Somehow the male in front of her made her want to go back inside and clean her brother’s sweaty clothes.
His near-black eyes bore into her with an unnatural amount of hate and disgust, his lips stuck in a perpetual frown no matter what the other females in the ring tried to do to lighten his mood. Every word that left his mouth was coated in disdain and a putrid amount of judgment.
He walked the length of muddy, bloody ground, his eyes on the sparse amount of females who had the guts to show up for a training session, wrestling messily but without vigor.
Mud covered their wings, a disgraceful act for a female in itself. Their hair was tied up in tight braids swirled around their heads; another unholy act for those females who left their home.
The trainer, Commander Leorin, did nothing to correct any of their postures or tell them how their movements could quickly end with their arms broken and possibly snapped necks.
That, for one reason, was why Esophira stayed hovering by the fraying rope barrier, her arms crossed, her chin lowered down to her chest. Thankfully, her display of meekness had kept Commander Leorin’s eyes mostly off of her save for his wandering glances that she knew never meant anything good.
“Don’t leave yourself open,” the Commander barked at two skin-and-bone females tumbling together farthest away from her. One of them yelped when the other slapped an open-palmed hand onto the thinnest part of her wing. She shimmied away, tears streaming down her face. The other female leaned back, spewing apologies.
“I warned you, you wench,” he grumbled, turning away from them, not seeming sorry at all.
It was no secret that the High Lord and the General were pushing for the females to get at least some training, but with someone like Commander Leorin doing all of it, it was as helpful as leaving them to their daily work. If anything, it made it worse. It made the females think they knew something when, in fact, they knew absolutely nothing. That could be deadly.
He turned his imperious gaze away from the two other fighting groups to look up at Esophina. Some of the hardness in his dark eyes retreated, replaced by a softness.
So this male wasn’t the absolute worst. And by that, she meant he didn’t hate every female, only the ones who disobeyed.
“What’s your name?” he asked as he approached, his voice softening a fraction, his leathery wings flaring behind him in a show of his masculinity and the fact that they were slightly wider than average.
“Esophina, sir,” she said, raising her eyes to his before she lowered them back to the ground in front of her. There was a fleck of blood and a…tooth? Mother, were they trying to scare them? That was a stupid question to ask, of course, they were trying to scare them.
“Who’s your father, brother?” he asked, coming to stand beside her, his pure silky black hair gleaming in the dim light coming in from the open cliff-face many yards away.
“Alder and Verrin, sir,” she said, keep her voice quiet and low. The moment she spoke up or acted like anything other than the quiet and compliant female he thought she was, he wouldn’t be acting this politely.
“Oh, Commander Alder, good soldier. His son ain’t half bad either,” he said, and she kept her head down. She knew he didn’t want her to speak, so she didn’t.
“If the rumors are true, you don’t have a husband quite yet,”
“No, sir, I don’t,” she said, and toed the mud in front of her then noticed the shininess of the black leather of her boots and stopped. She’d spent all morning shining them.
“Is there any reason why?” he asked, and ducked down to catch her eye. She followed his eyes up, forcing herself to keep her face neutral as she looked into those depthless eyes. They were so… emotionless and blank. She could never imagine herself staring into eyes like that and finding love.
“None that I’m aware of, sir,” she said, and lowered her eyes to his leathered chest, letting her eyes trail the scale-like formation of it. “Other than my looks, which my father often reminds me are less than desirable.”
She allowed that small truth to come through. While her brother often told her that she looked better than the kind female their father was thinking of betrothing him to, her father often told her bluntly that it would be a miracle if she ever got married.
“He couldn’t be more wrong,” he said, reaching forward to lift her chin with a finger. Everything in her was screaming to back away, but she knew better. This was a commander, a highly regarded one at that. If she were to do anything to disrespect him, she would be dishonoring her whole dynasty. “They are very much desirable,”
She guessed that was his way of flirting her, calling her beautiful.
“Thank you, sir,” she said, not fighting the blush that crept onto her cheeks. It was more out of embarrassment than anything else, because walking down the packed-dirt road was her elder brother Verrin, a wild grin on his face. His light-brown hair was darkened with sweat, the fronts of it curling around his forehead.
“I would bet a years’ salary that that dark hair of yours is delightful when it's not all tangled up.” He said, taking his hand away from her chin, reaching to grab a tiny wisp to wrap it around his finger. She tried not to shiver when the rough skin of his knuckles brushed up against her neck.
“Esophina!” her brother’s voice called out, harsher than it normally was. Instantly, the Commander pulled his hand away, but took it slowly. She would have to thank him for saving her later.
“I guess I’ll have to let you go,” he said, his eyes wandering the planes of her face, stopping and staying on her lips that she resisted the urge to lick. Those black eyes lifted back up to her eyes. “I look forward to seeing you around,”
He turned away and returned to prowling along the length of the ring, calling useless orders two the half-dozen females still tumbling around in the mud. All the while, he kept his wings slightly flared, knowing that she was watching, and she hated it. She hated it because he was as well as claiming her.
“Come on, Mother wants you home,” he said, coming up to stand right on the other side of the rope. She turned to him and allowed a bit of a scowl to slip back her carefully schooled face and stepped over the barrier, thankful for the fact that she didn’t have her normal skirts on. He added more quietly, “She says Father will return soon and she doesn’t want you to be gone when he does.”
“It’s not like I did anything, anyway,” she mumbled, tucking her chin down to her chest as she gained pace beside her brother as he led her down the busy main road of the Windhaven camp.
Old buildings erupted on either side of them. Some of the bakeries, others covert launders disguised as dress shops for those females who simply couldn’t handle the full weight of all the clothes they were tasked to clean. No one truly paid attention to her, mostly because some females wore pants and shirts. They were normally the ones who were in charge of cleaning out the training pits or doing any other dirty, less-desirable activities.
“Commander Leorin too hard for you?” he asked, his voice serious even though she knew he was joking. He had warned her that the Commander wasn’t going to do shit, yet she’d had enough hope to string him into a plan so she could slip away and attend the training session.
She didn’t even reply, instead, she just kept her eyes on the ground, making sure her wings were held as close to her body as they possibly could.
“The General is taking a visit within a couple of days, but we don’t know how long he will be staying. Father told me to tell you that you, and you alone, will be in charge of cleaning the High Lord’s home for his visit. He thought it would be more worth your time than cleaning up fighting arenas or mopping up the floors when Mother could easily do it.” She held back a groan, all too well aware of the many males around her. She was expected to be a submitting daughter, doing whatever her father bid her.
So she just nodded and said, “Of course, I’ll start in the morning,”
She knew that he hated telling her what to do or giving her orders, but it was the job that the males had to pick up. Anyway, she wouldn’t mind working away in that old house. While she knew at least six warriors lived full-time there, it wouldn’t be such a hard job to do on her own, without the annoyance of having to keep up the facade of a doting daughter, happy to do any work she was tasked with.
She would be able to relax somewhat and get work done at her own pace since no one would care how she got it done as long as it was spotless by the time the General got there.
They didn’t speak for the rest of the walk home, and they especially didn’t speak to each other once they entered their family’s two-story home back door.
Mother was quietly puttering around the kitchen, drying off pots and setting them on the stove, organizing the cutlery into the drawers. She was gathering produce together and setting them up across the countertop—on top of the cutting board for cutting, near the sink for washing.
When she heard the door close behind Verrin, she looked up over her shoulder, her soft features breaking out into a smile, her blue-green eyes getting a spark of joy into them.
“My rose, please, hurry and get changed before your father comes home and sees you.” She said, smiling warmly at her only daughter, and looked to Verrin, bowing her head slightly. “Welcome home, my son. How was training?”
The routine greeting had no effect of Verrin as he brushed path Esophina, going straight into the kitchen to pull his mother into his arms. He planted a kiss on her cheek, saying how glad he was to finally be home, before he sat down at the table, picking up an apple and taking one of his daggers to cut it up.
“Hurry,” Mother urged, gesturing to the stack of onions, carrots, and celery on top of the cutting board. “I need these all cut up, and I have to run to the market to grab the meat.”
She moved over to the door, planting a kiss on Esophina’s cheek, and slipped on her tearing beige leather boots and left out the door.
Esophina knocked the mud from her boots and slipped up the stairs before Verrin could say something about how she should hurry up since Father was to be home any minute, since he liked to think she needed to be reminded simple things such as that.
She washed up and un-braided her hair, sitting down on her bed to comb through the length of it until it was a shining black sheet of hair down the center of her back. Then she donned one of her two dresses, not caring that the hem of the skirt was coated in a layer of mud of pieces of straw. It was supposed to look like she’d been wearing it for the last couple hours, not something completely different.
By the time she was back downstairs, Verrin was nowhere in sight, but by the fact that his dagger still sat on the table, he hadn’t gone far. He never left the home without his beloved blade strapped to his thigh.
All the vegetables were finished when Mother came back holding a package of fresh pheasant, blood still dripping from the once-brown parchment wrappings. She shooed Esophina from the kitchen so that she could complete the soup, sending her to tidy up the living room until dinner was ready.
It took no time for Father to start calling after her as soon as he entered the front door of the house.
“Nina! I just had a very interesting conversation with Commander Leorin,” he called, his words promising trouble, but his tone saying something completely different. Maybe she wasn’t going to get into trouble, after all. The Mother could be merciful.
She moved to the archway of the living room, bowing her head and folding her hands in front of her stomach.
“Yes, Father?” she asked, her voice carefully neutral. She heard Verrin coming down the stairs with quick steps and paused at the bottom.
“I have some news to share over dinner,” he said and patted her on her shoulder. His boots were covered in mud, and as he stepped away, he left a big splotch of dirt. She would have to clean that later while Mother did the dishes. “Darling Anne, how has your day been?”
Esophina looked up in time to see Father wrap an arm around Mother’s waist. He planted a kiss on the top of her head, smiling into her dark hair as she said quietly, “Nice and quiet. I got to patch up your favorite dress shirt for our anniversary next week.”
It was a reminder that the two of them were in fact mates, and had been for a half a century. His complete love for her was the only reason why both of their wings remained unclipped and most of the reason why, at the age of twenty-nine, Esophina was still unmarried and at home. Most of the females her age were either married or were working for the camp itself, keeping the main roads clean or working at the taverns.
“Dinner will be ready any minute,” Mother says, slowly taking a step away from Father. She smiled at him, a softness in her eyes, then looked over his shoulder at Esophina. “Come, I need help setting the table.”
Father started a conversation with Verrin as they went up the stairs. Verrin spoke about how he got a job to help escort a young couple to another camp, and Father congratulated him.
Esophina slipped into the dining room and set up the table, taking her spot farthest away from the doorway. Mother followed by filling the bowls with soup, placing a hearty serving of bread beside Verrin and Father’s and breaking one in half to share with Esophina.
She called out with her soft voice, notifying the males that dinner was ready, and she took her place near the head of the table, her hands folded carefully on her lap, her head bowed slightly as she waited.
Verrin and Father came in and took their seats; Verrin to Esophina’s left, and Father to his, so that no one could leave the room without walking past the male of the house.
They started eating and Esophina kept her eyes firmly planted on the food in front of her, finding it hard to focus on anything other than what her father had said: I just had a very interesting conversation with Commander Leorin.
Was he going to get mad at her for being in that training arena? Or was he going to praise her for being a proper lady and staying out of whatever they were doing? She didn’t even let herself fathom the possibility that it was something more personal. Something that had to do with the fact that she was still unmarried.
“Esophina, the Commander told me you were by the sparring rings today,” Father said, and the room fell uncomfortably quiet. She bowed her head even deeper; there was no need to act like it wasn’t true. “He also said you stayed on the side. That you were uncomfortable by the idea of even being near the rings.”
When he didn’t say anything else, she realized he was waiting for an answer. “I don’t know what I was even thinking when I went there.”
“That doesn’t matter now,” he said, and she stopped herself from sighing in absolute relief. “What matters now is that he’s thinking about marriage.”
The only sign of Mother’s surprise was a quick, delicate gasp before she clamped her lips shut. There wasn’t anything else she, or Verrin, could do anymore. She was supposed to be married by now, not acting like an immature teenager still at home.
“You could do far, far worse. Be grateful a commander landed his eyes on you and not some nobody soldier like Verrin here.” He said, and she felt it sting. Not for herself, because he was, in his own way, complimenting her, but for her brother who was still a young and untested soldier. He was climbing the ranks far quicker than anyone else his age normally would and had an impressive circle of respect and admirers.
“So next week when he is hosting another training session, I want you to be there to speak to him.” He said, and she knew that meant he wanted her to get all dolled up to go and show herself off, make herself seem like an enticing offer. “Esohpina,” he snapped, and she lifted her head to look into his harsh blue eyes.
“Of course, Father. I’ll be ready,” she said, and at the approval that flashed in his eyes, she looked back down at her bowl of soup and continued to eat.
The rug landed at the bottom of the stairs with a loud thud, a cloud of dirt and dust coming off of it.
During the last three days Esophina had been cleaning the High Lord’s home, she had come to wonder how in the Mother’s name did males live on their own?
Everything—and she meant everything—was covered in a layer of dust or dirt. Every drawer she opened there was one, if not ten, daggers hidden somewhere. She had gathered all of them together to make a pile on the downstairs dining table and was hoping to give them to Verrin to sell so that they could afford all the new outfits they had commissioned for her. So that she could parade around Commander Leorin, looking as best as she could; wearing the best clothes they could get.
She turned back down the hallway and entered one of the bedrooms, spying the crumpled pile of her dress laying on the foot of the newly-made bed. She frowned, resisting the urge to take them and shove them in the fire steadily burning in the fireplace parallel to the bed.
Whenever she did anything out of her home she had to wear a dress, but she couldn’t do the work she needed to do in the time-frame she had if her movements were restricted by the layers of linen. So she always brought along a change of comfortable black pants and one of Verrin’s tunics from when he was a boy that fit her perfectly.
Taking the ball of clothes off of the bed, she made her way into the bathroom and changed into the dress. It was in near-pristine condition, not at all how the light-blue material should look after a full day of cleaning, but she couldn’t find it in herself to care. Maybe she would make an extra round around the camp before she went home, just to dirty up her dress some more.
She gathered her clothes and put them away in the leather bag she had brought along and pulled it up over her shoulder. She left the room, picking up a bucket full of murky brown water on the way, and froze mid-stride at the top of the stairs.
The front door eased open to show a male, wings tucked in tightly behind his back, his hair brushing against his shoulders. That wasn’t what scared her, it was the red Siphons sitting on the back of his hands, the sign of who he was and what power he held.
His hazel eyes darted around the room, looking over the daggers piled on the table, then to the large rug rolled up and slumped at the bottom of the stairs, then finally up to her. His eyes were dark in a way that she knew meant a male was calculating or observing in preparation for a fight. But when his eyes landed on her, they softened, that calculation falling away.
She froze and for a moment she forgot who he was—the General of all the Night Court armies—and stared right back at him.
She recovered quickly, though, lowering her eyes to the rough wooden floor beneath her feet.
“I’m sorry, I wasn’t expecting you to arrive for another day, at least.” She said, willing her breath to steady and her grip not to falter on the bucket.
“No, it’s fine,” he said, surprising her, and it took every bit of her secret training not to drop the bucket. It was just like Verrin said: “If you get thrown down you can’t let go of your weapon or else you’ll be in a hell of a lot more trouble.” She supposed the bucket was like her weapon; if she dropped it things would get very bad, very quickly.
She took a deep breath and started down the stairs, matching her steps to her breaths.
“It’s just you cleaning, then?” he asked, taking a step away from the door, but not closing it.
“Yes, sir. It’s easier that way,” she said, reaching her hand out to run it along the cold wooden railing. It was more to give her something else to focus on than to steady herself. He made a non-committed humming sound.
When she reached the bottom of the stairs she let the slightest scowl turn her lips as she looked over the rug. She stepped onto it, working to keep the water from sloshing out of the bucket, and moved to the door, dumping the water into the dirt, very much aware of the General’s eyes on her.
“Where did all those daggers come from?” he asked, eying the table stacked with daggers of all sizes. She looked up just enough to glance at the table, moving to the bottom of the stairs to crouch down in front of the rug. Looks like they weren’t going to get any extra money.
“I found them in drawers and cupboards. One of them was wedged up behind the sink, I think it’s been there for a couple of hundred years.” She said, and slipped her arms under the weight of the rug, thinking about how she would do this.
She couldn’t simply lift the thing into her arms without exposing herself. But neither could she leave the thing here at the bottom of the stairs.
“That must’ve been Rhys’s doing,” he said, the barest hint of a laugh in his words, and she tried not to wince as reality smashed back into her once again. This male was casual with High Lord Rhysand, so much so that he called him Rhys. “Do you need help?”
Again, the shock was so real she shot a look over her shoulder up at him, her wings partially blocking her view of him.
Fuck. Her wings.
He was Cassian, General of the Night Court, second highest in power to the High Lord himself, and he was seeing her wings. Her wings that were completely unclipped and unmarred.
She looked back down to the rug and hefted it into her arms, restraining her grunt. She had to go now before this got any worse.
“No, I’m good. Thank you for offering, though, sir,” she said, and lifted out of her crouch, unable to stop the way her wings flared to keep her steady as she threw the rug over her shoulder.
She turned, folding her wings tight behind her back tightly, keeping her head bowed and her eyes on the ground. She wasn’t going to do one more thing that could set him off. For all she knew he could decide right then and there to make a scene out of things and drag her outside and clip her wings.
He might be all for training the females, but that didn’t mean he wanted them out on the battlefield or in the sky fighting beside the males.
“I’ll have it cleaned and back by noon tomorrow,” she said, taking in steady breaths.
“Don’t rush. As you’ve no doubt figured out, us males couldn’t care less about rugs.” He said, and she took that as the best dismissal she would get and started toward the door, but he said, just as she was passing him, “Have a good evening, miss…?”
She paused and made herself look up at him for just long enough to say, “Esophina, sir,” and looked back down at her feet.
“Have a good evening, miss Esophina,” he said, and she took that moment to leave, not giving him a chance to reconsider what he was, or wasn’t, doing.
The door didn’t close until she was well down the road.
Okay, I may love this story far too much. I have the next--and maybe final--chapters all planned out and should be done soonish.
Though, if I keep loving Esophina and her family like I do right now, I will definitely be planning some more chapters and maybe a whole fun romance arc. Don't expect those to come out any time soon though, or ever. I can't ever commit to one story. (Pray for me)
Esophina looked down at the piece of soft cotton, the blue so rich she was sure they had stolen the color straight out of the sky.
“I can’t wear this,” she said, slightly aghast, running a hand along the embroidered thread all along the hem of the jacket. The thread was the same color as the material, adding dimension to an otherwise boring piece.
“Come on,” Mother said, coming up beside Esophina, putting a hand on her shoulder. She gave it a reassuring squeeze. “It’s beautiful, Phina. If you don’t wear it, I will,”
Esophina snorted and lifted the jacket, admiring it. It was beautiful. It was the most beautiful piece of clothing she had ever seen, and Mother said it wasn’t even the best of the clothes she had ordered. At least she wasn’t pushing for Esophina to wear the long frilly dresses so many other females wore while being courted.
She guessed it was because she was being courted at a sparring ring, not at family dinners or long walks.
“Now hurry and get it on, I still have to do your hair,” Mother said, moving to the small vanity table near the window, straightening the brush and hair accessories laying across the old wooden surface.
After admiring the piece of clothing for another couple seconds, she pulled it on over top of the loose linen shirt she was already wearing. As she did up the hidden metal clasps, she was delightfully surprised at the way it fit her perfectly. Maybe she would have her mother teach her how to sew so that she could always wear clothes that fit as well as this one.
“I head that Commander Leorin has one of the biggest houses in the camp,” Mother said as Esophina sat down on the low-back chair in front of the vanity. She instantly started combing through the mass of Esophina’s hair, humming softly as she did so.
“And?” she pushed, urging her mother to continue.
“Bigger house; more money. Maybe you can always have clothes as fine as these.” She said, setting the brush aside so that she could start adding loose curls to her hair, something the silky black was very adverse to holding. They never held for longer than three hours, but hopefully, she wouldn’t need them to stay for longer than three hours.
“You can be the most dazzling female of the whole camp, even outshining the Eversson’s girl.”
“That girl won the genetic lottery,” Esophina said, toying absently with the hem of the top, the material reaching down to the middle of her thighs. “Those cheekbones,”
“Okay, okay, you have a point,” Mother said, sharing a secret smile with her daughter through the mirror. “You can be the second most beautiful female of the whole camp, better?”
“Better,” she said, knowing she was nowhere near the most beautiful. Her mother would be put above her, with her gentle smile and sparkling eyes. Not to mention her kind words and quiet disposition. She was everything an Illyrian female should strive to be.
“Alright, hair: done,” Mother declared, stepping away from Esophina so that she could watch her reaction. Esophina looked at herself in the mirror, looking at the way some strands of her hair curled around her face. The way the blue of the jacket brought out streaks of blue in her eyes. She hardly looked like herself, all dressed up.
“One last thing, then you better get going.” Mother said, going to the chair beside the door. She started to rustle through the bag sitting on top of it. Esophina stood up as Mother turned away from the bag, a golden ring in her hands. “A belt,” she explained and helped pull it on around her waist. This time it didn’t even surprise her when the piece of metal fit perfectly.
