace into the dining room.
The problem, of course, was that now she wasn’t entirely certain she could stand.
So she’d taken a good, long while eating her meal. Was choking down the porridge when Cassian prowled through the dining room doors, took one look at her, and smirked.
He knew. Somehow, the swaggering asshole knew.
She might have snapped something, but Azriel stalked into the room on his heels. Nesta straightened at the shadowsinger’s appearance, the darkness clinging to his shoulders as he offered her a grim smile.
Azriel was nothing short of beautiful. Even with those scarred hands and the shadows that flowed from him like smoke, she’d always found him to be the prettiest of the three males who called themselves brothers.
Cassian slid into the chair opposite hers, his food instantly appearing before him, and said with grating cheer, “Morning, Nesta.”
She threw him an equally saccharine smile. “Good morning, Cassian.”
Azriel’s hazel eyes danced, but he said nothing as he gracefully took his place beside Cassian, a plate of his own food appearing.
“I haven’t seen you in a while,” Nesta said to him. She couldn’t remember the last time, actually.
Azriel took a bite of his eggs before replying. “Likewise.” The shadowsinger nodded toward her clothes. “How’s training?” Cassian cut him a sharp look.
Nesta glanced between them. There was no way Azriel didn’t know about yesterday. Cassian had probably gloated about the incident with the stairs, too.
She sipped from her tea. “Training is fantastic. Absolutely riveting.”
Azriel’s mouth curled up at the corner. “I hope you’re not giving my brother a hard time.”
She set down her teacup. “Is that a threat, Shadowsinger?”
Cassian took a long drink from his own tea. Drained it to the dregs.
Azriel said coolly, “I don’t need to resort to threats.” The shadows coiled around him, snakes ready to strike.
Nesta gave him a smile, holding his stare. “Neither do I.”
She leaned back in her chair and said to Cassian, who was frowning at both of them, “I want to train with him instead.”
She could have sworn Cassian went still. Interesting. Azriel coughed into his tea.
Cassian drummed his fingers on the table. “I think you’ll find that Az is even less forgiving than I am.”
“With that pretty face?” she crooned. “I have a hard time believing that.”
Azriel ducked his head, focusing on his food.
“You want to train with Az,” Cassian said tightly, “then go ahead.” He appeared thoughtful for a moment, his eyes lighting before he added, “Though I doubt that you’ll survive a lesson with him, when you can’t manage to walk down a hundred stairs without being so sore the next morning that you’re unable to get out of your chair.”
She braced her feet on the floor. He’d read every tinge of pain on her face if she stood, but letting him see he was right—
Azriel studied the two of them as she planted her hands on the table, bit down on her yelp, and stood in a great rush.
Cassian shoveled more eggs into his mouth and said around them, “Doesn’t count when you use your hands to do most of the work.”
Nesta schooled her face into utter disdain, even as a hiss rose inside her. “I bet that isn’t what you’ve been telling yourself at night.”
Azriel’s shoulders shook with silent laughter as Cassian set down his fork, his eyes gleaming with challenge.
Cassian’s voice dropped an octave. “Is that what those smutty books teach you? That it’s only at night?”
It took a heartbeat for the words to settle. And she couldn’t stop it, the heat that sprang to her face, her glance at his powerful hands. Even with Azriel now biting his lip to keep from laughing, she couldn’t stop herself.
Cassian said with a wicked smile, “It could be anytime—dawn’s first light, or when I’m bathing, or even after a long, hard day of practice.”
She didn’t miss the slight emphasis he put on long, hard.
Nesta couldn’t stop her toes from curling in her boots. But she said with a slight smile, striding for the doorway, refusing to let one bit of the discomfort in her sore legs show, “Sounds like you have a lot of time on your hands, Cassian.”
“You’re in deep shit,” Azriel said mildly to him on the chilly veranda as Nesta donned her cloak inside.
“I know,” Cassian muttered. He had no idea how it had happened: how he’d gone from mocking Nesta to taunting her with his own bedroom habits. Then imagining her hand wrapped around him, pumping him, until he was a heartbeat away from exploding out of his chair and leaping into the skies.
He knew Az had been well aware of the shift in his scent. How his skin had become too tight at the way she said his name, his cock an insistent ache rubbing against the buttons of his pants.
He could count on one hand the number of times she’d addressed him by name.
The thought of that one hand led him back to her hand, squeezing him rough and hard, just the way he liked it—
Cassian gritted his teeth and breathed in the crisp morning air. Willed it to settle him. Made himself focus on the morning wind’s sweet song. The wind around Velaris had always been lovely, gentle. Not like the vicious, unforgiving mistress that ruled the peaks of Illyria.
Az chuckled, the wind shifting the strands of his dark hair. “You two need a chaperone up here?”
Yes. No. Yes. “I thought you were the chaperone.”
Az threw him a wicked smile. “I’m not entirely sure I’m enough.” Cassian flipped him off. “Good luck today.”
Az would leave soon to begin his spying on Briallyn—Feyre had decided it last night. Though Rhys had asked Cassian to look into the human queens, the subterfuge would fall to Az.