“Go and make your mother proud,”
Esophina stepped forward and pressed a kiss to her mother’s cheek, knowing that this was the last thing she wanted to happen. If it was up to her, Esophina wouldn’t be getting married until she was well and old and had fallen in love.
“I’ll see you later for supper,” she said and left her bedroom before she could decide against going. If anything, she should look at this as an experience to be hanging out around the center of the camp without being stared at. Because females were supposed to be at home, cooking or cleaning, or doing whatever else the males thought they did, but now she at least had an excuse.
Since both Father and Verrin were out training, she was able to breeze out the front door without being stalled. She got many long, disapproving glances as she walked down the main road, but she knew that there was nothing she could do about it; though she did her best, as always, to keep her eyes on the ground.
Mother and Father had both agreed that since she would be meeting the Commander in the training rings, it wouldn’t be fit for her to wear a dress. So they had bought the finest pants and tops. Most of them were impractical for any sort of battle, but they still looked like they fit into the environment better than a dress.
As the ring came into view, her steps faltered and she would’ve fallen face-first into the mud if it hadn’t been for her wings snapping out to keep her steady.
The General was standing on the side-lines, watching as Commander Leorin walked the length of the ring, giving instructions to the four females that had arrived, sharing confused glances. There had been six last week. It just made her wonder what had happened to them; if they’d been caught or just couldn’t care to return.
It was too late not to go now, especially when the Commander’s attention shifted to her the second she emerged from the mass of the main-street crowds.
He raised his hand in greeting, a grin on his lips, and called, “Esophina! Didn’t think you would come back,” and she felt the very strong need to melt into the ground. Everyone was looking at her, even the General, his eyes glinting with faint recognition.
She turned her eyes back to the ground, making sure her steps were steady and even, and met with Commander Leorin at the fraying rope. He held out his hand to her, and she took it as she stepped over the barrier, using it for support even though she didn’t need it at all.
“Looks like I was right about your hair,” he said, lifting a hand to push a wisp of it away from her face. She met his eyes as he did so, all too well aware of the desire she found burning there. “Don’t worry about Cassian, he’ll be gone soon enough. We’ll have time to chat a little bit later.”
She noticed how he didn’t address him as the General, and it made a flash of anger rush through her. Just because he was a bastard didn’t mean he didn’t deserve respect. If anything, it meat he deserved more, because life hadn’t been served to him on a silver platter. He’d had to work his ass off to get to where he was, no matter if those ways were less than desirable, it still meant something.
“I look forward to that,” she said, bowing her head until he stepped away to continue his “lessons.”
She watched as he led them through the most simple of training exercises. Ones that she had already mastered years ago. And thanks to her mastery of them, she could tell that Commander Leorin couldn’t care less about if the females were getting it right. Instead, he was focused on making it seem like he was doing something so that the General wouldn’t go to the camp lord, or, cauldron forbids, to the High Lord himself to complain.
Her mind was screaming. If that female just altered her posture slightly, it would be nearly decent. If the other female stopped leaning so heavily on her left leg, she would be in a sturdy position and would be harder to topple if someone came at her.
They had so much potential she could nearly taste it in the air, but the fucking Commander wasn’t doing anything to help them reach their potential. A couple of good guiding words and they would be well on the way to being able to hold their own in a fight.
“You’re fuming,” the voice of her brother startled her. She flinched as he came up beside her, stepping over the rope barrier, his wings flaring slightly for balance.
He stunk. Like a rotting animal carcass. What the hell did he do to sweat like that?
“Keep looking like that and Commander Leorin will decide against marrying you.” He teased and she instantly schooled her features once again, looking down to the ground to help hide her half-smile.
“You stink. It’s not my fault,” she said, forcing her voice to stay quiet. He choked out a laugh and patted her on her shoulder.
“It’s the smell of kicking ass so that I could come here and show off in front of the General.” She could practically hear his bloated ego. She just hummed and looked back up to find the General glancing over in their direction. Verrin bowed his head and stayed that way until he looked back to Commander Leorin.
“He’s looking at you because you’re fuming,” he whispered, not looking back over at her, his eyes trained on the females.
“Am not,” she said, hearing the disbelief in her voice.
“You so are,” he said, rocking on his feet. She saw the glint in his eyes, the one that normally meant her training session was going to be very interesting. “And for a valid reason,” he said, trailing off. “He’s going to get those poor females killed if he keeps going like that.”
He stepped away from her before she could say anything else, raising his hand in the air, pulling Commander Leorin’s attention. That perpetual frown of his deepened.
“Commander,” Verrin greeted, “I have come on orders from my father to assist you and make sure my lovely baby sister isn’t influenced by what’s going on here.”
She knew he wasn’t here on any orders, that he had won a fight to get here, but it was believable enough for the Commander who begrudgingly agreed to allow Verrin to join in. Now she knew that the females would learn at least something because her brother was talented at training discretely.
He had, after all, trained her for three years before she ever agreed to sneak off into the forest for actual lessons.
The General started walking toward her before Verrin could finish his first sentence to the females, and she had no idea how to react.
Was he coming to get mad at her? Was he coming to say that Verrin had no right to be here? Was he going to say that she had no right to be here? Because that one could be believable. If he said that about any one of the females here they would all have to obey him and return to their jobs.
“Esophina,” he drawled, coming into earshot. She glanced up at him, only to find him watching as her brother corrected one of the female’s postures. Commander Leorin was looking between Esophina and the General, his eyes alight with anger and a too-large dose of protectiveness. They hadn’t even exchanged more than five sentences, for Mother’s sake, he had no right to look at her like that.
“What did your brother do to have to come here and train the females?” he asked, coming to stand beside her, crossing his arms in front of his chest, surveying the group of females with that calculating gleam in his eyes.
“He told me he had to fight for the right to come here.” She said and turned her eyes to the ground when he turned his head toward her. “At least that’s the better way of saying he had to ‘kick some ass.’”
He snorted, and for a second she thought he was laughing at her, but then he said, “And why, exactly, would he have to kick some ass to come to train some females? I think it would be the other way around: win a fight to get out of it.”
She fought to hold her smile back. “He’s been wanting a promotion for quite a while, and he just told me he wanted to come here to show off to you. It’s not too hard to connect those dots,”
What she also wanted to say was that he came here to help train the females because Commander Leorin was doing an absolute horseshit job at it, but she didn’t think that would be the sort of conversation to have with one of the most powerful males she would ever meet.
“Well, I guess we’ll see if he deserves that promotion, won’t we?” he asked, and she felt his attention burning a hole in the side of her head, so she looked up at him to find nothing but a kind smile on his lips and a curious glint in his eyes.
Those words somehow felt like a threat to her, and she didn’t know why. It wasn’t up to her if he got a promotion, and she didn’t like the implications in the words. Sometimes staying hidden and invisible was best, even if it meant having to marry someone like Commander Leorin.
Esophina swallowed and dropped her head, unable to explain the somber mood that had suddenly grabbed hold of her. “I suppose we will, sir,”
Maybe she imagined the way the General jumped slightly at her words before he turned and walked away, or maybe she hadn’t. In any case, it wasn’t her job to notice those things. Noticing those things could get her into trouble.
“If Father hears you spoke with General Cassian one more time—”
“What?” she snapped, drawing a few stray eyes from the people around them. Esophina lowered her voice, leaning her shoulder further into Verrin’s. She matched her steps to his, her eyes ever-so-often drifting down to the hand she had folded into his elbow.
After Father had learned Verrin helped with training the females, he’d yelled for a good hour about nothing. Then he’d told Verrin to continue doing what he was doing, that he was a good boy and whatever he was doing was right. It had surprised them all so much that they’d been speechless for a good couple hours after it.
“If he wants to marry me, there’s no way out of it. Anyway, I doubt he even cares who I get trapped to,” she said, taking a long step to avoid a puddle of… something.
“Trapped is a strong word for marriage,” Verrin said, guiding them around another questionable puddle of murky liquid.
Two days ago the whole of the Windhaven camp was in full-swing party mode to celebrate the camp lord’s wife getting pregnant. While it wasn’t normally something celebrated to this measure, it had been nine months since the last leisure day and it was another three months until Winter Solstice, so they had grabbed onto it and held fast. Many were still recovering and struggling to get back into their normal routines.
“You get to choose who you marry, I don’t. I get stuck with Commander Leorin and his emotionless black eyes and constant frown.” She said, finding it easy to smile despite the dirtied ground beneath her.
“He’s rich and always busy. Sounds like the perfect husband to me,”
“I would much rather have a homeless husband that loves me than a cold, heartless rich one.” She said, and he fell quiet. She knew he wanted her to be happy, to marry who she wanted, but she was a female in an Illyrian camp. Illyrian females never got to marry who they wanted.
The mood of the silence shifted swiftly from comfortable compassion to tense fear.
“High Lord Rhysand is by the training rings with the General,” one female whispered, her voice barely audible to the both of them.
Another male said, “Maybe he’s finally here to shut down that mess of females training.” He was not a very smart one if he thought that.
Verrin huffed out a sigh and let her hand drop away. He quickened his pace to pass her and said over his shoulder, “I still need that promotion,” before he ran the rest of the way down the winding road.
She tried to block out everyone’s words as she hurried her steps, and tried not to shrink when she emerged from the packed streets and saw the High Lord of the whole damn Night Court standing at the edge of the ring, his eyes pinned on her.
She immediately averted her eyes to the ground in front of her, trying to forget the power that seemed to thrum around him. At the way those near-violet eyes had bored into her like he had been waiting for her.
What the hell was he doing here? Staring at her out of all people?
She took deep, steady breaths as she approached the ring. Commander Leorin was already walking to meet her and helped her step over the barrier. But this time he didn’t take his hand away, and instead held tight, the rough callouses of his hand rubbing up against hers that he no doubt thought were from cleaning.
“You look lovely today,” he said, and she looked up at him, trying not to ignore the absolute desire in his eyes.
Sure, she looked nice with her black velvet jacket, golden embroidering lining the hems. But hearing those words coming out of his mouth made the fine clothes feel constricting.
She looked down to his boots, the brown leather covered in mud. “Thank you,” she breathed.
“Here,” he said, taking his hand away from her to reach into his vest to pluck out a small red velvet box. She stared at it, blinking slowly, then looked behind him at Verrin. His hazel eyes were boring into the back of the Commander’s head, rage alight in his eyes. She was sure that if he wasn’t officially courting her, Verrin would be on top of him now, beating him into the ground.
He opened the lid of the box and her eyes snapped to the sparkling diamond on the ring, the metal holding it shaped to look like a flower. It glinted and flashed in the dim light as he took it out of the box, taking her hand and sliding it on a finger.
She could only blink, admiring it. She had never seen anything so fine or expensive.
“Why?” she choked out, looking up to his eyes. A diamond like that was worth a year’s work, if not longer. It was even a stretch for him, one of the richest males in the whole camp.
“It’s a promise,” he said, folding her smaller hand between both of his large ones. “That once all of this is done and over with, you will be my wife and your wings will be clipped so I don’t have to worry about you trying to rise above your station like these miserable wrenches.”
Before she could reply, he took his hands away from her and turned away. Red flashed in her vision, everything and everyone but him fading out.
If only she had a dagger, it would be so easy to bury it in his neck. Or his back. Maybe one of his wings. What would he do if his wings were clipped?
“Esophina,” Verrin warned, no doubt seeing the crazed glint in her eyes. He ushered the females away, knowing that whatever was going to happen wasn’t going to be any good.
The High Lord stepped forward, but his General held an arm out, blocking him from advancing. She didn’t know why he did it, but she could see that crazed anger in both of their eyes that she knew was echoed in hers.
She lifted her chin, staring at the back of Commander Leorin’s head. “Excuse me?” she asked, her voice louder and clearer than it had ever been in all the years of her life.
She had her limits. She could deal with being expected to sit in his house for the rest of her life, sewing and cooking, but threatening to clip her wings, that was where she drew the line. No one—no one—could take that away from her. She would much rather die than not be able to fly anymore.
Commander Leorin glanced over his shoulder, his eyebrows raised, but then he saw her look and turned completely, a horrifically delighted smile on his lips.
“I think you heard me just fine,” he said, and never had she so badly wanted to stab something.
“Think, Esophina,” Verrin said, keeping his distance. He would only get in the way, anger her more if that was even possible.
“I’m thinking just fine,” she snapped. “You don’t want me rising above my station?” she asked Commander Leorin, and didn’t wait for his reply. “How about this: we settle this the old-fashioned way.” She pointed behind him to the archery target, and Verrin’s face started to drain of color. “We get two arrows, whoever has the better accuracy wins.”
The challenge shone in his eyes. “And what do I get when I win?”
When. The bastard was so full of himself he wouldn’t even fathom the idea of her winning.
Verrin was as white as fresh snow when he heard what she said next, “If you win I will let you clip my wings and will marry you before the hour is over.” Commander Leorin was grinning like a mad-man. “And if I win, you will walk away and take back your marriage proposal.”
“Deal,” he said. He was so damn sure of himself, it made her grin. He kept his eyes on her, trailing her body like it was his already. Like he’d already won.
“What the hell have you done?” Verrin whispered in a fury, the smell of his panic tangible in the air as he came up beside her.
She stared back at him, not trying to put a facade. “I practice my archery every night, so unless he’s changed his accuracy in the last twenty-four hours, I will win and take back my freedom.”
The complete terror in Verrin’s face was reasonable since a steady crowd was forming around the ring. Whispers were being shared, bets being placed. The High Lord and General were staring at her like she was some demon ready to tear them apart and it was somehow the most amusing thing in the world.
All eyes shifted to Commander Leorin when he lifted the monster of a bow, grabbing two arrows from the bucket beside it. She couldn’t hold back her snort when she saw the state of the arrows, the wood warped and damaged. He didn’t even care enough to find good arrows.
He walked in front of the target, sticking the extra arrow in the mud beside his feet, and nocked the other one. He stared down the target, lifting the bow to his eye-line. He pulled the string back, the wood groaning at the effort, and released the arrow.
The arrow flew through the air and landed right outside the inner circle. He took the other arrow and fired, this one landing slightly closer to the middle than the last one.
A few cheers erupted from the crowd and Commander Leorin turned to hold the bow in the air, heralding even more calls. Those voices only doubled when she started to take off the top she was wearing.
She threw the black material down into the mud, not caring that all she wore underneath was a thin linen top. This was fighting for her freedom, she wasn’t going to let herself be constricted by the tight-fitting material.
“You can still call this off,” Verrin said, following her to the barrel of arrows. She reached into it, taking some out, looking down the shaft of them, then putting them back. Since this training arena was only for the younger warriors, they didn’t care about the state of the arrows since hardly anyone could use the bow, let alone a child.
“No, I can’t,” she said, knowing it to be true. Even if she wanted to, no one would let her. She challenged a commander, anyone who did that was expected to carry through with it. Especially if they were a female.
“Even if you do win, what will Father think?” Verrin asked as she gathered two of the straightest arrows and turned to look up at him.
“Do you want me to lose and get my wings clipped?” she asked, staring at him, not caring about the taunting stare Commander Leorin was giving her. Nor the look of utter focus and calculation on the High Lord and General’s faces, both of their eyes attached to her.
“Of course not,” he said, sputtering.
“Then stop talking to me, I need this adrenaline,” she said and started toward the center of the ring. He didn’t follow her, staying and hover by the weapons rack. With every step he took, it seemed to pull a weight down on his shoulders.
If she failed, he would be there to fight for her. That much she knew. She just hated it because he would lose against the hundred males standing around. He was good, but he wasn’t that good.
Commander Leorin held out the bow and when she grabbed onto it he yanked it so that she was face-to-face with him. So close that she could smell the trace of alcohol from last night on his skin. She had been expecting him to done something like this. He was a male hyped up on his ego, he couldn’t be any more predictable.
“I look forward to seeing you in my bed tonight,” he said, quiet enough that only she could hear it, his voice husky with desire. She didn’t deign to reply and waited for him to release the bow.
He stepped away, making sure that the hundred others surrounding them would be able to see her spectacular failure. She could hardly keep her smile down.
She walked up to the line he had drawn in the mud, and she knew it was further away than where he’d been, but she didn’t even bother to dispute it. She only stuck one of the arrows in the mud beside her boot and settled into a steady position as she nocked the arrow.
The crowd fell quiet as she lifted the bow, the weight of it making her arm sting. She hardly felt it, though. It was a foreign feeling when she pulled back the string, the stinging starting up in her other arm.
It was worth it, just to see the General’s exasperated expression, his mouth hanging open. Only the strongest and best warriors could use the bow, and she was a female, a no one, pulling it back.
Her show wasn’t done, because when she released the arrow it whistled through the air and landed right in the center of the target, swallowing up the black dot.
Everyone was silent, and it was a glorious, glorious thing. If she stepped back now, she would be declared the winner, but she still had the second arrow, and she planned to make this one hell of a show.
She nocked the arrow, and pulled it back, listening to the beat of her heart and quick breaths. She slowed her breaths, making her mind narrow in on the center of that target.
Her breath came out in a whoosh, and the arrow fired, whizzing through the air.
She watched in slow motion as it twirled through the air, and didn’t even try to restrain her triumphant grin when a loud crack sounded. The arrow had split the shaft of the previous arrow right in half. Two shots right in the center of the target, there was no question of who had won that.
“She did it,” Verrin spoke into the deathly silence. He was blinking slowly as if he couldn’t comprehend it. “Holy Mother of all things good, you did it!” he shouted, not caring about who watched. “Father is so going to kill you,”
That snapped something inside her, and she was laughing. She couldn’t remember the last time she laughed, truly laughed. Her chest heaving with the force of them.
It only came harder when she caught the sight of Commander Leorin slinking through the crowd. Then she caught the glint of the diamond on her finger and lifted it to her lips and kissed the hard stone, not caring about the hot tears rolling down her cheeks.
The General took a step forward, seeming to have recovered from his fit of shock, but he paused the second Father’s voice bellowed over the silence, “What the hell Nina!”
The crowd parted to show him in a half-dressed shape, his linen undershirt soaked in sweat, his the wisps of dark hair stuck on his forehead. His eyebrows were creased, his lips in a frown.
She did her best to suppress her laugh and bowed her head. “Father,” she greeted, but looked back up at him, knowing that her little show wasn’t going to do anything anymore. They would all see through it now, so it was no use to even try.
“Who trained you?” he demanded, storming down the length of the ring, kicking up mud in his wake, his eyes darting between the target behind her to her face. There was an anger in his eyes, but not the anger she was used to seeing when he lost a fight or a bet.
She instantly pointed over to Verrin, dropping the bow down to do so, and he held his hands up in surrender, casting her a withering look. “In all fairness—”
“Don’t start with me,” Father snapped and looked back to Esophina, his eyes softening a fraction. He looked over to the High Lord and did the thing she never thought he would ever, ever do: he fell to his knees, his head bowed.
“Please,” he begged, shocking everyone, “take her,”
She blinked, mimicking the High Lord’s surprise. “What?” the High Lord asked, and she was inclined to echo it.
“I knew she’d been training with someone for the last decade, but I didn’t think she was serious about anything.” He said, and every word he added made her more and more confused, her throat closing up. “Take her and train her or set her up somewhere quiet.”
The High Lord blinked again. “Why?” he asked and the General looked between the four of them, amusement in his eyes and a confused half-smile on his lips.
“There are going to be hundreds of targets on her back and I can’t keep her safe from everyone.” He said, and she choked out a sob, and their eyes shifted to her. She squeezed her eyes shut to stop the tears from coming, but it did nothing.
Her father, her father, the “I don’t take shit from nobody,” male that didn’t even bow his head to the camp lord when he passed, was on his knees in front of the High Lord, begging for her safety. She knew he loved her, but she didn’t think he would do this.
Yes, he kept her and Mother’s wings unclipped, let them wear whatever they wanted around the house. He sometimes even helped cook their meals and clean some clothes. But this was a whole new level. He knew she’d been training, and had been fine with it. Now he was trying to protect her and make sure that this stunt wouldn’t be the end of her.
Part of her was scared to leave home, to leave her brother who was always looking out for her, her father who had been contented with the idea of a daughter who fought with steel, and a mother who always knew the right things to say. But part of her was excited at the idea of being taken away to somewhere quiet where she could train and be herself without looking over her shoulder constantly.
“What about Mother?” she asked her father, because she knew that every person standing in the crowd around them was trying to figure out a way to kill her or clip her wings without anyone else noticing. To punish her for allowing her daughter to train.
“We can watch out for her,” Verrin said from behind her. He always took care of them and she knew they always would.
“So, you’ll take her?” Father asked, looking up at the High Lord. The High Lord looked back, blinking slowly as he thought. She didn’t think that the High Lord was normally startled that easily, especially with the way the General kept glancing at him with a worried look in his eyes.
“If she wants to go,” the High Lord said, and looked over to her. Again, everyone’s eyes shifted to her. It felt like she was being tried for the most heinous crime. Which, in a way, she was.
Maybe she just should go, start a new chapter in her life, get out of this hell hole and maybe see some of the Court she lived in. The worst thing that could happen is that she died, and if she stayed she might die, anyway.
She took a deep breath and looked to the General to find him already looking back at her, and he gestured with his head toward the High Lord, urging her to reply.
She just shrugged and looked to the High Lord. “I would rather not get killed when I’m this young, so I’ll go,” she said, and the General grinned.
Everything was glittering and gold. The marble floors were so shiny she could see her reflection in them, and they served food to her on a golden tray. And the food, the food. She had never tasted anything more divine than the food they had “Gathered from the back of the fridge,” to give to her when she arrived at the High Lord’s glittering mansion in the side of the hill.
Oh, that was a whole other thing.
After she had agreed to go with the High Lord and General they had flown out of the camp, and she had enjoyed the feeling of the wind in her hair and the currents that played against the planes of her wings. Then they had landed and the High Lord had winnowed them to a city she could only call a dream made real.
Buildings and homes spread out as far as the eye could see, and High Fae and faeries alike laughed in the streets. The bright expanse of the ocean met with the bright flash of colors that was the sea-side shops and restaurants.
It was a strange juxtaposition to the damp, dark, muddy and somber mood of the Windhaven camp. She wondered how people could live hundreds of years in that clammy cliff without going mad out of boredom or disgust. Not that she hated her home, now she just realized how much there was outside of it. That life was more than keeping track of the new commanders and marriages.
“How’s it like being outside of the camp?” General Cassian asked, coming out from the inside of the House of Wind, as she learned it was called.
Her hand tightened on the stone railing, and she caught the flash of her ring. She hadn’t taken it off, and she wasn’t planning on it any time soon.
“Different,” Esophina said, because that was the only way she could explain it. It was strange to feel the sun on her skin and the wind rustling her long hair.
“It took me a couple of weeks to get used to it,” he said, and she tilted her face to the sky and closed her eyes, letting the warmth of the sun sink into her skin. It was like a drug and she never thought she could get enough of it. She took in a slow, deep breath, savoring the scent of the salt in the air mixed with delicious spices.
“I hope I never get used to this,” she said, running her hand back and forth on the railing, feeling the rough stone beneath her hand that reminded her that this was real. That she was here, in the High Lord’s secret city.
Her wings spread out and she could hear General Cassian’s shuffled steps as he moved out of the way so that he wouldn’t get hit. The sun was so soft and gentle and warm, like a whispered kiss of pure joy. It was truly not something she ever wished to get used to.
“The ring—what are you going to do with it?” he asked, and the beauty of her spell fell away. She tucked her wings back in tight again and looked down at the ring.
She held up her hand so that she could watch the way the light reflected off of the hefty diamond. It was beautiful, that she couldn’t deny, no matter that the male it came from was as ugly as they came.
“I think I’ll keep it,” she said, flexing her fingers so that the light danced. “Use it as a reminder that I am not married to an asshole commander.” She glanced over at him, noticing the slip of her words, and bowed her head in apology. “No offense, of course,”
She stumbled on her words in an effort not to say “sir,” because the last time she did two days ago, he had corrected her, saying that there was no need to use that sort of formality when they were here. Still, she couldn’t completely shake off her facade.
When she walked into a room and found the General sitting there, she would instantly bow her head. It was a reflex she wasn’t sure she would be able to shake any time soon.
“Ever since you so graciously served Leorin some shit on a silver platter, he’s been asking Devlon to be let off. Az told me that things are unsettled up at Windhaven, but not enough that Rhys will have to do anything.” He said, and she smiled, keeping her head bowed to her chest. Azriel, the spymaster of the Night Court. “Oh, and since Leorin is no longer a commander, I have named your brother a commander. We need more good males,”
She looked up at him, shocked into stillness. He was looking back at her, and the green streaks in his eyes caught her attention.
“Really?” she asked, her eyes stinging as tears threatened to spill. They were all being so kind and generous, and all she’d done was win a stupid challenge and fired two arrows.
He smiled, nodding his head. “He’s a skilled warrior and works harder than half of the males there. Not to mention, he supports females training and that’s worth more than gold itself. But as things are right now, we will back down on training females for a couple of months. At least until everything settles down and we don’t have to worry about a revolt.”
She blinked, nodding slowly, taking a moment to comprehend what he was saying.
“Sorry,” he said, “I should’ve given you more time to think before I laid all of that on you.”
Esophina shook her head and looked back out at the city. “I adapt,”
The door to the balcony cracked open and she didn’t look back to have to know that it was the High Lord. General Cassian stepped away from the railing to speak with him, and she kept her eyes on the city. She knew that if they didn’t want her to hear, they would’ve gone back inside.
“I have to go to the Court of Nightmares and will be staying there for two weeks. I’ve notified Azriel and Amren that when I return I want to have dinner so that we can all have some introductions, and I’ll let Mor know when I see her.” He said, and she heard General Cassian’s hum of acknowledgment.
With the silence, she turned to see both of them looking at him. “I suppose you’re waiting for me to ask what’s happening?” she asked, and the High Lord’s black eyebrows rose slightly. She just shrugged and glanced down to the ground. If anything, it was easier to not have to stare back at them.
“Well, I have a proposal for you to think over during the two weeks I’m gone.” The High Lord said and she nodded, her eyes drifting to her ring and her folded hands. “I would like to offer you a position. You don’t have to start any time soon, take another decade of training if you want, but I would like you to work for me.”
Her eyes shot up to his, and she knew she looked like a fool, her mouth falling open, but she didn’t care about that. He was offering her a fucking job.
“Since you are the only female I’ve ever seen successfully wield an Illyrian bow, I would like you to be in charge of training the females.” He said, and she couldn’t stop the tears from falling down her cheeks.
Joy swelled in her chest and she turned away from them, holding her hands up to her face. She chocked on a sob, then broke out laughing.
She had only been there for a couple of days, and General Cassian had mentioned starting some training, but he hadn’t gone through with any of it. She was ready for him to tell her that the High Lord decided he was going to drop her off in a cabin somewhere and leave her to her own devices. But then this.
“You broke her,” the General accused, his voice holding a light laugh.
“I need to get going,” the High Lord said once her laughs had subsided. “I’ll see you two in two weeks,”
She heard as his wings spread out, then the rush of air against the back of her neck and the boom of his wings as he took off into the air.
The wind was perfect, not too fast, not too slow. It was the perfect flying conditions, her wings twitching to feel the wind beneath them. She could practically hear the sky calling to her.
She couldn’t resist it anymore, so she turned around and jumped up to sit on the ledge of the balcony. General Cassian looked at her, his eyebrows raised, faint amusement in his eyes. His eyes always seemed to shine.
“As my brother always says when he needs an excuse to leave: The wind beckons me, so I must heed its call,” she said and leaned back before he could say anything, feeling her body drop off of the edge of the balcony.
For a moment, panic spurred along her bones, but then she felt the wind against her face and she settled into a calm focus. Her muscles went taught, her arms and wings crossing in front of her chest, and she started barreling straight down like an arrow.
Her wings snapped out and the wind tickled the leathery membrane, a current immediately picking her up and pulling her back into the sky.
A second later General Cassian was in the air beside her, and he was laughing. A full and joyous laugh. His black hair wisping around his head, barely contained by the bun he had it in.
Adjusting to life here, she knew, was going to be hard, but maybe it would be worth it. Here, she could fly whenever she wanted and not be looked down upon or feel threatened. Maybe she could get used to this glittering life, and visit her family when she was able to. Bring them gifts and stories.
No, this wouldn’t be bad at all.
At the time I'm posting this, I have two more chapters all outlined, but I won't be posting them until I have enough material for it to make sense. Unless you want them, just let me know and I can post them. But I feel like this is a good enough end to this mini-story. Hopefully it doesn't feel like it's unfinished.
I couldn't resist it, so I had to post some more.
Esophina ran her hand along the array of daggers, feeling the multiple textures beneath her hand. Some of them were rough, made for easier gripping, others were smooth and soft, more of a display piece than something you would wield in a battle.
She and Cassian had been wandering the streets of Velaris, the city below the House of Wind, talking and getting to know each other. She had been smiling and looking at everything with absolute awe, and Cassian had been pointing out his favorite places to eat and making sure they stopped where he thought the best views were.
He had led her into a weaponry store, one of the only two ones in the whole city. It was hard for her to believe, but he reminded her that no one but them knew of this city so there was no need for anyone to arm themselves. That these stores were for those who wished to be soldiers or simply enjoyed the art of swordsmanship. Or just liked collecting sharp fancy things.
He’d gestured to the store and told her to choose one or two of the daggers, then he’d went straight away to the front counter and started to flirt with the delicate brown-haired female behind it.
It didn’t surprise her since he often tried to flirt with her. That always ended with her glaring at him or straight up ignoring him. Anyway, it wasn’t her place to judge him on who he flirted with or how often he did. He was a male, so he didn’t need reasons.
“It’s been forever since the last time I’ve seen you,” Cassian said, just as an especially beautiful dagger caught her eye. She picked it up, knowing that it wouldn’t be very effective for training or fighting, and looked over the leather hilt.
It was a looping design of vines and rose, popping out of the rest of the leather to add dimension. She ran her hand along it, letting the coolness of it seep into her skin. It was a piece of art.
“It’s been little over a month, and you have work. I wasn’t expecting to see you for a while,” the female said, her sing-song voice like music to the ears.
“I’ve been looking forward to seeing you. Meet at Rita’s tonight?” he asked, and Esophina tilted the dagger, catching a flash of her blue eyes in the shining metal. Rita’s? That was one of the clubs he mentioned he liked going to.
“I look forward to it,” the female replied, and Esophina heard as Cassian came to stand beside her. He looked at the dagger, raised a black eyebrow, then looked down to the table, taking a longer dagger off of the display. It looked similar to an Illyrian blade, and it was probably modeled after one.
“I know,” she cut in, trying not to wince at the foreign action of interrupting a male. “I just think it’s pretty,” She held it further in the air, letting the light from one of the nearby windows accentuate the delicate design.
“That’s the most girlish thing I’ve ever heard from you,” he said, and she chocked out a laugh, placing the dagger back on the display table. She noticed how Cassian’s eyes followed it, and discarded that information.
It was true. When the High Lord had asked what she wanted to wear, she’d asked for pants and tops. When Cassian asked her what she did in her free time, she’d said training, and if she couldn’t do that she liked reading. The only “girly” thing about her was her long hair that she refused to cut and the diamond ring that never left her finger, even during baths if she could help it.
“I’m girly,” she said, reaching forward to pick up a dagger with a simple black-leather hilt, lines engraved into it to make it easier to grip.
He snorted, but she didn’t find it at all condescending like it would have coming from anyone else. “Give me one example of you being girly,” he said, giving a pointed stare to the deep green jacket she wore.
“I enjoy cleaning,” she said, and it felt like a weird sort of confession. If she were back home, with her mother and father and dear brother, saying something like that seemed like the most average thing, but here it felt… weird. Like she wasn’t expected to like the idea of cleaning something.
“Really?” he asked, putting the dagger he was holding down, turning fully to face her. There was nothing but genuine curiosity on his face, no judgment or expectations. Those eyes searching her face.
“It’s calming,” she said, looking back down to the table of daggers. Anything so that she didn’t have to look at those eyes. “I can practice keeping my steps light, or my strength.”
“Like the rug,” he said, and she couldn’t help but laugh, a smile tugging on her lips. Then she realized, they had an inside joke. Only they would understand what he meant, and that somehow felt special.
“Like the rug,” she agreed, hardly getting the words out through her smile that she was trying so hard to suppress. Taking in a deep breath, she turned to face him and held up the dagger, holding the dull piece of metal, exposing the leather hilt to him. “This one,” she said, and clamped her lips together so she wouldn’t burst out laughing when his eyebrows jumped to his hairline out of surprise.
He took the dagger and turned to look at the female behind the counter, holding it up. “I’ll take this one. Put it under my credit,” he said, and then she nodded, taking out a notebook and pen.
Cassian gestured toward the door and let her walk out in front of him. The air was full with the salty scent of the sea, mixed with an underlying smell of fresh paint and lovely flowers. They twisted through the air, wrapping around her.
She still wasn’t used to all of the delightful smells or the way there was always something new to look at.
“Here,” Cassian said, holding out the dagger.
She took it slowly, bowing her head in thanks. “Thank you, truly, for everything,”
He smiled and nodded, waving his hand in dismissal, red Siphons flashing in the sun. “Think nothing of it. It gives me an excuse not to go back to Windhaven right now when everything is all unsettled.”
It was not nothing. He had stayed here willingly with her for the last week and a half, spending most of the day with her aside from when he had to actually get some work done. Which, he’d told her, was just looking over a bunch of reports from Azriel on the status of all the Illyrian camps and relaying the most important information to the High Lord.
Esophina looked around herself at the beauty of her surroundings and felt an absolute peace in her. If only her mother could be here, she would love it.
After they returned to the House of Wind, he said that they would finally have a training session, but first, he pushed her off to her room to change into something more fit for it.
He probably meant changing into a pair of the leathers one of the servants had delivered to her at the beginning of the week, but she didn’t feel like wearing them. Somehow it felt disrespectful to wear a warrior’s uniform. She may be leagues away from the Illyrian Steppes and any Illyrian male that would truly care, but she still heard their voices in her head constantly.
You’re just a female.
Those four words that were spoken constantly around the camps felt like a taunt. It was like they were asking the females to rise against them. Begging for it.
Still, she couldn’t get herself to move out of her spot by the foot of her bed, her hands clenched into fists. This wasn’t right. She shouldn’t be here. She shouldn’t have started training in the first place. She was supposed to be back in the camp with her family, sitting down for a meal with them every night and enjoying each other’s company.
Her throat was closing on a shaking sob. She clamped her lips together to try and stop the tears from flowing, failing miserably as hot tears streamed down her cheeks.
Everything was suffocating. Her jacket was too tight, her wings strangely tense. She struggled to shrug off her jacket, gasping for air. The jacket fell to the ground in a heap, and she stumbled onto the plush bench at the end of her bed.
Her bed that was far too large for her comfort. Far too comfortable. She didn’t deserve any of this, she was just a female. A nobody female that got extremely lucky.
She curled into a ball, her wings surrounding her and casting her into semi-darkness. Closing her eyes, she tried to slow her breaths. She would be fine. This was fine. She was just panicking now, but she would be fine once it was done. She knew that, but still, she just wanted… not to be there.
There was a knock at the door, and everything stilled, her instincts taking over.
“Come on, Esophina. I don’t think it should take twenty minutes for you to get changed.” Cassian called through the door, and her arms started shaking with the force of keeping her sobs in. She dropped her head down into her hands, trying to block out his voice.
If she ignored him, he would leave her alone. She would be okay. She would be fine.
“Are you alright?” he asked after a moment, his voice taking on a more somber tone, talking into the silence. Her head felt light like she was drifting off into another world. “I’m going to come in if you don’t answer me. I need to know you’re fine,” he said, and she shrunk even further into herself. All she wanted to do was sink into the floor and disappear.
She drew in another couple of breaths, then he knocked again and she heard as the door eased open. Then she heard his silence as he saw her, curled up on the bench like a child. He was no doubt wondering why he had decided to even enter the room.
“What is it?” he asked, words that she’d heard many others say before. Words that were normally an accusation or a curse, but he said it in a way that didn’t feel like any of that.
It was almost like he cared.
“Nothing,” she said, choking the words out.
Whatever he saw in her miserable, weak self, caused him to take in a deep breath. “I’ll be in my office if you need anything at all.”
Then she heard the door close and the tears started anew, racking through her body. She shook and she sobbed, but once it was all over and she was laying silently in her bed, running a hand through her hair to settle her shaking breaths, she heard steps outside of her room. He hadn’t left until now, and somehow that didn’t freak her out as much as it should have.
Esophina paced in front of the long wooden table, and she couldn’t ignore the fact that it was polished so much it shined.
“If you keep going at it like that you’re going to wear a hole in the ground,” Cassian said from his spot at the table, a crystal decanter in front of him, sipping every once in a while on a glass of amber liquid.
She paused instantly, throwing her hands up, looking over at him as he leaned back in the chair, smiling behind his glass, his eyebrows raised in faint amusement.
“At least then I wouldn’t have to do this,” she said and continued her pacing. She counted each step, each breath. Just like her brother had taught her to do during a fight: “Keep track of every part of your body, or else you might lose a limb or forget that you haven’t taken in a breath for longer than ten seconds.”
“You could go back to your room,” he suggests, and she caught a glimpse of him as he took a sip of the liquid in the glass, fighting the wince the burning taste gave him.
“No, I’ll be good,” she said and forced herself to stop pacing again. Her wings flared as a quick breeze turned through the room, causing the candles in the golden sconces to blink and flash. She turned around to see the High Lord and a female standing beside him. There was no way to get out of this dinner now.
She was beautiful, her golden hair hanging in messy waves around her shoulders, pieces of it sticking out. She was straightening out her flowing red dress, her red-painted lips turned down in a frown. Esophina could see the warm caramel tone of the female’s eyes and wondered how she and the High Lord were even loosely related. Because it was Morrigan, the High Lord’s Third in command and cousin to the High Lord.
“Hello,” Esophina said quietly, and Morrigan looked up from the hem of her gown, that frown turning into a wide smile that showed a row of her very white, very straight teeth.
“You must be Esophina,” she said, taking a step forward, then looked down at her gown for a moment then back up at Esophina. “Sorry, someone,” She gave a long glance at the High Lord, “decided that today of all days he would take an extra-long flight around Velaris as fast as he could without putting up a shield during a wind storm.”
Esophina just blinked, her eyebrows raising. Morrigan stuck her tongue out at the High Lord then started moving across the room.
“I have to go fix my hair now. I’ll be right back,” she said and breezed out of the room, leaving them in temporary silence.
“So what have you two been doing?” the High Lord asked, looking to Cassian, but instead of being overlooked, she felt relieved for not having to speak to him and tell him how she hadn’t even started training yet.
Training was the whole reason why she was here, and she wasn’t exactly sure she was ready to leave. Some part of her loved it here, where she wasn’t constantly having to look over her shoulder to make sure someone wasn’t watching her doing something wrong.
“Hanging out, chatting, staying up and drinking until early morning,” Cassian said as the High Lord sat down across from him. He was grinning, looking over his High Lord’s shoulder at her.
“I do not drink,” she said, and the High Lord turned in his seat to look up at her.
“So you’re not saying we didn’t do the rest,” Cassian teased, raising his eyebrows, those eyes sparkling with amusement.
“You don’t drink?” the High Lord asked.
She shrugged, again feeling that strange juxtaposition. Back home, she would’ve been ridiculed for drinking anything, not confused that she didn’t.
“Tried it once, and it wasn’t a fun experience.” She said, and this time Cassian was curious, laughing slightly.
“Not a fun experience?”
“Nope,” she said and took a seat one chair away from the High Lord. She may feel more comfortable around Cassian, to the point where she knew he wouldn’t ever snap at her for doing something that wasn’t what a female was supposed to do, but she still wasn’t sure about the High Lord. “Almost killed Verrin,”
“Who’s Verrin and why did you almost kill him?” Morrigan asked, coming back into the room, her hair far tamer.
“My brother,” Esophina said, and Mor slipped into the seat beside her, making a barrier between her and the High Lord. “I got into Father’s alcohol when I was nineteen, barely after Verrin started training me actively. So when we were sparring, I wasn’t all there, and was a breath away from stabbing him in the heart.”
Morrigan smiled as someone else entered the room: Azriel, the spymaster. The only reason she knew that was because there were only two Illyrians employed under the High Lord. And the fact that she’d seen him around the Windhaven camp, surprisingly more often than Cassian had.
Misty shadows swarmed around his shoulders, somehow not as intimidating as they had been with the few glimpses she’s had of them.
“First off, your brother trained you?” Morrigan asked, taking Esophina’s eyes away from the male. She nodded, and Mor’s smile widened. “Okay, that’s awesome,”
“Actively training?” Azriel asked as he sat down across from Morrigan, asking the most important question.
“He’s been training me for… thirteen years,” she said, looking down at the diamond on her finger when she felt the way her heart sped. It was nothing against them, but it felt wrong to speak about something like this in front of anyone, Illyrian males especially. “For three years when I refused to leave the camp to go hide somewhere to train, he would give me small pointers and exercises to do. Like dancing, to be more aware of my body and limbs. Dancing with a partner, to become more aware of the way my partner moved to begin learning how to predict how someone is going to move.
“Then there is everything to do with cleaning,” she said and caught a flash in her peripheral as Cassian raised his glass in salute.
“Like the rug,” he said, and she looked up at him through her eyelashes, holding back her smile.
“What about the rug?” the High Lord asked, and Cassian looked to her to see if she would say anything. She just shrugged and looked back down to the ring.
“When I first got to the house at Windhaven, she was there cleaning,” he said, waving a hand in her direction. “She found all the daggers we’ve hidden over the years, somehow, and they were all piled up on the table. And there was a rug at the bottom of the stairs.”
He settled into his chair like he was going to tell some long and grand story. “First, I noticed how light her feet were when she stepped over the rug; then I noticed that her wings weren’t clipped when she crouched down in front of the rug; then she just lifted the thing like it was nothing.”