Azriel’s hazel eyes glimmered. He squeezed Cassian’s shoulder, his hand a warm weight against the chill. “Good luck to you, too.”
Cassian didn’t know why he’d thought Nesta would enter the sparring ring with him today. She sat her ass right on the same rock as the day before and did not move.
By the time Mor had appeared to winnow them to the camp, he’d managed to get enough control over himself that he’d stopped thinking about what Nesta’s hands would feel like and started considering what they’d cover today. He’d planned to keep the lesson to an hour, then leave her at Rhys’s mother’s old house while he did a standard check of the Illyrian war-bands’ state of rebuilding their ranks.
He wouldn’t mention that they might be flying into battle soon, depending on what Az learned.
He didn’t tell Nesta any of this information, either. Especially about Eris. She’d made her contempt of the Fae realms perfectly clear. And he’d be damned if he gave her one more verbal weapon to wield against him, since she’d likely see right through him and realize he knew all of this political scheming and planning was far beyond his abilities.
He also didn’t let himself consider whether it was wise to leave her alone up here even for an hour.
“So we’re back to this?” Cassian asked, ignoring how every single asshole in the camp watched him. Them. Her.
Nesta picked at her nails, wisps of her braided hair drifting free in the wind. She’d hunched over her knees, keeping her body as compact as possible.
He said, “You’d stop being so cold if you got up and moved.” She only folded one ankle over another.
“If you want to sit on that rock and freeze for the next two hours, go ahead.”
“Good one, Nes.” He threw her a mocking grin that he knew made her see red, and strode to the center of the practice area. He halted in its heart,
allowing his breathing to take over.
When she didn’t reply, he let himself fall into that calm, steady place within his mind, let his body begin the series of motions he’d performed for five centuries straight.
The initial steps were to remind his body that it was about to start working. Stretching and breathing, concentrating on everything from his toes to the tips of his wings. Waking everything up.
It got harder from there.
Cassian yielded to instinct and movement and breath, only dimly aware of the female watching from that rock.
Keep reaching out your hand.
Cassian was breathless by the time he finished an hour later. Nesta, to his satisfaction, had become rigid with cold.
But she hadn’t moved. Hadn’t even shifted during his exercises.
Wiping the sweat from his brow, he noted that her lips had taken on a blue tinge. Unacceptable.
He indicated Rhys’s mother’s house. “Go wait in there. I have business to attend to.”
She didn’t move.
Cassian rolled his eyes. “Either you sit out here for the next hour, or you can go inside and warm up.”
She wasn’t that stubborn—was she?
Thankfully, a blast of icy wind hit the camp at that exact moment, and Nesta began moving toward the house.
Its interior was indeed warm, with a fire crackling in the sooty hearth that occupied much of the main room. Feyre or Rhys must have woken the house for them. He held the door for Nesta as she walked in, already rubbing her hands.
Slowly, Nesta surveyed the space: the kitchen table before the windows, the little sitting area that occupied the other half of the room, the narrow staircase that led to the exposed upstairs hallway and the two bedrooms
beyond. One of those rooms had been his since childhood—the first bedroom, the first night indoors, he’d ever experienced.
This house was the first true home he’d ever had. He knew every scratch and splinter, every dent and burn mark, all of it preserved with magic. There, the gouged-out spot by the base of the railing—that was where he’d cracked his head when Rhys had tackled him during one of their countless brawls. There, that stain on the old red couch: that was when he’d spilled his ale while the three of them were drunk out of their minds on their first solo night in this house at age sixteen—Rhys’s mother had been off in Velaris for a rare visit to her mate—and Cassian had been too stupid drunk to know how to clean it. Even Rhys, swaying with the combination of ale and liquor, had failed to lift the stain, his magic accidentally setting it instead of wiping it away. They’d rearranged the throw pillows to hide it from his mother when she returned the next morning, but she’d spied it immediately.
Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that they’d still been drunk, given away by Az’s relentless hiccupping.
Cassian nodded to the kitchen table. “Since you’re so good at sitting, why don’t you make yourself comfortable?”
When she didn’t answer, he turned to find Nesta standing in front of the hearth, arms tightly crossed, the flickering light dancing in her beautiful hair. She didn’t look up at him.
She’d always stood with that stillness. Even as a human. It had only amplified when she’d become High Fae.
Nesta stared at the fire as if it murmured to that burning soul of hers. “What are you looking at?” he asked.
She blinked, seeming to realize he was still there. A log on the fire popped, and she flinched.
Not in surprise, he noted, but in dread. Fear.
He glanced between her and the fire. Where had she gone, for those few moments? What horror had she been reliving?
Her face had blanched. And shadows dimmed her blue-gray eyes.
He knew that expression. Had seen it and felt it so many times he’d lost track.
“There are some shops in the village,” he offered, suddenly desperate for anything to remove that hollowness from her. “If you don’t feel like sitting in here, you could visit them.”
Nesta still said nothing. So he let it drop, and left the house in silence.