“The rug wasn’t that big,” Esophina said, lifting her head to look at him, keeping the ring in her view. It was like her anchor, a reminder that this wasn’t all a dream and she wasn’t going mad. That the Illyrian camps hadn’t just turned into dust as soon as she entered this mystical city.
“It was big,” he said, tilting his head, raising his eyebrows slowly. Challenging her. She stared back blankly, her face perfectly schooled. Only after a couple of breaths did he look away, back to the High Lord; and she looked back down to her ring. “It’s the rug from the main bedroom, and that thing is not small,”
The High Lord hummed, but it was Azriel who said, “That is a big rug,” She restrained her snort, but it instead came out as a bubbling cough.
Before she could feel the full weight of her embarrassment, someone else came stepping through the door, and Esophina froze.
She knew instantly that it was Amren, the High Lord’s Second, but this wasn’t what she expected. With her short sheet of silky black hair and small stature. Though her size seemed inconsequential compared to her gray eyes that seemed to shift and flare, milky with smoke.
“Finally,” Morrigan moaned, “Amren in here so we can eat now.”
Amren sat down across from Esophina and stole the glass of wine from Mor that she hadn’t seen her pour. Esophina didn’t shrink away from Amren’s cold stare as she took a long sip of the dark wine.
Males, she was terrified of, but while they could all kill her with half a thought, she was a female. She wasn’t expecting Esophina to advert her eyes or submit, so she was able to let her shields slide down a fraction, her true, defiant self poking through.
“You two look like you’re going to kill each other,” Mor said, and Esophina finally noticed the way everyone was tensed, looking between the two of them, waiting to see if something was going to happen. “Can you guys at least wait until after dinner? I’m starving,”
Esophina nodded, taking her eyes away from Amren’s as an enticing array of food appeared on the table with the help of magic. The food steaming, the mouth-watering smell wafting off of the dishes.
“Of course,” she said, glancing up at Amren before she looked down to her plate where they stayed for most of the dinner.
They ate and talked and laughed, and she focused on her plate of food, eating slowly. She used this time to observe everyone, grappling onto her training to help her watch without really watching. Hearing the rustling of clothes as they moved and the near-silent clank of silverware on plates.
Somehow the conversation shifted from talking about a new store Cassian saw opening, to how they came across Esophina.
Cassian did most of the talking, about how he got intrigued once he first saw her. Then was consumed by curiosity when she showed up at the female’s training session, all dressed up, just to hover around the edge. He said he noticed the way she watched everything, kept track of all the females there, but failed to mention how he had spoken to her at the end.
Then he and the High Lord told the story about how she had, in their words, “Did the most badass thing they had ever seen.” And, “Showed those males what a real warrior looked like.”
At that, Amren looked to Esophina with disbelief in those ethereal eyes. “It doesn’t seem like you could do anything like that.”
Esophina looked up and raised her eyebrows. “That’s because I’m not holding a deadly weapon.” Cassian let out a soft choked chuckle.
Amren tilted her head, looking to the piece of silverware in Esophina’s hand. “Forks can be deadly,” she said, and Esophina had a strong feeling that Amren was trying to scare her. “Why don’t you show us after dinner what you can do for us that weren’t in that hell hole when you went crazy.”
With the way both Azriel and Morrigan shifted, they probably expected Esophina to defend her home or refuse to do it and somehow set off Amren.
Instead, she just nodded. “As you wish,” Esophina said and bowed her head back down to her plate and continued to eat, conversation starting back up. Soon, the dinner was over and Amren was standing up, urging everyone else to follow.
“It’s dark outside, though,” Morrigan protested as they all got to their feet, gesturing the watery light of the night sky polluted by the light of the city. “And crazy windy,”
Esophina shrugged, brushing her top off. “Every time I trained it was the middle of the night in the pitch-black because if my brother even dared to light a candle we would be found out like that one time and he could be killed and I could be clipped and disowned.”
Her words kept such a lightness that it took a moment for Cassian to realize what she was saying, and him blinking was the only sign of his surprise as he led the down the shining halls of the House of Wind toward the training courtyards.
“What happened, that one time you got found out?” the High Lord asked, and she looked over her shoulder, slowly feeling her shields climbing back up.
Not now, she scolded herself. She was going to grab the bow and put on another show, and whatever happened now was just a bridge to that moment.
Taking in a deep breath, shoving that shield back down, she looked forward at the back of Cassian’s head. “I killed him,” the words were so simple, but it sent a silence over the group. “He was seconds away from killing Verrin and had already vowed to clip my wings and take me as his own afterward, so I had no choice.”
Consciously, she felt their eyes on her wings, and thanked the Mother that they were only seconds away from the courtyard.
When Cassian opened the door, stepping aside to let her out first, she breathed in the brisk night air. She felt the way the hard, searching wind played against her wings and took in all the information that gave her.
She had found it a little over three days ago to scout out the area and see what it had to offer. Checked the weapons they had, the arrows, the bow. But she hadn’t spent enough time to do anything since she was too paranoid that Cassian would just show up like he always did.
She walked toward the target on the other side of the courtyard, lit only by the bright, beautiful stars. The target itself looked barely used, hardly any dents in the paint marking the circles. It was obvious that hardly anyone used it.
The door to the courtyard closed as Mor shuffled into the space, holding a gray woolen shawl around her shoulders. Where she’d gotten it, only the Mother knew.
She turned her back to the target and started walking away from it, taking it one steady pace at a time, spreading her wings out, testing the wind. Every shift, every change of current, she knew by the time she reached Cassian standing with the massive bow in his hands.
“You don’t have to do this,” he said as she took the bow. She looked into his hazel eyes, finding gentle kindness there.
She snorted, and his eyebrows raised, that kindness shifting instead to amusement. Her shields were almost completely shattered, the feeling of the cold wood in her hands pushing it down further.
“You sound like my brother,” she said, not trying to hold back her smile, and looked down to the bow, weighing it in her hands.
Every bow was different, no matter if it was made by the same person, out of the same materials. Wear, however small, could severely change the way it shot an arrow or the way it held in her hands. And the string, the string, was too damned tight. If she tried to use it that way her arm would fall off.
She crouched down, cradling the bow in her lap, and started to untie the string at one end.
“What are you doing?” Cassian asked, crouching down to be on her level, a faint smile on his lips.
“It’s too tight,” she said as the string came loose. She started to test it, tightening it further and further. “So unless you want me to sprain something, I would advise you to let me.”
It was easy to see his shock as he rose to his feet, holding his hands up in surrender, surprise flashing in his eyes.
The four of them standing near the wall of stone talked amongst each other, but she saw the way they kept glancing at her. Their eyes shifted to her and stayed as she rose after finding the resistance she needed to make the shot properly.
Cassian passed her an arrow, and as he did, she whispered, “Sorry if I break one,”
He smiled in a feral way and she just glared at him before she stepped away and faced the target, nocking the arrow in the bow. They all fell quiet, so quiet that she could hear the music floating up from the streets below.
“I can almost hear the wind taunting me from here,” she whispered into the silence, bringing the bow up, pulling it back. She felt the tension, the anticipation, in the ait. It’s what fueled her, what kept her from backing down, as she fired the arrow.
It flew through the air and landed on the inner circle, but not the small black dot in the center. Cassian let out a long breath, but she turned to him and held her hand out for another arrow.
“The wind here is like a vortex. I had to see what it would do to the arrow so that I could be as precise as possible.” She explained, loud enough that they could all hear, and she took the other arrow, and this time when she fired, it swallowed up the black dot.
The twang of the bow was still sounding in the area around them when she took another arrow from Cassian’s hands and fired it, the arrow splitting the other one in half like it did the last time.
There was pure silence as she handed the bow back to Cassian then turned to the small four-person crowd and bowed. Then she started walking toward the door, and Morrigan stepped aside for her, but she looked to the High Lord to find him watching her, his eyebrows raised in delighted surprise.
“I’ll take the job,” she said, because she doubted she would have the guts to say it any other time. He grinned as Mor’s mouth fell open, her eyes the size of saucers. She obviously didn’t get the news that there was even a job available for Esophina to take.
“Good, because I’ve already opened you a bank account,” he said, and she grinned, bowing her head, not feeling the meekness she normally felt when she did it.
“Thank you,” she said, and stepped back into the warmth of the House, letting tears of joy spill down her cheeks freely.
For some reason, my writing is getting better, in my opinion, and I have no idea why. So that's fun.
A few days later, just as Esophina was stumbling out of her bed, there was a knock at her door followed by a female’s—Mor’s—voice saying, “Cassian asked me to come get you so we could train together. Apparently, twenty years since training with him has been too long for his liking.”
Esophina sighed, feeling her body settle, waiting for fear to claw its way free. But it didn’t come, only her morning-weary arms throbbing with the after effect of not warming up before firing an arrow against that strength of that wind. She must have been really pushing it for her arms to still feel this way.
She walked to the door of her room, the cold marble floor beneath her feet sending a chill through her bones. She pulled open the door to find Mor standing there in black pants and a brown cotton shirt, her golden hair pulled back tightly into a bun near the top of her head.
“You don’t look like yourself,” Esophina said without thinking, and thanks to the fact that she’d just woken up she didn’t feel any of the embarrassment that normally came along with an unfiltered comment like that. “Sorry,” she apologized, “I only met you once, so it doesn’t make sense to say that.”
She stepped aside to let her in, and Morrigan snorted before entering, the light smell of cinnamon wafting off of her. Esophina closed the door slowly, watching as Mor went to settle onto the bench at the end of the bed.
“Oh, don’t worry about that,” she said, and Esophina glanced down at herself and her very loose and see-through top, and felt the barest hint of a blush spreading across her cheeks. Though Mor didn’t seem to notice. “You’re right, though,”
She put her knees underneath herself and straightened up so she could look at herself in the mirror hanging on the wall near the door that led to the en suite bathroom. “This shade of brown doesn’t work with my skin-tone or eye color. But it was the first thing I saw in my closet and you Illyrians are so adamant about being up before sunrise that I was practically scrambling out of my bed to get here.”
Esophina hummed and looked to the glass door that led to the balcony, the hazy light of early morning just starting to filter through the planes.
“When you live in the side of a hill every second of daylight counts.” She said, moving across the floor to the large wooden armoire and pulling the door of it open, looking at the assortment of clothes. Reaching out, she ran her fingers along the soft materials until she got to the end where a black shirt waits, the only one she had specially asked to be tailored. Whoever got her clothes had gone above and beyond to get every piece of clothes she had tailored, and she was beyond grateful for it.
“That’s what Cass keeps saying and I find It hard to believe,” Mor said as she settled back down onto the bench, her legs crossed underneath her. “But since you said it, it has to be true.”
Esophina took the shirt off of the hanger and grabbed a pair of black pants from one of the drawers. “Whatever I did to make you think I’m smart, it must be because of something my brother did or said. He’s the smart one,” she said, and went to the door of her bathroom, her hand resting on the golden doorknob.
“Maybe he taught you everything, but it was still you who shot that arrow and was able to adjust the course of the arrow to adapt to the wind.” Mor said, and Esophina stilled, blinking back the burning of the tears in her eyes.
“Thank you,” she whispered, her throat closing up with the effort of keeping back her tears. Before Mor could say anything else, she slipped into the bathroom.
She had a quick bath, making sure not to take much time at all, and got dressed in her tight black pants and form-fitting black shirt. It was nice to finally wear something for training again, to wear something that didn’t feel constricting.
Her wings flared out behind her and she admired them in the mirror, smiling faintly at their smooth texture. It was a miracle that they had always been that way, especially with how long it had taken her to learn how to fly. Not even Father could make someone teach her to fly, so she’d been flightless until she let Verrin teach her and that had been a disaster.
“Look at that!” Morrigan called from the room over, and Esophina raised her eyebrows, turning to leave the bathroom. She opened the door to see Mor was looking out the window, a smile on her lips. “I can almost see the sun, we must be late.”
Mor stood up and looked over at Esophina, her smile widening. “That looks far more comfortable than those Illyrian leathers.”
“I wouldn’t know,” Esophina said, pulling the door closed behind herself, and went back to the armoire to take out her black boots. She slipped them on and followed Mor out into the hallway, who turned around to walk backwards so that she could speak to Esophina.
“Why? Never tried a pair on?” she asked, and Esophina shrugged, feeling the traces of her shield coming into place. Somehow, it hadn’t come up into place when she first saw Mor. The small mercies.
“Nope,” she said, trying to push down the surging panic and urge to lower her chin and advert her eyes out of respect. She’d lasted half of a conversation with her without any sort of worry or need to change her actions, she wasn’t going to start now. “The idea of it just doesn’t feel right.”
Morrigan nodded, not pushing the subject, turning back to face forward. They were close enough to the training courtyard that the silence didn’t have time to shift into something strange before they reached the door.
Mor pushed the door open and shouted, “We’re here! And if you say we’re late, it’s Nina’s fault for taking too long in the bathroom.”
“I hardly took ten minutes,” she said, but couldn’t ignore the wave of nausea that came with Mor calling her by Nina, the nickname her father used.
That was it, the last brick needed to build up her shield: the reminder that her father was still out there. Her thoughts were tumbling before she could even step outside.
Father and Mother were still at Windhaven, and now Verrin was a commander, probably with a wife of his own. There was still that whole other world, where she would’ve gotten in an absolute shit-load of trouble just for what she said today. For speaking even a sentence about things dealing with fighting.
Then her ring, the one that was still on her finger, sparkling with a flash when the dim morning sun hit the diamond. She had forgotten to take it off for a bath and even forgot to take it off now when she was going to train.
“Are you good?” Mor asked, pulling the door tight behind her. The joy in her eyes shifted to genuine concern.
Esophina looked down at the ring once again and started to twist it, her mind working. “Can he hear?” she asked, not even looking to the door. A light pressure pushed against the drums of her ears as a shield snapped into place.
“Not anymore,” Mor said, and when Esophina looked up she had on a smug grin.
She swallowed and looked back down to the ring, trying to focus on it and what it meant. “Commander Leorin gave me this ring before…everything happened.” She struggled on the words, but she knew that if she didn’t say anything she would never get into that courtyard to start training or make any sort of progress. “I was ready to kill him for what he said, and would’ve if I had the weapon to do so, and I’m not ashamed of that. I’m not ashamed to train, and I know Cassian isn’t that type of person, but to even think about exposing myself in that way—”
Her voice started to shake with the force of her emotions, but she took in a deep breath and continued, “I can deal with whatever shit they threw my way and have spent the last decade learning how to make myself invisible so that I never get in anyone’s way. But everyone has their limits, their breaking points. And for me, that was when Leorin threatened to clip my wings.
“So when I fired those arrows, I was saving myself. A couple of nights ago, I could do that because it was a show, nothing serious. Now I’m supposed to go in there and train,” she said, not surprised when tears started to fall down her cheeks.
There was a break of silence, then Mor spoke up, her voice cold steel, “It took me three years to even agree to think about the possibility of me training.” Esophina looked up at her, noticing the understanding in her caramel eyes. “You have a job, you have a place here. Take as long as you want to get to training. Buy an apartment, explore the city, get used to not being in that damp cave, if you want. You will surely have the money for it soon enough.”
Esophina raised her eyebrows and smirked, surprised that she didn’t feel terrified at the aspect of being part of the Inner Circle. The most feared folks in the whole of the Night Court and probably the whole of Prythian. “He’s seriously paying me that much for doing nothing?”
Mor nodded, the shield disappearing in an instant. “Rhys is generous,” she said, that smile and easiness returning. “Do you want to train? If not we can go shopping, buy you some jewelry to match that ring.”
Esophina contemplated for a moment and looked to the door, taking in a deep breath. “I’m already dressed and ready, the least I can do is try.”
Mor nodded, her grip on the doorknob tightening as she leaned forward an inch, and whispered, “We can still go shopping after this, right?” and turned the knob, easing the door open.
She glimpsed Cassian standing in the center of the courtyard, his face tilted toward the sky, his wings fanned out behind him. The way the end of his wings twitched told her that he was listening in. It was harder to train your wing’s reactions than it was to train your feature’s.
“Only if we can eat out first,” she said, and Morrigan grinned wildly. A girl set loose.
“Yes,” she hissed stepped away, a bounce in her step, and only then did Cassian look over, his wings folding back behind him.
Esophina stepped through the doorway and Cassian started toward her, his eyes holding a tentative curiosity. She swore she could read his every emotion if she combined the glints in his eyes and the flare of his wings. His eyes that flicked down her form quickly before coming back up to her eyes.
“You good to train?” he asked, and she nodded, fiddling with the ring. He glanced down at it for a second, quick enough that it was nothing more than his tracking instincts taking over.
“If you can do one thing for me,” she said, and he nodded slowly, that amusement returning to his eyes. Mor was trying extremely hard not to look like she was listening in, but it was easy to see she was failing because it didn’t seem like she could be that interested in a water jug.
She took the ring off and held it out, doing her best not to regret what she was going to say. “I can’t have this on, because I might very well break your face.” She said, and he snorted a laugh, carefully taking the ring from her hand like it was the most precious thing. “And if you lose that, I will break your face.” His eyebrows rose, a smirk pulling at his lips, ready for the challenge. “You know I have a good aim with the bow, but you haven’t seen what I can do with a knife.”
Mor broke out laughing, spitting water and chocking on half of it. Cassian roared a laugh, slipping the ring into the pockets of his pants, grinning like mad.
“Warning received,” he said, and stepped aside for her, gesturing for her to enter. Morrigan was still sputtering and coughing, wiping at her mouth with the back of her hand, but grinning wider than Cassian if that was something even possible.
Later that night Esophina sat cross-legged on the deep blue rug before the fireplace, the orangey-red flame steadily eating up the scraps of wood that had not yet turned to ash. The silver woven through the rug glinted in the dim light like the diamond on her finger.
A book lay by her feet, the writing near-unintelligible thanks to how low the fire burned. On her lap she held the one dagger Cassian had bought for her, sharpening it with a whetstone, the whining sound echoing through her quiet room.
She didn’t need the fire for light nor heat, because both of those things were magicked, but the action of sitting in front of a fireplace on a rug reminded her a lot of home. While she was sharpening a blade and sitting atop the most comfortable rug she’d ever had the pleasure of sitting on, it still that sense of nostalgia.
Memories of Mother surfaced in her mind, the way they would both curl up in front of the fire during the colder months. They would wrap this thick braided blanked of wool around both of their shoulders and speak in hushed tones as to not wake the males of the house, talking about the books they had read. And when there were no more books to speak about, they would braid each other’s hair and Mother would demand that Esophina tell her about all the gossip she’d picked up from the markets.
It was those nights—those moments—she always yearned for during the quiet breaks she had away from Cassian and his infectious personality.
Though she had gotten close to a moment like that earlier today with Morrigan.
They had been sitting on the outdoor patio of a quaint little breakfast store, sharing a bowl of fruit while they waited for the breakfast bread that was still being baked to arrive. The conversation they were having shifted from how Cassian had been very careful not to drop her ring out of his pocket, to how beautiful the sky was, and how it was going to be a beautiful day.
She had felt at peace, not worrying about the males that passed by them constantly, and she had found herself missing the presence of Cassian and his tells that she had picked up almost instantly.
As if her thoughts summoned him, there was a knock at her door, his voice floating into the room, “Are you still up?”
Still? She glanced up to the clock above the fireplace, her eyes widening at the time: 1:20 am.
“Uh, yeah, come in,” she said, not sure exactly why her voice shook. She wasn’t afraid in the slightest, but it must have been her shock. The last time she’d checked the clock it had been only ten.
The door opened quietly as she lifted herself into a crouching position, taking one of the logs and throwing it onto the flames. The fire erupted, sparks exploding as she threw yet another log into the fire, lighting the room up enough so that when she looked over at Cassian, she could see him taking slow steps toward her.
“Come sit,” she said, gesturing to the chair nearest the fire, and settled back into her spot, taking the dagger back into her lap. She ran her finger along the edge of the blade, frowning when it didn’t even sting. “I’ve been so distracted by the book that I lost track of time and forgot to actually sharpen the dagger, which was what I sat down to do in the first place.”
“I could help,” he offered, stepping around the table beside the chair before he sat down, bracing his arms against his thighs so that he could look down at what she was doing. He seemed far more somber, his eyes not holding any sort the amusement she was used to.
“No, it’s good, I just need to focus,” she said, looking down at her lap and started to resume the sharpening of her blade. The blade he had bought her.
He was silent, so unlike him that she looked up to find him watching her, his eyes pinned on her wings. Her wings that lay drooping on the floor behind her, the soft feeling of the rug smooth against their delicate membrane.
“What is it?” she asked, a twang of panic surging through her. Her wings. It always had to do with her wings.
He noticed the layer of panic in her voice and his eyes snapped to hers, raising his hands in surrender, leaning back away from her. “I’m sorry, I’m not going to touch your wings.” He said, and she blinked at him hesitantly before she started sharpening the blade once more.
She kept her senses open, keeping track of him out of the corner of her eye. She knew she could trust him, but that wary little girl was still camping around deep in her mind, saying that she should never let a male this close.
“I’m sorry,” he repeated, and she heard the sincerity in his voice, but didn’t stop sharpening her blade, using it to push down her fear. She was here, sharpening a blade, and he was the one apologizing. “I had a lot to drink and forgot.”
She looked up, pausing her work, and searched his face, seeing his carefully schooled features. It had been his unguarded self she saw, not controlling where or how he looked.
“You don’t seem like the somber drunk type,” she said, turning the blade over to start sharpening the other side.
“I’m not,” he said, and she could hear the ghost of his smile. “I promise you I’m more fun.”
Looking up at him, she set the dagger aside and shifted her sitting position, holding her wings up just enough so that they didn’t brush against the rug. Once she settled back in, she let her wings droop again and she looked up at him.
“So what’s this?” she asked, and he raised his eyebrows, changing away from the curiosity he had while she was moving. “Since you’re a fun drunk and don’t seem like a person to forget things like not looking at a female’s wings, what, exactly, is this?”
He looked at her for a long moment, blinking. Finally, he said, “I’m after-drunk,” he said, and she nodded, urging him on. “Rhys told me there was a revolt up at the Windhaven camp and I have to leave as soon as possible. He’s already there, so I can get a couple of hours of sleep, then Azriel will winnow me there and we’ll be staying until things settle down again.”
“My family—” she started, her wings coming back in tight. If this was against her family, she would figure out a way to kill any and every male that dared to even go near them.
“Azriel already has them safe away at a small cottage, they’ll be safe,” he said, and she let out a long breath, settling back down onto the carpet.
“How bad is it?” she asked, and it hit her that she was thinking like the warrior she was going to become. She was at least starting to think in a way that resembled the position she now held: the trainer of the Night Court’s female Illyrian legions. That was the fancy name for it, anyway.
“Thankfully, it has just been the leading commanders and their most devout followers. Most everyone else is staying low waiting for it to smooth over.” He said, and she nodded, looking down at her hand and the sparkling ring. “There’s nothing you need to do right now, and Mor has some papers for you to look over.”
He stood up and left her room before she could say anything else, leaving Esophina to crumple on the carpet, resting her head on the comfortable material. Before the thoughts of her family in danger could eat her alive, she let herself melt into the darkness that reached out and pulled her into its comforting embrace.
Esophina groaned as she awoke from sleep, warm tendrils of light coaxing her eyes open. She was still lying on the ground in front of the fireplace, the fire nothing but embers. She spread out her wings as struggled into a sitting position, letting the sun warm them.
She must’ve slept in. The glimpse of the sun half-way to noon was enough to confirm this without having to look up to the clock.
Her back ached from the position she’d slept in but that pain was nothing compared to the way her heart ripped right open when she remembered exactly why she had fallen asleep on the floor in the first place.
There was a massive revolt going on at the Windhaven camp, most likely because of her. Because her father had allowed her to train, because her brother had trained her and was now a commander. Because she had challenged one of the most respected commanders and won, driving him out of the camp for good. It was a miracle they hadn’t revolted earlier.
Cassian and Azriel and Rhysand were all gone to deal with it, making all the stops to calm this down. All because of her. Just because she couldn’t keep quiet.
“I brought papers!” Mor’s voice called from the other side of the door and Esophina looked to the fireplace, frowning slightly.
“The door’s open,” she replied, her voice still rough from sleep, and she reached forward, picking up a piece of paper for kindling, letting it catch fire on the bare remnants of the ember, then added another couple logs, the fire quickly growing.
“Did you sleep on that rug?” Mor asked, coming over to sit down where Cassian had sat early that morning.
She looked far more like herself today, in her red dress and golden hair hanging in long waves, her lips painted in the richest red.
“It’s comfortable,” she said and blinked at the half-sharpened blade before picking it up. She pressed the metal against her hand and was delightfully surprised when she felt a slight sting. At least she made some sort of progress.
Mor was silent for a moment, looking over the contents of the rug, her eyes snagging on the dagger in Esophina’s hands, then she said slowly, “Did Cassian talk to you?”
Esophina nodded, gesturing with her dagger around herself. “Hence the rug. I wanted to sleep before I couldn’t.”
“Good, so you know it’s just us females here: you, me, and Amren, though she’s staying down at her apartment.” She said and got up to kneel beside Esophina, spreading out three papers in front of them.
Esophina quirked an eyebrow, setting the dagger down beside her, looking down at the messy scrawl of handwriting on one of them. The paper was dirtied with questionable stains, and it made her wonder about how old it was or how careless the writer had to be for it.
“This one,” Mor explained, pointing at the paper closest to her, the dirty one, “is a list of the females who participated in the training. The ones near the top are those who stayed around longer, and the ones at the bottom are the ones that only came to the first session. And beside them, it says if their wings are clipped or not.”
She nodded slowly and picked up the paper. This wasn’t just some fun document, but something important to her position. That made her see the words and names with a new eye: possibility.
While the writing was so messy she could hardly even read the names, she recognized some of the surnames. She knew who their mothers were, their fathers. What surprised her more was that over half of the females were unclipped, and that was almost impossible to imagine. Maybe more and more parents were holding back from clipping their daughter’s wings, or maybe it was just a sort of luck.
“That was drawn up by Devlon three weeks ago but Rhys only got it now,” Mor said and pointed to the two other papers. “Those are about three months old and were written up by Cassian, so they’re more likely to be accurate. Though it might not stay that way for long, with the revolt and all.”
Esophina was confused when she lifted the two other papers, setting the old one down, but then she understood.
They were a list of all the known unclipped females in Windhaven, small descriptions scrawled beside the names followed by a short paragraph of information. Again, she recognized some of them, mostly because there was an understanding amongst all of them that they were to never group up or be seen with each other. One unclipped female was noticeable, two or three of them were dangerous and a target.
A sort of excitement rushed through her when she saw her name, beside it was a quick physical description and the location of her home, who her father and brother were. That was what she expected, but when she started reading through the paragraph beneath that, she had to keep her lips clamped so her jaw didn’t fall open:
“Esophina Rerdovar — Most likely to be successful with training.
Many of the females speak her name, saying how she is the model of the proper wife. Though others say that she is impolite and crude. It’s hard to tell if they are rumors, them mistaking her for someone else, or if she is just an amazing actor trying to stay hidden. If the latter is true, she would be most likely to agree to some sort of training.”
“Look, he knew about me,” Esophina said, holding the paper so that Mor could read it. Her brown eyes darted across the page rapidly before they finally stilled to read, and she took the paper from Esophina’s hands, her jaw dropping.
“That scheming liar,” Mor whispered, her voice a mix of awe. She looked up at Esophina, her lips spreading into a smile. “He said he didn’t know who you were, but he is such a liar.”
“He knew of me, there’s a difference,” she said, taking the paper back, her eyes scanning the other names. Her mother’s, of course, was followed by a paragraph saying how he doubted she would agree to any sort of training but was likely to be a strong advocate beside her mate.
“According to that, many knew of you,” Mor said, a question in her voice.
“I was always near the market,” she said, her words slow as she read through the rest of the names. “It’s a good spot for gossip if you know where to stand. And my mother loves gossip so I make so to get as much as I can for the next time we have time to sit down and talk.”
Mor nodded and stood, her dress rustling with the movement, and said, “I have to get going to the Court of Nightmares to make sure they don’t think about doing anything stupid, like linking up with the revolting Illyrians, so I’ll see you sometime later tomorrow.”
With a quick goodbye from Esophina, Morrigan turned around and left, leaving her in peace.
For the next couple of minutes, Esophina looked over the three papers then decided, while everyone else was doing their work, she would work, too.
She got up and changed into a fresh pair of pants and a new top and coiled her hair into a braided bun. When she finished pulling on her black leather boots, her eyes caught on the box at the bottom of the armoire and she took it out, kneeling in front of it.
It had come in at the same time her other clothes had, but she hadn’t looked at them. Illyrian fighting leathers and a set of sheaths.
She looked right over the leathers, not even daring to think about them, and took out the small dagger sheath. Strapping it to her thigh, she took the half-sharpened dagger and slid it in, delighted at the soft hissing sound. Even though the blade wasn’t fully sharpened, it still made her look dangerous, and that’s what the important part was.
Esophina walked down the main street of Velaris, the salty scents of the Sidra floating through the air, alone outside for the first time since she arrived nearly a month ago.
The dagger strapped to her thigh gave her a sort of energy that allowed her to hold her chin high and walk with a sense of pride about her. A pride that had people glancing at her wings, to her dagger, then to her eyes when they bowed their heads in a mutual sort of respect.
At first, she didn’t understand why, but then she heard one of the High Fae males passing say, “So that’s her. General Esophina, the trainer and leader of the female Illyrian legions.”
Her steps faltered and she nearly tripped, her heart skipping a beat. General? She was no general, she was nothing like Cassian with his power and authority. She couldn’t raise an army or strike fear into people with just her name or a glance.
She was the trainer of the female Illyrian legions, sure. But the legions were only a handful of unclipped females with no training and a whole community disagreeing with their actions. It was three females who had come to a training session three times in a row. It was Esophina, protected and trained by the High Lord and General.
It was nothing more than that, yet it was her job to create those legions. She was supposed to take those three females and raise them into warriors so that they could cultivate a new generation of female warriors.
Mother, what had she gotten herself into, agreeing to take this job?
Silent as Death, Amren was walking beside Esophina and it took every aspect of her training to keep from glancing over at her like a startled deer.
“Why are they calling me General?” Esophina asked, keeping her eyes in front of her. Amren glanced up at Esophina and her glare demanded attention. She stopped, her boots scuffing the stones beneath their feet and they faced each other.
“Because that’s what you are now,” she said, her voice smooth and silky. “Formally and officially, at least.” She turned and started walking again so Esophina continued beside her, letting her speak. “Once you have enough females for an army, you will be commanding beside Cassian during battles. You will be looking out for your girls, making sure the males don’t push them around, and Cassian will try to help keep the males away from them, but he can only do so much.”
Amren walked up to the railing of the Sidra and looked down at the water moving by, at the small boats carrying the rich as they floated down it.
“Cassian is used to commanding males,” Amren said, answering the question Esophina wasn’t aware she wanted to ask. “If he is asked to command an army of females you trained, he will fail because he doesn’t know their strengths or weaknesses as well as you will. It will be a test of your friendship that you two can figure out how to command an army together.
“But there’s no need for you to worry about that now. You need an army first,” she said, and when she walked away Esophina knew she wasn’t expected to follow.
General Esophina. It sounded strange and like a dream. Having the title of commander was something she had wished and prayed for with an empty hope on full moons. No female ever got a title such as that, let alone general, the highest someone could get militarily.
She would do the best to live up to her title and hopefully, one day have a worthy army to command. One with commanders she could trust and rely on. Ones that could rely on her, that would come to her for assistance and support.
It was a fantasy; nothing more than a dream. But that’s where the best things started: in dreams. She had dreamt of being able to wield one of those beautiful Illyrian bows, and with dedication and perseverance had reached her goal. Without that dream, she wouldn’t be here, walking down the streets of a mystical city, a dagger strapped to her thigh, with no worry for what the males around her might be thinking.
That’s why she was heading to the bank to see exactly how generous her High Lord was in hopes of buying supplies to start working.
The bank was a behemoth of carved marble and rich red carpets. All sorts of folk hovered around the main domed room, bathing in the watery light that filtered through the glass dome. They chatted as they waited in line, but no one even spared her a glance when one of the tellers came out to greet her personally.
“Esophina, correct?” he asked, offering her a polite smile. She nodded, doing her best not to get distracted by a lady dressed in an extravagant dress, diamonds dripping from her neck and wrists. “The High Lord said that you might be coming in and that I should be the one to help explain everything to you. If you will,”
He nodded toward a long hallway and she nodded, following him wordlessly. What the fuck was happening?
He led her to an office-like room full of filing cabinets. He gestured her to sit down in front of the desk on the low-backed red and gold chair, made for wings, as he moved to those cabinets, crouching down to search through one.
Returning to the desk, he set the file down, the name of the front of it sprawled: General Esophina Rerdovar. A singular paper lay in it, and her eyes widened at the number at the bottom.
He spoke quickly and formally, explaining how once every two weeks her paycheck would be transferred from the High Lord’s account to hers. A sum that seemed far too large for the work she wasn’t even doing. He explained that at every store and establishment they would have a tab open for her that would be withdrawn from her account by the owner of the place if she didn’t pay it off within two weeks.
Part of her wanted to just use the tab or credit or whatever else they called it, but instead, she just asked to take out some of the money. He asked her how much she wanted, but she wasn’t quite sure, so she just asked for enough so that she go and do some shopping.
He returned with a small black-velvet pouch of coins and handed them to her before he sat back down behind the desk, writing a note on that piece of paper and subtracting the sum of the coins from the sum in her bank account.
“Is that all?” he asked, and she nodded, easing out of the seat, blinking and slightly dazed. “Do you need me to show you out?”
“No, thank you for explaining this to me,” she said, hardly getting the words out. He was treating her like a grand lady, and it was the strangest feeling. She knew she would have to get used to it, with her not being in a place like an Illyrian camp, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t shock her.
“Of course. Come back if you have any more questions,” he said and she tried not to seem too eager to leave the room, bag of coins in her hand.
When she was back on the streets of Velaris, she started walking toward the Rainbow, the part of the city that she visited most often. She went straight to a quaint store she had seen and passed many times before, the display window filled with all sorts of stationary items: pencils, jars of ink and special glass pens, notebooks and pure-white paper.
She entered the store, the small bell above the door ringing, and walked into the shelves, trying to make herself as invisible as she could with her wings and dagger. It worked well enough because as soon as one of the workers—or the owner themselves—saw her they turned back around to return to the counter.
After she gathered all the supplies she needed, she paid and returned to the House of Wind, grabbing a pastry from a bakery on her way.
She nestled back onto the rug before the fire and got to work, eagerly writing down everything that came to mind that might be important.
Esophina kept her head bent over her dagger as she sharpened it, the sound of the rock on metal sounding through the room. The others didn’t seem to notice or care, fully engrossed in their meeting, recounting everything that happened at the camp and what to do going forward.
She’d been in the dining room, having wandered there, finally getting to sharpening her dagger, when the three Illyrians had walked in, and soon Morrigan and Amren were there too. She didn’t find a need to move or stop what she was doing. Firstly, because they didn’t talk to her other than a quick hello, and secondly she wasn’t going to set down the dagger until it could cut air because every time she put it down she forgot about it.
“The commanders agreed to back down if we got a select group of females clipped,” Rhysand said and her grip on the stone faltered, but she kept going. “And as Mor said, Keir was speaking of revolting himself and joining them, so we had no choice. Thankfully,” he added, and she had the sense he was speaking straight to her, “the females who got clipped surrendered themselves.”
Esophina looked up and stopped sharpening her dagger, putting the whetstone down on the table beside her, lifting the blade so she could look at it.
“I got a list of them,” Cassian offered, and she frowned at the blade. It was still uneven, and the females willingly got their wings clipped all because of her. Because she had to be special and get noticed by the High Lord.
She sheathed the dagger and turned to sit the chair properly, watching as Cassian slid the piece of paper across the table toward her. Everyone’s eyes were tracking her every movement, seemed to calculate her every breath like it would give away if she was going to attack or freak out.
It made sense, because the last time she went all crazy someone had threatened to clip her wings, and she had told Mor that that was the only thing that truly set her off, that broke her limits. The only thing saving her at the moment was the fact that it wasn’t setting in. Not yet, but soon it would.
She took the paper, her eyes going over the four names without really comprehending any of it. Four names but only one stood out against the rest: Annelise Rerdovar.
Now she knew why they had been so cautious with her; why they were shifting into fighting positions, their muscles tensing.
She would kill every fucking male who had stood around in delight watching as her mother’s beloved wings were clipped. The wings that she cherished and loved so dearly.
Her pulse was pounding in her ears, throughout her whole body. It felt like someone had sat down on her chest, causing her breaths to become suffocating. She could hear their every slow, calculated move, and it only made her anger flare more and more.
She forced her breathing to even out and not flare every time she thought of her calm and delicate mother cooking or cleaning or smiling and laughing without a care in the world.
“Two,” she said, her voice deadly calm.
Cassian, the only one daring enough to speak, said, “What?”
She cleared her voice, leaning forward, a stillness in her body that she wasn’t aware she possessed, and clarified, “There are two females that are ready to train and there would’ve been three if this hadn’t fucking happened.”
He looked at her, his eyes holding so much apology and concern. He gave a slow, careful nod and she started to rise, her eyes not leaving his. He started to rise too, but she reached her hand to her dagger and he stopped instantly, going so still she doubted he was even breathing.
“Move one more inch and I will kill you,” she seethed, and he didn’t even start to lower himself back into the chair. Giving him a long stare, she turned and started toward the door, every step a song accompanying the chorus of voices in her mind, begging her to stab something and get revenge.
There was a whisper of movement behind her and she twirled, unsheathing the blade with a whine, and it was whizzing through the air toward Cassian all within a breath. He had just enough time to lean to the side, the dagger drawing a long and deep cut on his cheek before it crashed through one of the panes of the glass door behind him.
Everyone was on their feet, Rhysand getting ready to position himself in front of Cassian in case she somehow made another dagger appear with her non-existent magic.
“I warned you,” she hissed, watching as his eyes widened to the size saucers.
Flame was in her blood, her bones, calling her and whispering and telling her to damn it all and fly back to Windhaven and kill the first male she saw. Show him no mercy as they had shown Mother no mercy.
Taking a shaky breath to try and quench those thoughts, she turned and left, her hand lingering on the golden doorknob. It took everything in her not to yank the door off of the hinges. That would only make things worse and start a domino effect. Then she wouldn’t be able to stop and would probably fight so hard she killed herself out of the force.
Esophina walked down the hallways of the House, a notebook in her hands, the traces of her anger running through her bones, leaving behind instead a deep pain and sorrow, one she had never felt before. It threatened to eat her whole, but she wouldn’t let it.
Mother had lost her wings and she wouldn’t let it be for nothing. Mother had sacrificed one of the most precious things in her life just so that Esophina could train and become a warrior.
Low, solemn voices reached her ears as she turned the corner, and she didn’t bother to keep her steps quiet as she neared the dining hall, the voices continually quieting the closer she got.
When she got to the door she didn’t let their silence deter or frighten her, instead, she used it as an opening to walk up to the end of the table and push the notebook to the center. She didn’t even let herself look over to Cassian and the cut she’d made on his cheek.
“Everything that kept me alive is in there,” she said, not taking her eyes off of the small leather book. “Alleyways no one travels, streets no one patrols, houses or tents that are open to females like me if we need to hide. Madame Ferra, a female at the market who knows everything. She knows what males are preparing for a clipping, which ones are looking for trouble and have a high temper so we know who to avoid. She has people all over the camp gathering and relaying messages between us all to keep us safe and alive.”
“I should’ve noticed a spy network,” Azriel said, his voice cool and shadowy, a short reprieve from the suffocating silence.
“It’s not a very good one,” she said, “so it would be hard to spot. None of us are seen in the same place and we take all our information from well-placed gossip.”
She stepped back, sighing through her nose. Fear started to replace the anger, instinct rivaling her protectiveness. Everything that had helped her live—that still helped other females live—in that huge, damp cave was in that book. If it fell into the wrong hands, there would be little to no hope of actually creating a legion for her to command.
Cassian slowly reached forward, pulling the notebook toward himself, but she still didn’t look up to his face. Not even when he opened it up and started to read through the multiple pages of her neat, quick handwriting.
“You can stay for the rest of the meeting, if you want,” Rhysand offered, but she only shook her head, taking another step back.
“I have work to do and a room to clean,” she said and left, trying not to panic or shake when she felt their eyes on her back. On her wings.
There was a knock at her door and she grumbled to herself, standing up from the breakfast table beside the window, papers strewn across the table. Moonlight spilled onto the surface, lighting it up more than the embers of the fire burning in the fireplace did.
She made her way across the room, stepping over clothes that had been strewn everywhere. She had already cleaned up and remade her bed, tidied up all the paper she had ripped up, but she still hadn’t touched the clothes. Those could wait until tomorrow.
Her hand hovered over the doorknob for a heartbeat, and she had half a thought to just turn around and ignore whoever was on the other side of the door. But that would only make things worse, so she pulled the door open and felt a sort of relief when she saw him.
“Cassian,” she said, her voice soft as her eyes landed on the cut across his cheekbone. The blood was dry, but it was obvious he had just cleaned only moments earlier. “I’m sorry,”
“You’re the one that told me not to move,” he said, her eyes drifting up to his. She couldn’t comprehend the force of emotions there, and the idea of not being able to read him made her panic more than it should have. “At least I know you don’t lie when it comes to your threats.”
She nodded, humming, and stepped aside to let him in. “I couldn’t bring myself to care enough to pick up my clothes. Everything else is clean enough,”
“I couldn’t care less about what your room looks like,” he said, following her into her room. Even with that, she felt like she was failing on her job of being a female, although she knew he was nothing like that.
“What do you want?” she asked, her voice holding no bite as she closed her bedroom door behind her. He took a couple more steps into her room then turned back to her, raising an eyebrow.
“I wanted to make sure you were okay,” he said and she kept blinking at him, her head tilting slightly. “If I were you I would have been halfway to Windhaven by now. Not standing in a slightly cluttered room as calm as could be.”
“I’m not, in any way, calm,” she said, and that unreadable emotion in his eyes flickered with pain and surprise. “I’ve just mastered the illusion of calm. Because the moment I lose my fucking calm. I will kill someone,”
He nodded slowly, and said, his voice a lovely calm, “We could go spar and you can try to kill me. It’ll be all sorts of fun,”
“No,” she said, lowering her eyes to the ground beneath her, taking in a short breath. “Trying to kill the only male I’ve trusted that isn’t related to me doesn’t seem like a very good idea to me.”
There was a pause, then his broken voice, like his emotions had gotten the best of him, “You trust me?”
“As much as I can trust an Illyrian male,” she said, and winced, forcing her eyes shut. She could’ve just ruined everything, with those few words.
She heard the soft rustle of his clothes and she stilled as his hand brushed up against hers, causing goosebumps to rise on the back of her neck. He slowly took her hand. Slow enough that if she showed any sign of not wanting it, he would notice it instantly.
“Every female makes a promise to themselves,” she whispered, and he stilled. Stilled then gave her hand a squeeze, his thumb moving to brush over her ring. “Some promise themselves that they will only be true to their heart when they are in private. Others promise that tomorrow will be easier and they will finally stand up for themselves.”
She opened her eyes to look at their joined hands, such a foreign feeling and sight. The tenderness in which he held it made her stomach clench.
“I promised myself a long while ago that I will never cry, because crying means they win, and when they win it’s like everything I’ve been working toward has been torn down.” Her voice shook at the force of her emotions bubbling up her throat, her eyes stinging with the effort of keeping her tears back. “But how can I not cry? They took her wings. She’s the whole reason my wings aren’t clipped, the whole reason why I’m here.”
She couldn’t hold back her tears anymore. They fell freely, landing on the back on her hand. Cassian brushed his thumb over the droplets of tears before she could let the sight of them overwhelm her.
“They were demanding eight females be clipped,” he said softly, hesitantly. “When your mother stepped up, they cut that number in half, saying that she was half of the problem. If they clipped your wings, they would’ve counted it as all eight.”
“Not helping,” she mumbled. If she knew that earlier, she would’ve let them clip her wings, just to stop the revolt, then she would’ve thrown herself off of a cliff because she couldn’t live without her wings.
He took his hand away from hers and another sob escaped her lips at the loss of his touch, but he was quickly using that hand and his other to cradle her chin in his hand. He lifted her chin so that she had no option but to look into his hazel eyes.
Just at the sight of those eyes, like the bed of a forest, her muscles and mind relaxed, some of her unending dread ebbing.
“It was either have your mother and three other young girls clipped, or not your mother and eight girls clipped. We couldn’t just choke the revolt out like we normally do. It was the strongest commanders and even Devlon himself.” He said, looking deep into her eyes. It felt like he was staring straight into her soul. “If that’s the price needed to train and hire you, to create a whole new legion of warriors, then so be it.”
She knew that the words hurt him, she saw the pain flicker in his eyes.
Disconnecting her emotions from logic, she knew that it made sense. Just four wings clipped for the hopefully hundreds she would save was just a small sacrifice. But that didn’t stop the way her heart caved in and her breaths shook at the idea of her darling mother having those two disgusting scars on her wings.
“I want to visit her,” she said, the most stern she’d ever been to his face without a weapon in her hands or pure flame burning through her blood.
“Of course,” he said, his features softening. “I’ll ask Azriel to look over that notebook you gave us and plan something. No one can see you, so it might take a couple of weeks for him to plan something concrete.”
“Shouldn’t it take him less time? He’s the spymaster, after all,” she said, a faint smile touching her lips. A similar one sprouted on his lips and his hands fell away, one of them staying to rest on her right shoulder. She could see the tension releasing from his shoulders.
“If it was urgent he could set something up in less than an hour, but he has to focus on keeping tabs on the other camps and make sure they aren’t readying to revolt because I can’t be everywhere at once.” He said, giving a short laugh. She raised her hand to cover his and leaned her head back against the door, her tears drying sticky on her face.
She ran her finger over the back of his hand, surprised at the softness of it. She hadn’t expected it to be so soft, especially with how often he trained and fought.
“So you’re leaving again?” she asked, knowing the answer before he muttered a yes, turning his hand to grab hers, squeezing it. “I suppose that when I start working in the camps it’ll be the same.”
She caught him nodding out of the corner of her eye and she took a shaky breath in. “It’s been a long day,” she said, and Cassian took the hint—Cauldron save him—and let go of her hand, stepping back to give her room.
After taking in a long, deep breath to steady herself, she stepped aside and pulled open the door. He hovered, his eyes drifting down to her lips then back up to her eyes. All she wanted to do was reach out and touch his skin and feel how soft it was again. But she couldn’t.
“Azriel will start relaying letters to you, with numbers of females and younglings yet to be clipped. Though they might not stay accurate for longer than a month, especially with the way things are changing now.” He said, and she nodded, knowing that she was the thing that was changing. That with her in this position, things would be more dangerous even for the most rural and disconnected Illyrian camps.
“Thank you,” she whispered, and no matter how often she said it, she always meant it with her whole being. If it weren’t for him, she wouldn’t have any idea of what to do or what’s happening.
He nodded and smiled—a kind, gentle one—and left. She closed the door behind him, locked it, then slid to the floor, her wings spreading out behind her along the wall. She could still feel his phantom touches on her shoulder and hand and found herself craving more.
This is where things really start going down. A turning chapter, or the point after the inciting incident when the main character is stuck in the choice they made and can't go back. Always my favorite part to write.
The letters Cassian had promised her Azriel was going to get her started streaming in two days after they had both left again.
They were delivered by a half-wraith every evening near midnight, and the letters were full of names of young females yet to be clipped as well as females who hadn’t gotten clipped in the first place. She wrote all of it down in a thick leather notebook labeled with the month and year.
Sometimes at the bottom of the notes, Azriel would write an update on a plan for them to take a visit to Windhaven. He would say how he was starting to map out a route of alleyways using the information she had given them from the High Lord’s house to hers so that she wouldn’t be seen.
Another part of the plan was the fact that Rhysand had already ordered that no one else would be staying at his house there for another couple of months because he would need to be in and out to make sure they were staying in line.
It was a quick and easy lie that was so believable she knew no one, even a camp recovering from a revolt, would think twice about it.
After five days, Cassian had sent her a letter. At the beginning of the letter, he told her what Rhysand was expecting her to do when it came to work, made sure to emphasize that she didn’t have to do any work right now if she wasn’t ready, but had continued anyway. She had given herself a pat on the back because the stuff she was doing already was what she was expected to do, and she quite enjoyed it.
At the back of the letter, he wrote that they would be back in two weeks and that was probably when they were going to go to Windhaven. Everyone but Amren would be going, since she had volunteered to be the one to stay behind and watch over Velaris. Though Esophina thought it far more likely that she would contentedly never leave this beautiful city. She didn’t blame her.
If she had the choice, she would never leave. She would make them bring her family to her, but she knew that wasn’t a possibility. During the first couple of days of her stay, Cassian had given her a stern talk about how she wasn’t allowed to speak of this magnificent city and that if she did, Azriel would kill her before she could utter a sound.
She’d been scared of his threats but understood completely now that she was back at the camp.
The High Lord’s house was as spotless as it had been when she last saw it, the stack of daggers still sitting on top of the dining table.
“Wow, you really did find all of them,” Mor said in surprised awe, stepping away from the group the second after they winnowed. “I didn’t know so much could fit in such a small house.”
The house was in no way small, but with the number of daggers on the table, you would think they would be everywhere you looked. The truth was that they had been hidden away from first glance, giving it the illusion that there hadn’t been any.
“It’s called stocking up,” Rhysand said, walking up to the table to pick up one of the daggers and look over it.
“I call it a talent,” Cassian said and Esophina nodded, rocking on her feet.
“I call it an absolute pain,” she grumbled, watching Azriel out of the corner of her eye as he slipped away quietly, climbing up the stairs like a phantom or one of those shadow-wraiths he had in his employ.
She bounced on her toes, glancing over at the back door, dim, flickering torchlight coming through the cloudy glass of the window. They hadn’t even lighted any candles, and she knew they wouldn’t be until her visit with her family was over. Lighting candles would be like putting up a sign saying: come and attack us. And it was too much for them to risk at the moment.
“Yes, we’ll go now,” Cassian said, chuckling softly, as he came up beside her.
She looked up to him, blinking away the haze that had settled over her, and she started toward the back door, not giving him time to rethink. She stepped out of the door, dropping down a couple of inches to land in a puddle of mud. For the first time in a while, she winced as it splashed up onto her black pants.
“I liked those pants,” she whispered, her other foot landing softly and silently in the muck. Cassian followed, purposely stepping hard so that the dirtied water came splashing up onto her pants.
She turned, gawking at him, giving him a disbelieving gasp. He grinned, giving the puddle another kick, sending even more of the water splashing onto her, and she had half the mind to kick some of that dirt-infested water into his face.
“Hey,” Rhysand snapped, causing Cassian to still, looking back over his shoulder into the house. “You can go discreetly, without making a sound.”
“Right, of course,” he said, reaching out to close the door, exaggerating his silence as he pushed the door closed, making not a brush of sound.
Then he gestured for her to follow, quickly leading her across the alley into a small squished space between tall, wood buildings. She couldn’t even call it an alleyway, since they had to shuffle along sideways, their wings stretched out.
When they finally stepped out of the long, cramped space, Esophina tried not to seem too desperate to gulp down the wet air. It was at least better than the smell of piss and shit that had stuffed up her nose.
Cassian looked back over at her, and she saw the humor glimmering in his eyes. It was the look that normally came before he made some joke that had her trembling with the force of keeping in a laugh, but she knew he wouldn’t be saying anything. Getting themselves to her family’s home without either of them getting spotted was the top priority and wasn’t even worth him cracking a joke.
They wound down alleyways and more of those insufferably tight spaces between buildings, all without seeing one living soul. At some points, they heard voices, but they were too far off to be of any concern, so they didn’t have to stop once on their way.
“So which house is yours?” Cassian whispered from where they stood together in the shadow of a building, his eyes looking down the length of five houses in front of them.
Lights flickered in some of the windows, silhouetting figures as they went along with their nightly routines.
“The dead one,” she replied, her voice just as hushed, and looked over to the house with nothing but a watery light dancing in the windows. From a candle somewhere far in the house.
“Ah, smart,” he said and stepped forward toward the house. She reached out, grabbed onto his wrist and pulled him back into the shadows. There was a spark of fear at the action, worried that this would be his breaking point and he would snap at her.
He looked at her, curiosity in his eyes more than anything else. As soon as she noticed she was still holding onto his wrist, she let go. “Verrin or Father will probably jump you the second you step in there. And because I’m a female, and because I’m related to them, they will likely let go of me before they inflict any damage.”
“I don’t like that idea,” he said, and she tilted her head, smiling softly.
“I would rather you not tackle someone I love to the ground. Excuse me,” she said, bowing her head and stepping away. She could hear his steps behind her, and she knew he was making sure she could hear him. She knew what it sounded like when he was trying to be quiet: pure Death.
She took the doorknob in her hand, her hand shaking, and turned it, not surprised that it wasn’t locked. Someone was probably camping out at the bottom of the stairs, waiting for someone to try and break in. With her other hand, she tapped the door before opening it.
“Please don’t try and kill me,” she pleaded, standing behind the door, Cassian hovering behind her.
“I won’t if you hurry,” Verrin said, and she felt the beginnings of tears prickling her eyes.
She stepped around the door to see Verrin standing there, a dagger in his hand, his eyes face cast in shadows. When she stepped into the house, Cassian followed, and Verrin broke out into a coughing fit as he pulled the door closed, and she wasn’t exactly sure what emotion he was trying to cover up.
Esophina wanted to drag her brother into a hug, but first, her mother.
She stood by the archway of the kitchen, haloed in the warm glow of the candlelight. Her trembling hands were held up in front of her mouth, silent tears streaming down her face. Esophina couldn’t get there quick enough, couldn’t hug her close enough.
She smelled like a fresh summer breeze and the soft glow of the sun, something that seemed impossible here in such a stale place.
“You’re alive. My Phina, you’re alive,” she whispered, the words a prayer on her lips.
“Of course I am. I had to see my mother again,” she said and pulled away, her tears staining her cheeks. She knew that if she hadn’t let go, she never would’ve. Mother, on the other hand, had to kiss Esophina on her cheek before she finally released her.
“We just ate, but if you want me to make something—”
“No, no, we ate before we came. Thank you, though,” she said and Mother nodded, looking over Esophina’s shoulder at Cassian, then she averted her eyes to the ground. It was hard to see her mother do it when she knew Cassian couldn’t give a donkey’s ass about what she says or where she looked.
“How long will you be staying?” Verrin asked as he came up behind her, turning her around so that he could hug her. Quick and welcoming, before he gestured to the living room.
“I’ll be staying overnight, and Cassian will leave soon enough,” Esophina said, and Verrin’s mouth fell open.
“Don’t sound like you’re excited to get rid of me,” Cassian said, and the corner of her mouth lifted. Verrin’s jaw only dropped further, his eyes widening.
He leaned in and whispered, “I hate you,” though there was nothing but pure awe there. “The next thing I know is you’re a commander,”
Her eyebrows raised and she gestured over to the living room and waited until he walked in to look over at the dining room. At Father standing behind Mother, his eyes darkened and his lips set in a frown as he looked at her, then at the dagger strapped to her thigh, then to her hair which she had someone cut for her a couple of days earlier to rest just below her shoulders. It was getting too difficult to train with her long hair and there was no reason to keep it long.
“Father,” she greeted, bowing her head and looking down to the ground. He was still her father and he deserved her show of respect, especially since he was the one who begged the High Lord to take her and train her. But maybe he’d regretted it and was now just figuring that out. Seeing her dressed in fine pants and a luxurious top, it had to be unbelievably jarring.
“Nina,” he said, nothing dismissive in voice like she’d expected. A collective breath was let out, the tension subsiding.
Esophina turned and joined her brother in the living room, taking the seat nearest to the crackling fire. The brick was worn and covered in soot, so unlike the fireplace back at her room in Velaris. This one was loved and full of stories and memories.
“What have you been doing? Other than training, of course,” Verrin said as Mother joined them, sitting down next to Verrin on the couch, both of them looking over her. Verrin’s eyes held more of a jealousy and awe, but Mother was distant. Mother had never seen her this way while Verrin had seen it hundreds of times.
“Work,” she said, glancing away from the fire to see both Cassian and Father standing in the archway. Father was tensed, his hands in fists, while Cassian was leaning up against the old wood, grinning. She knew better than to think he was carefree; he was watching everyone’s every move. She could see it in his eyes.
“Work for what position exactly?” Father asked, and Esophina forced her eyes to meet his. She shrugged and looked to Cassian, needing to know if she could even say anything about it. He gave a short nod, encouraging her along.
“What is it?” she asked Cassian, and his eyebrows rose.
“Do you want the grand official version or the descriptive one?” he asked, straightening out. He probably didn’t know she knew she was a general, that Amren had told her.
“Aren’t they the same?” she asked, tilting her head, not stopping her slight smile.
“You’re no fun,” he huffed, then looked around the room, catching everyone’s eyes, then gestured to her, his smile widening into a grin. “She is General Esophina of the Night Court’s female Illyrian legions,”
There was a shocked silence, then Verrin started laughing, a sound full and rich. Father stood there, blinking slowly, his body completely still.
“You don’t seem surprised,” Cassian observed, drawing Esophina’s attention back to him. Right, no one told her she was a general. Those bastards.
“It’s hard not to know when everyone is saying it when I pass them. Plus, Amren likes to talk,” she said and Cassian shrugged a shoulder as if to say they did their best to keep it quiet. Apparently, Amren didn’t hold to those rules.
“General,” Verrin breathed, leaning forward, his eyes wide. “You’re a general. Do you even understand how fucking awesome that is?”
“I don’t have any armies to command,” she said, shrugging, looking anywhere but her father who seemed close to bursting. “Which is why my job is also training and organize the female Illyrians. Enforce training harder, and since Cassian has other duties it was hard for him. But my sole job and duty will be making sure the females are training and the number of clippings is lowering.”
She tried not to speak of clipping, scared of how it might change the atmosphere in the room, but it seemed everyone was more focused on Father and his face red with anger.
“I’m not following orders from any female, even if it is my daughter,” Father finally said, and they went silent. Cassian turned to him, his smile fading, his back straightening as he took on the role of General.
“Good, because you won’t have to. I’m still your general, and you will respect me as such,” he said and Esophina glanced over to Verrin who was slowly standing up. Cassian wasn’t going to do anything physical unless he was pushed into it, that is. “Though you will have to respect her as someone in power because she will be commanding an army. No matter if that’s in a couple of decades or centuries, it would be wise for you to stay in her good graces.”
“Cassian,” she hissed, standing up with a jerk when Father stepped toward Cassian, swinging his arm. Cassian quickly dodged it, ducking down, but before he could do any counter-attack, her dagger was flying through the air, brushing right past his face.
He pushed up against the wall and slid to the floor so that dagger wouldn’t hit him in the side of the head and his eyes snapped to hers. Father stopped and looked to her. She just wanted to fall back into the chair and sink into the floor.
“Seriously?” Cassian barked, though there was an unmistakable amusement in his eyes. “I’m starting to think you have a thing for throwing sharp things at my head.”
“You’ve done that before?” Verrin gasped, but she didn’t take her eyes away from Cassian. While his eyes shown with amusement, they quickly shuddered and switched over to caution once he saw the gleam in her eyes. The one she always got when she was ready to attack.
“Leave now,” she said, her voice icy and cool. The tone in her voice was enough to make Father falter a step back.
Cassian held his hands up in surrender, standing slowly. “I didn’t mean—”
“Leave my house now before I make you,” she hissed, a sound that made Mother flinch. She felt guilt and shame, but that was nothing compared to her anger.
Father was good, and he never got into unwarranted fights. He just needed time to adjust to the idea of her holding power. He wasn’t going to do anything, and she knew that. Cassian was being a damned fool for not assessing the situation more thoroughly before he acted.
“With what?” he teased, but she could see the dangerous line he was walking. He was calculating whether he should listen to her and leave or if he should just try to defuse the situation.
She blindly reached into the flower pot beside her and pulled out a dagger, one of Verrin’s old ones from when he was just training. Before he ever completed the Blood Rite.
He blinked. “Oh,” he breathed, eyebrows raising a fraction as he started to back down the hallway toward the back door. She followed, walking past her father, not even glancing over at him, and yanked her dagger from the wall and sheathed it, still gripping the old dagger tight in her fist.
“I’ll be back in the morning,” he said, grabbing onto the doorknob, his eyes flicking between her eyes and the two daggers. “We’ll fly half of the way back, then he’ll winnow us the rest of the way.”
She nodded and pointed toward the door. She waited for him to disappear out of the back door before she dropped the dagger on the table beside her, sighing soundly.
“You have no right to speak the General like that!” Father growled and she turned to look straight into his eyes. She lifted her chin, not letting her eyes stray to her mother or brother hovering in the archway as fear started to churn in her gut.
“I am a general and his equal, I will speak to him as I please,” she said simply and turned to leave up the stairs, going away to hide away in her room.
Verrin came to her room twenty minutes later, a tray of tea in his hands. He said Mother wouldn’t let him leave that kitchen until she finished making the tea and that he had to make sure Esophina had at least one cup.
It comforted her to know that Mother was still caring and acting like the protective mother she was even after she saw her daughter throw a dagger at the General’s head and speak back to her father. It was all things she wouldn’t have dared to do a couple of months earlier. Things that she’d always wanted to do, but didn’t for fear of getting in trouble.
“What happened the last time you threw a dagger at General Cassian’s head?” Verrin asked, sitting down on the end of her bed, looking at the dagger strapped to her thigh, his eyebrows raised.
She folded her knees up to her chest, feeling the coldness of the wall up against her back and the soft quilt beneath her fingers.
“I just learned of why the revolt ended,” —Verrin winced, and she had to stop herself from mirroring it— “ and I told him not to move. He moved,” she said, and he broke out in a smile. He’d made that mistake once before of not taking heed of her threats when she made them. He always took her deadly serious after that.
She breathed in deep, taking in the scent of home. The fresh herbal scent of the incense Mother always had burning in the house. The underlying smell and caress of spices from the meals she always took so much pride in making.
“You’re a commander now,” she said, dragging herself out of her memories to look at Verrin and his untamed hair. He grinned. “I’m surprised you don’t have a place of your own and a lovely wife who loves sewing little sayings on pillowcases.”
He gaped, shifting on the bed to sit cross-legged. “I’m here because Father won’t let me leave, first off. I don’t have a wife because I don’t want just any female.”
Esophina narrowed her eyes, the corner of her lips pulling into a smile. “Hopefully you don’t have to wait centuries like Commander Leorin did,” He snorted at that, and she moved to be kneeling. His smile faded and he tilted his head, his eyebrows raising.
“I don’t like that face,” he said quietly, she pursed her lips and he sighed, rolling his eyes. “Alright, what do you want?”
She grinned and explained what she wanted and he stilled, his mouth opening and closing.
“You sure?” he finally asked, standing up from her bed, and she nodded. She’d been thinking it over for the last two weeks and had already made up her mind, there was no way she was going back now.
Esophina looked at the tattoo in the mirror and grinned.
It hurt like a bitch, but it was perfect.
It was a band of black around her bicep, the whorls and designs writing out a mantra that kept finding its way into her mind no matter the hour or day: “Dedication and perseverance,” nestled into the long, winding words, “As soft as a sheep, as vicious as a wolf.”
Verrin had worked on it for the last five hours and said that it should’ve taken a week of work, but she didn’t have a week, so he’d set aside caution and went full-on. Which ended up making it hurt far, far more than it was supposed to. But she didn’t care.
If it weren’t for the fact that Verrin had taught her the looping Illyrian language a long while ago, she would’ve just thought he made a nice design.
“Father and Mother are going to kill both of us if they ever find out,” Verrin whispered, quietly rolling the needles and magicked ink away into a white cloth.
“I know. That’s why we won’t tell them,” she said, not taking her eyes off of the mirror and her tattoo. It would last for centuries, millennia, thanks to the special magicked ink created for the main purpose of lasting. She would have to keep it hidden, and it would be easy enough except for when she trained with Cassian. When she would wear a short-sleeve black top that would no doubt show the band of black ink.
Hopefully, he wouldn’t find it disrespectful that she got a tattoo in the Illyrian language. She hadn’t gone through the Blood Rite and doubted she would any time soon. That was still far, far off, and she wasn’t going to wait another century for this.
“With that tattoo, I almost think you’re threatening me,” he said, and she snorted, turning away from the mirror to climb onto her bed, pushing under the heavy quilted blankets.
“It can be,” she said, looking at him. He saluted her as he grabbed onto the doorknob, giving her a warm, wide smile.
“I’ll see you in the morning, sister,” he said, pulling the door open. “Try not to get into any more trouble while I’m asleep.”
“Esophina! This is starting to get embarrassing,” Cassian’s voice came floating into her room from downstairs.
She practically rolled out of bed, careful not to put too much pressure on her arm, and looked out her window. There was a faint glow of sun, showing that it had to be at least eight, if not later.
He was right, sleeping in this much was embarrassing, but she had the excuse that she was up late getting tattooed. Though that wouldn’t go through well with Father or Mother, so it was probably just easier to take the hit and make up for it.
She quickly got dressed in yesterday’s clothes, taking a moment’s break to strap the sheath to her thigh. She started down the stairs, slipping her dagger into the sheath with a snap.
“What were you doing all night?” Cassian asked, standing by the front door, though it was clear by the mud trailing across the floor that he had come in through the back door.
In the back of her mind, she had half a thought that she would have to clean it later. But then she remembered she no longer lived here, that wouldn’t be her problem.
“Hanging out with my brother,” she said, her voice trailing off when she saw her mother in the kitchen.
Mother was at the counter, cleaning the dishes like she always did, but her wings—oh Mother save her soul—her wings. Those two hard, vicious lines. The light fleshy lines were clean, showing that there was no struggle. She had willingly accepted it. She hadn’t even moved while they did it.
“Come on,” Cassian said softly, stepping in front of her so she could no longer see her mother and her beautiful, delicate wings marred for life. She saw the deep sorrow in his eyes, felt part of her react to that. “Before you decided to kill someone,”
“Too late,” she said, her voice nearly non-existent, but Cassian heard it nonetheless. He reached out and rested a hand on her shoulder and she felt the warmth of his hand seep through her clothes. It softened some of her anger, but it didn’t change the fact that she wanted to walk out that front door and tackle the first male she saw and get some sort of revenge.
“I’ll meet you outside. I need a moment to speak with my mother,” she said, looking over Cassian’s shoulder at Mother who had turned away from the counter.
Father was nowhere in sight and Verrin was lounging in the living room, his nose in a book, not paying attention to what was happening. At least not overt attention, which was a start.
He nodded, taking his hand back with reluctance, and said, “Try not to take all day, I don’t want to have to train in the middle of the afternoon.” After a confirming nod from her, he turned and walked out of the back door. She knew it would be hard for him to stay even semi-hidden, so she would need to hurry.
Mother took a step forward, opening her mouth and closing it. Esophina knew what she was trying to say: I’m sorry. I had to do it so you can keep training.
“I will make it so that no female has to worry about getting their wings clipped. I will keep trying and working toward a world where females could fight with the males without worry for prejudice.” Esophina said, fighting to keep her voice even. “I will work and fight until I breathe my last breath and beyond. Your sacrifice will not be in vain, I can promise you that.”
Mother smiled sadly, tears streaming down her cheeks. She came forward and took Esophina in her arms, squeezing tight.
“I am so, so, proud of you, my rose,” she whispered, her voice shaking with tears and pride. “Father is, too, he’s just shocked and he’s dealing with it in the only way he knows how: training. He says he will happily assist you in any way once you start training the females. He’ll even host sessions, if that’s what you need,”
Esophina swallowed her tears. She couldn’t cry in front of her mother, not now, not after everything. Not with the strength Mother was showing.
“Now hurry and go before I decide to keep you,” Mother said, stepping back wiping her tears away with the back of her hand. She was smiling, wider than she had ever seen. “Good luck,”
Esophina turned and left out of the back door before the force of her emotions could get the best of her. But it was no use, she broke out into sobs as soon as she closed the door behind her, and Cassian was instantly there.
He put a steady hand on her back and guided her into an alley, where she completely shattered, her whole body shaking with the force of her sobs. He leaned his back against the wooden wall behind them and looped his other arm around the back of her neck, pulling her close to him.
She tasted the salt of her tears and felt the corded muscles of his arm beneath her hand.
The world was shattering around her and he was her only tether. He was the only thing that kept her grounded in a tidal wave of her emotions.
“What happened?” he whispered, rocking her gently as her tears slowly started to ebb.
“Nothing,” she whispered, her voice a ghost. She leaned her head against his chest, listening to the beat of his heart; breathing in his scent, letting it soothe her. “Everything is just…” She choked, another sob breaking its way free. “The reality of it all is just setting in. This is really happening. This is who I am now, and it’s… I feel… I feel like I can actually do something and make a change and it’s the scariest fucking thing.”
He just pulled her in tighter, pressing a kiss to the top of her head. “I know,” he said onto her hair, the simple truth of it somehow comforting her.
She’d taken most of the money out of her bank account two days earlier to make the first payment on a cozy little apartment a couple of blocks away from the Sidra and a short walk away from all of her favorite places. She’d just gotten the key yesterday, and to celebrate it all, she’d gone shopping for a whole new outfit and collection of jewels.
She had spent a good three hours walking around the Palace of Thread and Jewels, going to all sorts of jewelry stores. Then took another couple of hours in cute boutiques looking over many different types and styles dresses, trying to find one that she wouldn’t mind wearing, and ended up finding the absolute perfect dress.
It was nothing like the weighty, constricting things she was used to. The seamstress had said the cobalt material brought out her blue eyes, and she couldn’t agree more. The cut was everything she desired: a neckline that didn’t go too deep but just deep enough that she had room to display the beautiful golden chain she had bought. Sleeves just long enough to keep her tattoo hidden. And a skirt that just barely brushed against the ground so that she could wear any type of shoe—even her leather boots—and not have them be seen by anyone.
Mor had squealed when Esophina asked for help with her hair and makeup. She took no time gathering up supplies and was in the main room of Esophina’s bare-bones apartment within ten minutes, grinning ear-to-ear.
She sat Esophina down at the desk, the only place other than the couch where she could sit, and started on her makeup. Mor added powders and rouges, often glancing over to the dress that was laid out on the creamy white couch, the material like a waterfall.
“You must tell me where you got the dress,” Mor said for the thousandth time, adding a creamy red rouge to Esophina’s cheeks.
“Later,” she said, trying not to smile as Mor came close and started to add kohl around her eyes. She’d done so before, but it was apparently not dark enough for her likings. “I can’t have my friend disappearing on me to order a dress quite yet. I still need you to help me pick out the jewelry.”
Mor beamed, stepping away to admire her work. She was beautiful, dressed in a gorgeous emerald-green dress, bits of jade sewn into the mesh-like material, making it shimmer with her every move.
“So what’s the plan?” Mor asked, gesturing for Esophina to stand up. “Want to start with lunch and end at midnight after a night of partying? Or, we could just go and walk around and look good. I’m up for either one,”
“Let’s go with both, because why not go all the way?” Mor clapped her hands together, picking the dress up from the couch and held it out for Esophina.
“I love the way you’re thinking,” she said, grinning. Cassian had been right when he said Mor would spend the whole day shopping and partying if she had a friend to do it with.
“Now hurry and get that dress on so we can get going.”
Esophina smiled, pushing down the dull ache in her heart that surged for a hold at Mor’s words. It was so much like Mother that, for a moment, Esophina could see her standing there in the middle of the room, a pride-filled smile on her lips.
She shook the thought away and entered the empty bedroom to get changed.
It had been a week now since she last saw her mother. She should be getting over it by now, not seeing her in everyone and everything. Even when she had been shopping for the dress she could practically feel her mother there too, ecstatic at all the different types and colors of fits.
The dress fit perfectly thanks to the tailoring the seamstress had done for free. For the new member of the High Lord’s family, she’d said. The idea wasn’t as terrifying as it had weeks ago. This place was starting to feel like home. A piece of her was home here, nestled amongst the beauty and extravagance of the city. And that piece, no matter where life may take her, would always feel welcomed and embraced by the sight of the mirthful people wandering the streets.
Esophina joined Mor back in the main room. She was looking over the array of jewelry on the table in front of her, head tilted in thought, eyes running over the shining items.
There was a long golden chain that, no matter what Mor said, she was going to wear.
Mor looked up, and her face lit up. “That dress is amazing. It’ll be hard for me not to get the same one,” she said, and came up to Esophina, untying the pieces of cloth in her hair and taking them out, letting the loose curls come loose. The curls shortened the length of her hair, making it so that it barely brushed up against her shoulders.
“I’m warning you, my hair only stays curled for a couple of hours,” Esophina said, walking over to the table of jewelry, the swishing of the dress around her legs both familiar and foreign. She hadn’t worn a dress for…months, and it felt amazing to wear one like this. It made her more confident and genuinely excited to go out and flaunt her new clothes and jewels.
“A couple of hours is all that matters,” Mor said, coming to the table to look over the accessories once again. She pushed two golden rings toward Esophina then a pair of diamond earrings, followed by that drooping golden necklace.
It was the first thing she put on and didn’t object when Mor came in to help adjust it. Esophina knew that if she were to show any sign of not wanting help, she would step away. But she hardly knew the first thing when it came to getting all dressed up in jewels and makeup and dresses.
Esophina picked up the rings, putting one of them beside the diamond one that was always there, and put the other ring on her bare hand. She slipped the earrings on blindly and walked over to the bathroom, Mor calling after her that she would borrow one of the silver bracelets.
At first, she’d thought her reflection was a painting and was immensely shocked when she remembered it wasn’t.
Her skin was smooth and perfect, though that was nothing new. The kohl around her eyes helped to make the round shape look far more almond-shaped. With the amount of rouge Mor had applied, she expected her cheeks to be blazing red, but it was just a small, creeping blush, bringing health to her face. And her lips that she didn’t even remember Mor applying any makeup to, was painted a brilliant red.
Never before had she seen herself and thought she was beautiful, but dreams were coming true, and she looked like some old god made anew.
She took in a deep breath, dusting off her gown, and stepped out of the bathroom, ready to face the world. If only Mother could see her now, in this wonderful dress, wearing fine jewelry, ready to go out to spend the day with her first-ever girl friend.
Mor and Esophina stepped out of the sea-side restaurant’s front door, the sun hitting their faces. The mid-afternoon air was warm, and she could hardly imagine the fact that they had sat there for two hours, talking over a glass of deliciously spiced wine. Wine that got her slightly tipsy, a faint fog settling over her senses.
She didn’t mind, though, because today she was going to let loose.
She and Mor would spend the next couple of hours wandering around, relaxing, doing whatever people without a care in the world did. Then, once night was here, they would go jump from bar to bar, dance club to dance club until they could no longer feel their feet.
“Mor!” a voice called—Cassian. Both she and Mor turned to face the voice, to see Cassian jogging down the street toward them, the scales of his black leather armor flashing in the light.
He paused before them, his eyes going straight to Esophina. His eyes ran over the planes of her face, snagging on her lips, then his gaze drifted down to her dress and the curves it helped accentuate. It didn’t feel strange—him looking over her like this. If any other male had done it, she would’ve been disgusted, but he did it in a way that didn’t feel invasive or expecting.
“I didn’t recognize you,” he said, surprise flashing in his eyes. She snorted then broke off with a laugh at the way his eyes widened.
“That’s one of my favorites,” she murmured, and Mor’s eyebrows rose. “Of course that’s beneath ‘You look beautiful today,’ and my all-time favorite ‘It’s been wonderful to see you today,’ ”
Mor nodded, a slight smile on her lips, as she realized what Esophina was getting at. She cast a long glance at Cassian before she looked back at Esophina. “She’s right, you know,”
Cassian held a hand to his chest, bowing his head. “I apologize,” he said, smiling as he looked back up at her. There was nothing but amusement in his eyes. “You always look beautiful, but you look absolutely ravishing in that dress.” Red bloomed on her cheeks. “It’s always a delight to see you, but I have no idea how to fix the first one.”
Esophina blinked, then brought a hand up to her hair, then frowned when she realized there were hardly any curls left in her hair. Cassian watched her, his eyebrows raised in curiosity.
“She had a glass of wine,” Mor explained, putting a hand on Esophina’s shoulder.
“It was good wine,” Esophina said, composing herself once more, dropping her hand away from her hair.
Cassian said, “You’ve never had wine before,”
“It was a good first wine,” she amended, holding her hand out to him. “Do you want you to join us?” she asked, and did her best not to laugh at the surprise that flashed in his eyes.
“I would love to,” he said, taking her hand and folding it into the crook of his elbow. The genuine gleam in his eyes made her glance twice, worried that she’d misinterpreted it. But no—he was looking down at her with a force of emotions that was nearly impossible to comprehend. “Though I would like to ask exactly what I am joining in on.”
“Oh, we’re just hanging out,” Mor said, then gestured to Esophina. “Nina is celebrating so she bought a dress and let me do her makeup. Now, we’re going to hang out and party until we can’t anymore.”
“Celebrating what, exactly?” Cassian asked as they started down the street once again, her shoes nearly silent on the flagstones. Just because she was a little tipsy didn’t mean she shouldn’t focus on keeping her steps light.
“I bought an apartment,” she said, holding her hand out in front of her, flexing her fingers to watch the light flash over the two rings. She still wasn’t used to the finery of them, though the alcohol running through her system probably heightened that. “There’s hardly any furniture and I’m sorta broke because of everything I bought, so it’s going to be another month or so before I can spend any time there.”
Cassian hummed and she let her hand fall back down to her side, running it along the soft material, sighing wistfully at the texture. She wished with all her heart that she never got used to the finery of the silk. It was so fine, and the price tag was worth it.
“Let’s go find a bakery, I want something sweet,” Mor said, taking the lead by a couple of steps, leading them through the mid-afternoon crowds.
Esophina groaned, tripping over herself as she stepped down the two wooden steps toward the beach, the wood making a hollow thudding sound beneath her. She got to the bottom of the stairs then stumbled as she sat down on the last step, leaning down to unlace her leather boots.
She chucked it off, throwing them onto the sand beside her, not caring about the sand that would wedge its way into it. She started working on the other boot, her fingers grasping at the string but finding no purchase. Her mind was so clouded she could hardly form a complete thought and she doubted that she could run even if her life depended on it.
“You look very drunk,” Cassian said from behind her and she mumbled to herself in noncommittal sounds, trying and failing to grab onto the lace.
He came down the steps and sat down beside her, his face shrouded in the darkness that the night gave them. The stars blinked and the moon shone brightly, giving them enough light to see by. The distant hum and beat of music floated out from the club behind them where Mor was still dancing and drinking, enjoying the night.
Esophina was four drinks in, her feet aching, her head pounding. She had decided to sneak away, but it seems she hadn’t been as sneaky as she thought she had been.
“Drunk,” she said like it was a foreign concept. Which it kind of was, since she’d never had this much to drink. And all she wanted was to take off her stupid boot and feel the sand between her toes.
Cassian reached forward, taking her hands gently and pulling them away from the boot. Her eyebrows narrowed and she looked up at him, the starlight playing carefully over his face. He was beautiful.
“Let me help,” he said, squeezing both of her hands between his. He released her hands, letting them drop onto her lap, then reached down to unlace her boot, his hands steady. He’d drank just as much as she had, but it was clear he held his alcohol much better than she did.
He helped ease her boot off and she groaned, feeling the warmth from the day’s sun sink into her skin. She shifted, leaning her head up against the wooden railing, the coldness of it calming her body.
It struck her for a moment that she couldn’t read the emotions in his eyes, and it made her panic.
“Your eyes,” she said absently, reaching her hand out to him. He grasped her hand, squeezing it.
“What about my eyes?” he asked, the tone making it clear he wasn’t expecting an answer. She had to look very drunk and pathetic to not be expected to answer or speak coherently. She couldn’t find a kernel in her to care, though, and she guessed that had something to do with how drunk she was.
“Your eyes say everything you’re thinking,” she said, feeling him stiffen beside her. “I don’t think anyone else can see, but I can. And now I can’t, and it’s annoying,”
The crashing of the waves lulled her, the sound like a song when paired with the beating of Cassian’s heart and the uneven pattern of his breathing. It was a miracle she had enough focus to even notice that, but it was impossible not to focus on his every move. It was practically second-nature to notice the way his breath hitched when she moved her shoulder.
She looked over at him, slowly and groggily, to see what was the matter. His eyes were pinned on her upper arm, on the tattoo that was barely peeking out from underneath the material of her sleeve. There wasn’t even enough of the swirling scrawl to be readable.
Quickly, she pulled the sleeve back down, sobering slightly. She didn’t take her other hand away from him, not wanting to break that connection because she was sure that if she did the waves would somehow wash up here to drag her away.
“You have a tattoo?” he asked, and she looked up at his eyes, trying to decipher some sort of information from them.
“Yes…” she said slowly, trying with everything she had to find some sort of tell for her to go by. The only reaction she got was a faint smile, and it made the ghost of her fear disappear. Why had she been afraid of his reaction?
“When did you get it?” he asked, and she shrugged, leaning her head against his shoulder. She hummed softly as his arm came to snake around her waist, pulling her closer.
The feeling of being this close to him just felt right. The warmth that radiated off of him wrapped around her shoulders like a blanket. Her eyes drifted closed. She was content to just fall asleep here.
“I had Verrin do it when we visited,” she said, and she wasn’t sure it was something actually coherent or just a rambling of sounds. “I thought you would be mad,” She knew that it was coherent because he stilled, but relaxed once more when his wing came out to wrap around her shoulders, surrounding her in a steady silence.
His wings did work to muffle the sounds of the outside world. The lights from the buildings and the music from the clubs were hardly even there. Instead, she was accompanied by the sound of his breaths and heartbeat.
“Why?” he asked, his voice cracking with emotions.
“I don’t know,” she whispered and twisted so she could look up at him. His eyes were already on her, and the realization of it had her stilling, his eyes drifting down to her lips.
Before she even knew what she was doing, she was surging forward, wrapping her arms around the back of his neck and pulling him down, bringing her lips to his. He stole her breath, sucking it right out of her lungs, as he returned the kiss in full force.
It was better than the feeling of warm sun on her wings or the peacefulness of a night working by a fire. It was better than her and Verrin sneaking off for a long late-night flight or the seasonal bread Mother would make every year for Solstice.
The kiss was everything good and more. Just with one press of their lips, one shared breath, it felt like a distant wish was finally being granted without even knowing she had been wishing for it.
He was pulling away from her merely seconds later, though it felt like it had been years of that bliss. There was nothing but yearning in his eyes as he looked down at her and she wanted nothing more than to kiss him again, feel him, taste him.
“You need to sleep, Nina. Not kiss,” he said, his voice rough. She sighed, nestling her head into the crook of his neck, breathing in the scent of his skin, too tired to argue. She hummed softly, swaying to a distant tune. He swayed with her, holding his arms around her.
“Too bad,” she whispered, earning a laugh from him that rumbled through her body. She soon fell asleep in his arms, and when she roused a couple of hours later, she was back in her bed at the House of Wind.
I have ideas for the story for far, far down the line. Like to the point where, if it was a real book, there would a second one. But I have no idea how to get there, and at this moment in time, I have two more chapters written.
Plus it would involve doing some… not so nice things to Esophina and I tear up every time I think about it. So that might not even become “canon” because she’s my baby and I don’t want to hurt her, but at the same time, she lives in the Night Court so things happen and some sacrifices must be made.
Being a book mom is hard, send help.
Esophina let a steady breath out of her nose as she pushed forward, the long Illyrian blade in her hand slicing through the air effortlessly. Cassian dodged just in time for it to fly over his head, the shining metal briefly grazing over the top of his hair.
He was up again not a heartbeat later, his hand snapping out to grab onto her wrist. He twisted it and she released the blade at the pain that sparked before he threw her to the ground, a gasp being forcefully pushed out of her lungs in a whoosh.
“You were right,” Cassian said, not winded at all—that bastard—holding her hands above her head with a firm grip, “you can’t fight for shit when you have a headache.”
She frowned, narrowing her eyes. “And?” she urged, seeing the knowing glint in his eyes that normally meant he was going to lecture her on something.
“We need to change that. You need to be able to focus and fight in any condition.” He lifted himself off of her, holding a hand out to help her up. She grabbed onto his hand, his calluses rubbing up against hers, and he pulled her to her feet. He walked over to the old, battered wooden table on the side of the courtyard, a jug of water and two cups sitting on top of it.
“Yeah, but not during a hangover,” she groaned, following him over to the table. He took the jug and poured the icy and cold water into the two cups. She didn’t know how they did it, but somehow the jug was magicked so that it would keep cold no matter how long it was left in the bright late-summer sun.
Every brush of wind prickled her skin, every slight sound or touch sent a dull throb of pain through her head. If it weren’t for the fact that Cassian had practically dragged her out of her bed with promises of a calm rest of the day, she would still be all cozied up in her bed, the blankets wrapped snuggly around her, laying happily in the dark.
“Especially during hangovers,” he said, taking a long gulp of the water as she did, the cold liquid pushing aside her headache. “Someone hears you had a long night and were drunk. The next morning, they know you will have a hangover and will take that as a time when you’re vulnerable and will try to attack. You must never be vulnerable if you can help it,”
“I can’t help it when it feels like my mind is going to blow up,” she said, emphasizing how quiet she spoke, taking another long drink of the water.
“Sorry,” he whispered, and she smiled, coughing a laugh which only spurred on her headache more, but it was worth it to see his smile. He was silent for a little while longer, then he spoke, “Do you remember last night?”
She blushed as her answer, closing her eyes as the memories resurfaced. She could remember, underneath a strong haze, the dimly-lit club and rounds of drinks, then the cool air against her face and the sand between her toes. The only thing she could remember clearly was the electric feeling of their kiss and how it felt like her very soul responded to it.
“I remember enough, the important stuff,” she said, opening her eyes to find his whole attention on her. It wasn’t so jarring now that it had been a week ago, or even last night.
That kiss changed a lot between them, even if none of their normal day-to-day actions had changed.
“What does your tattoo say?” he asked, glancing down to her arm and the tattoo that was hidden underneath the thin, breathable sleeves of her black training top.
She pulled up her sleeve to show the band of the whorling black tattoo and averted her eyes to the rocky ground as he looked over it, taking in deep breaths to get rid of her panic. It obeyed quickly, dissipating into nothingness.
He hummed. “What’s it for?”
“It’s a warning,” she said, reaching up to pull the sleeve back down to cover it. She was okay with him seeing it, but she didn’t want just anyone waltzing in here and looking at it. She didn’t know how anyone else would react and didn’t trust them enough to keep whatever emotion roaring through them contained.
Cassian, though, would never react harshly, and he’d proved himself time and time again that it was true.
“For who?” Cassian asked, taking a slow step toward her like he was gravitated to her. Like she was the sun and he was the planets that revolved around it and there was no choice but to obey.
“For whoever can read it,” she said, bringing the porcelain cup to her lips, using it to hide the smile that had tugged at her lips at the words and images the words brought up.
She could imagine herself at the sparring rings at Windhaven, a group of ready females in front of her, the tattoo prominent against her pale skin. The males passing would see it and feel a creeping fear, scared that any moment she would spin around and target them, deciding that they were a threat to her girls or her mission. It was frightening, the thought that she could hold that much power, but it also gave her hope. Hope that she may become someone, a name that is heard and known across Prythian.
She wasn’t even aware that it had been a warning until she said it. Now it felt like it could be nothing other than that. A motivating reminder to herself and a warning call to any Illyrian males who laid their eyes on it.
“I’m a genius,” she whispered, the sound barely audible, though it was clear he had heard it at the amusement that flared in his eyes. It was all she could do to not be consumed by the blush that burned on her cheeks.
“You’re only a genius if you can fight during a hangover,” he said and she frowned, glancing down at her cup that was still half-full of water. She swirled it then jerked it, the water splashing all over his face. He sputtered, his jaw falling open, holding his palms out like they would give them the answer of why she’d done it.
She grinned in triumph, her smile only widening when he shook his hair, the droplets that had landed there spraying all over her face. Throwing her hands up to cover her face, she stumbled back a step and tripped over her own feet. Her wings flared out to stop her from falling, but it did nothing but slow her descent. She dropped to the ground, falling flat on her ass.
“You are a bastard,” she barked, though she was laughing uncontrollably, even when she wanted to keep a straight face.
He crouched down in front of her, a joy-filled grin on his face. “Technically I am, yes,” he said, and she laughed even harder, holding a hand in front of her mouth to try and silence it. Her whole body was shaking with the force of it and she was struggling not to fall over on her side.
She didn’t even know why she was laughing so hard, but she blamed it on some sort of alcohol still in her system, at least that’s what she wanted to believe because the alternative was far worse.
“Ready to continue training?” he asked once her laughs had subsided. She smiled, leaning forward to press a kiss on his cheek, the skin beneath her lips soft. It was strange to show this sort of affection when they weren’t in the shadows of an alley or shrouded in the dim starlight.
When she pulled away, Cassian’s features had softened, his eyes holding a sort of adoration that made her forget for a moment where they were. She wanted to take her arms and wrap them around his neck, pulling him down into a kiss that would last far longer than the whisper of one they had last night.
“That was lovely, really,” he said, his voice husky, “but that won’t change the fact that we need to train.”
She raised her eyebrows, opening and closing her mouth, her lips moving before her mind could catch up. “Okay, but only if you promise to help me with something.”
He tilted his head, leaning in closer to her. “You keep making me promise things. I’m hoping this one doesn’t come along with a death threat.” She pursed her lips to suppress her smile.
“It doesn’t,” she said and he nodded, raising his eyebrows as if to say he was ready. “I want to have a meeting, with Rhys and Azriel at least, to figure out what we can do to protect those two females.” His eyes flared, curiosity spiking. “They are both unclipped, both willing to train, and, according to you, both show the signs of females that could be good warriors. If we miss out on them or something happens, we could get set back a decade. We need to get a foothold in there now before the commanders get too comfortable. Let them get comfortable with a new normal—those two females training, and only them. Can’t push too much at once,”
He was silent, contemplating, for a moment, his eyes in a far-off place he went to when he was calculating. He hummed, tapping a finger on his leg.
“That could work,” he said, his voice distant. “Your brother and father are well-respected, right?”
She shrugged. “They were, I’m not so sure anymore,” she said, following his train of thought, reading it on his face before he even knew what he was thinking.
“We can get them to set up some sort of ring of guards to look after the two females, with some help from Azriel and one or two of his spies.” His words were a train of his thoughts, forming into a plan as they fell out of his lips. “You can make an appearance as the female’s trainer, visiting for only five minutes a week, ease them into the idea of you being in power. Then, before they know it, you are there twice or three times a week for hours at a time, training the two females to become the first soldiers of your army.”
The pure awe in his voice had her smiling, the thought of it being for her almost too much to handle. He reached out and grabbed her hand, bringing up to his lips. “You are brilliant, Nina,” he spoke into her knuckles, pressing another kiss to them as he stood, helping her up along with him. “I’ll get you that meeting, and you’ll own it. I just know it,”
The flare of embarrassment that normally came from being complimented like that was nowhere to be found, instead, she felt pride. In herself, in what she was working toward and the goal that didn’t seem so far anymore now that she had Cassian to go over it with.
The meeting went far better than she had expected.
Rhysand was quick to agree to her plan and instantly had Azriel reaching out to contact Verrin and see what he could do to gather a group of males that would agree to keep an eye out on the two females. Then they drafted up a schedule for when she would visit, for how long, who would accompany her, and where exactly she would be going so that Azriel could set up spies to help keep her safe.
At first, she had been excited, nearly jumping out of her seat, but then her first appearance was planned for the end of next week. Even though she said they should get a foothold in the Windhaven camp as soon as possible, she hadn’t expected it to be this soon.
Cassian had sensed her panic and told her that they would only be there for five minutes at most, less if something happened. But that still didn’t stop her from panicking.
She could hardly focus on anything for that whole week. Cassian beat her in every sparring match, her arrows always landed off-course and she rarely slept. On the last night, though, Cassian had come and knocked on her door.
She was sitting in front of the fireplace like she always did, but she couldn’t for the life of her focus on the book laying open in front of her. Her mind was jumping from thought to thought, scenes popping up in her mind of how everything would go downhill. Both she and Cassian would be distracted, giving someone an opening to throw a dagger into the side of her head that would kill her instantly. Someone would decide to start a riot and there would be another revolt, one that wouldn’t end as easily as the last one did
“You’re thinking too hard, deary,” His voice was breezy, but she could hear the tight, concerned undertone. He was careful as he stepped around her wings, making sure not to step on them from where they lay spread out behind her, then sat down beside her, holding his wings tight behind his back.
His alluring scent of myrrh and pine wrapped around her, the calming caress of it helping push away the worst of the panic. Still, she couldn’t push away the nagging thoughts that had her thinking the worst.
“I’m not,” she lied. “I am just being cautious.” She knew he didn’t believe her, but she liked him even more for the fact that he pretended she wasn’t.
“How about I be cautious for you?” he asked, reaching his arm out to wrap around her shoulder, pulling her near him. She didn’t even try to resist, she didn’t want to. She used the feeling of his muscled body beside her to ground her mind, bringing it back down from the clouds. Right now, she was safe. Right now, he was here protecting her.
“What if something happens? What if you get hurt, what do I do then?” she asked, her throat tightening with emotion. She squeezed her eyes closed, not giving tears time to form.
He exhaled, his chest deflating, and he pulled her closer. “If something happens at all. If there’s any sign someone is going to try to kill you, Azriel will be right there to deal with it. Nothing will happen to either of us, I promise,”
She let the words settle in, let herself take them as true. He couldn’t be sure about that. He couldn’t know that nothing would happen, that they wouldn’t get hurt.
“I never make promises I can’t keep,” he said softly, his wings rustling as they came out to wrap around her shoulder. She sighed slowly, feeling the way her muscles and bones relaxed. She was exhausted and wanted to do nothing other than fall asleep, but the whispering and taunting in her mind wouldn’t let her.
“Look,” he whispered, taking her right hand in his and lifting it. Confused, she opened her eyes and immediately looked to the sparkling diamond ring. It seemed like it had its own light source with the way the golden light of the flame danced over it. “You said it was a reminder that you’re not married to Leorin. Instead, you’re here, and you have a job. You’re a general and you have power. You don’t have to hide anymore, and as soon as you show them how serious you are and how little shit you will take, they won’t even fathom attacking you.”
“Really?” she asked, blinking slowly as the anxiety started to fade away, exhaustion taking over. He dropped their hands back down, but he didn’t let go.
“You’ll have to fight a couple of males to show your dominance, but once that’s done, you just have to take their respect. Even if it comes from fear,” he said, and she closed her eyes, unable to keep her eyelids open anymore. It felt like someone had attached weights to them.
“Fear from those who oppose me, love and respect from those who I protect,” she whispered, mostly to herself. He hummed, kissing the top of her head. “I was never afraid of you,” she said, taking his silence as a cue to continue. “I was hesitant and wary of how you would react or what you would do, but never scared.”
He didn’t say anything else, and she didn’t need him to. She was contented enough in the silence. Soon, she was asleep and didn’t ignore the fact that she always fell asleep quicker when in his arms.
Esophina kept her mind on the current playing against her wings and the wind tousling her hair, not the leathers that fit perfectly or the half-dozen blades strapped to her.
Rhysand had said she needed to look the part of menacing and deadly. Looking the part was as important as actually playing it. She’d had no choice but to don the Illyrian fighting leathers and weapons, though in some deeply hidden part of her mind, she loved it.
Cassian looked over at her and caught her eye, nodding once and waiting for her responding nod before he looked forward once more, preparing to land.
Five minutes or less, that was it. Azriel was already lurking in the shadows around the camp, the High Lord not far from his side. There were so many fail-safes in place that it would be a wonder if something bad actually happened. Still, that didn’t stop her nerves from rising, making their home in her gut, wrenching it until she felt the need to vomit.
Cassian dived down toward the floor of trees, taking the lead, and she followed. Soon, they were leveling out and flying straight toward the large mouth of the cave, faint silhouettes of winged figures passing in front of it, the sunlight glistening on their wings.
She knew the second the booming of their wings became audible in the camp because males and females were pausing, looking over. Curious, scared, amused. It was impossible to tell, even as they landed silently.
Just like Cassian had said would happen, males looked over, lifted their chins and turned, walking away. Others stayed hovering around, their eyes burning into Esophina’s head, dismissing Cassian instantly. She made herself square her shoulders and lift her chin.
It was just another mask. She made sure her body remained loose, relaxed, even as her mind screamed at her to guard herself. This was guarding herself: seeming carefree and confident in her abilities.
Doing the next step in their plan, Cassian gestured to her, and said, loud and clear, “General Esophina and I will be visiting for a couple of minutes, don’t upset her, she’s in a mood.”
Whispers immediately erupted over the crowds, disgusted and awed. Male’s eyes wandered over her, assessing her as a threat, their eyes lingering on the tattoo they had made sure was visible. Rhysand had said, when she showed him reluctantly, that it was one hell of a threat and warning. No smart male would underestimate her after they read it.
She just hoped he was right.
The Cassian she turned to was not the Cassian she knew. His stoic face was hard and his eyes were calculating. The features of General Cassian, warrior, and killer. Not the genuine and kind male she knew. He nodded at her, telling her it was safe to continue.
So she took the lead, her steps sure and steady, confidence finding its way into her body, her bones, as the seconds progressed. Males swore as she passed, calling her a whore and much, much fouler things, but she didn’t let any of them hit their mark.
They were just unwilling to accept that she had bested one of their commanders and was now in a role much higher than they could ever dream of.
“General,” a voice came—Damon, one of Verrin’s closest friends that had agreed to be weaved into their wild plan. He had the same rough features Cassian did, and a long, vicious scar slashed down his cheek. He’d gotten it during the Rite and displayed it as a mark of glory.
“Yes?” she said, turning her attention to him, keeping herself from bowing her head or averting her eyes at his long stare. He bowed his head and she made sure the surprise didn’t show on her face. She knew he was going to do it, but she still hadn’t expected it would feel like that.
“We have two females waiting to meet you if you have the time for it, ma’am,” he said, lowering his head in a bow once again.
“I’m sure I could make the time for it,” she said, like agreeing to meet with the females was the last thing she wanted to do instead of it being the sole reason why she was here.
He nodded, gesturing with his head in the direction that some of the training rings were—the two training rings for both the younglings and females—then started on his way. She followed him and kept her senses open, noticing how a handful of males trailed her. How others ushered their daughters and wives inside or sheltered them with their wings so they couldn’t see.
They acted as if she were a mutilated carcass, not a female wearing fighting leathers and draped in blades like they were fine jewelry.
“How are you doing?” Cassian asked in a hushed tone, hurrying his steps so he could keep pace beside her, his voice barely audible to her ears. The ones who were intent on listening in couldn’t even hear anything if they tried.
“Not so well,” she replied, looking over to him, making sure that her expression didn’t change. They could speak to each other as much as they wanted, they just had to make sure nobody heard what they said. At the concern that flashed in his eyes, she said, “But we’re here, the plan is in motion, so there’s no reason why we shouldn’t go through with it.”
He hummed, nodding. “Tell me if you need to leave,” he whispered then slowed his steps to follow behind her. To make sure she wasn’t open from behind, and to show that she had enough power to walk in front of the General. That her appearance took precedence over his.
They rounded a slight corner and the sparring rings came into view.
In the one farthest away, children that looked to be around ten to sixteen years of age trained and went through drills. The two full-grown males that were training them were dear old friends of Father’s. Ones that had owed many favors to him, who were only there semi-willingly to make sure the boys they were training got used to females training in the ring beside them.
The hope that was in a couple of decades, those dozen boys would be against clipping and all for females training, but it was estimated that half of them wouldn’t adapt to those ways due to their home life. Six was better than none, in any case.
At the ring nearest to them, three figures stood in the center of it: Verrin and the two females. They were chatting, but as soon as they got into ear-shot, all three of them turned to look at her.
Verrin bowed with all the dramatic flourish he could muster and she let her mask fall away like they’d planned. She hurried her steps and stepped over the rope barrier, pulling him into her arms. Her grin wasn’t faked, and neither was his.
“It’s good to see you again,” she said, following the script that said there was no script. They had gotten past the hardest part and now all she had to do was be herself, make some introductions, then take her leave.
“Likewise,” he said, smiling, then stepped to the side, gesturing to the first female. She was beautiful and thin, her hair a rare auburn color, faint traces of freckles speckled across her cheeks and nose. She bowed her head, green eyes flashing in the light. “This is Reyna Everice,”
“It’s an honor, ma’am,” she said, looking back up at Esophina, a glint of true awe in her eyes. She wasn’t lying, it truly did feel like an honor for her.
“There’s no need to use that sort of formality with me,” Esophina said, smiling, remembering how Cassian had said similar words to her. Reyna bowed her head again, trying her best to suppress a beaming smile.
Verrin gestured to the next girl, a girl so petite it was a wonder she was still standing, a beautifully groomed head of mousy brown hair framing her face made of sharp angles. She lowered her eyes, bowing her head. “And this is Alreah,” The fact that he didn’t say anything about her last name said enough about why she was so skinny: she was a bastard. A female bastard at that. No one could get any lower.
“Thank you for taking time out of your day to come here,” Alreah said, her voice soft and delicate, keeping her eyes on the ground.
“Thank you for coming here,” she said, then looked between both of the females, picking the script back up. “Since I currently don’t have enough free time to train you today, I’m afraid it’ll be another week before we can start.” She lowered her voice to a whisper so that only the two females could hear her. “My brother, Verrin, will take over your training until them. He trained me well, giving me exercises to go over that could be done in public without any suspicion. A note will be delivered to you within a week telling you when and where to meet him.”
They both nodded, and Reyna spoke up, her voice the same level of a whisper as Esophina’s, “Who will deliver the letters?”
“Someone that I trust,” she said, not knowing who it would be. Azriel said that he would watch Verrin’s most trusted friends and from there decide who will deliver the letters since it was too dangerous to both the females and Verrin for him to be searching them out like that. “And if either of you needs any help at all, should it be with someone wanting to hurt you or needing food to eat and a place to sleep, don’t be afraid to tell whoever delivers the messages, or find Verrin himself if you want to have a more secure source. They will get the message to me, and I will get the message to the High Lord. Our top priority is to keep both of you safe and healthy.”
“Time to get going,” Cassian whispered, low enough that only she could hear. She waited another moment, seeing the way Alreah’s eyes started to tear up, water pooling at the corner of her eyes. The poor girl had probably never had this sort of generosity.
“We three have to stick together,” she said, and Alreah surged forward, bringing Esophina into a hug. She could feel Cassian’s warning touch on her shoulder, but he took his hand away before the female could realize.
“I’m not going to disappoint you, General,” Alreah said, stepping back, tears streaming down her cheeks, a smile on her lips. Esophina remembered how she had felt, given even the slightest spark of hope for being someone.
“I look forward to seeing you two again,” Esophina said, dipping her head to them, then turned back around, letting Cassian lead her out of the camp.
She was proud of what she did today—of what she started. They had built a steady base for her to work on, and she was proud of it. The two females were excited to get started, and more than willing to start running through the training exercises Verrin had given them.
Alreah had even reached out and asked for somewhere to stay since she had no home, and Father had said he would let her stay at their home, giving her Esophina’s old room.
For some reason, this is my favorite chapter I’ve written so far. I’m noticing that sometimes Esophina isn’t in character or her emotions are jumping all over the place (I’m trying to fix it, don’t worry) and I feel like, if you need to know what’s supposed to be “in character” for her, this is it.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It was dark—so dark that she could hardly see anything. There were taunting voices floating around her, whispering so low that she couldn’t discern anything they were saying. Panic was rising in her throat, immobilizing her body.
There was a flash of darkness and the next thing she knew there was cold metal pressed up against her neck—her back, at the base of her wings. Cold, hard panic sliced through her, stealing her breath. She tried to move, to strike and escape, but the next second there was a movement, and without a doubt, she knew that her precious wings were gone.
She hadn’t just been clipped, no, that would’ve been too merciful for what she’d done. Instead, they’d completely taken her wings away so she couldn’t even have the barest semblance of hope or comfort.
Esophina awoke with a flinch, her eyes flying open. She gasped for breath, bringing a hand to her chest. The diamond in her ring glinted in the faint moonlight. She had her ring, this was real.
She sat up straight, spreading her wings out behind her, feeling the glorious ache of them as the muscles came back awake. She still had her wings. No one had taken them, no one had touched them. And no one would—she would kill anyone before they even got close enough to touch.
Her mind was heavy with the gut-wrenching dread that came with the hazy memory of her nightmare. Her eyelids kept drooping and she could hardly stay conscious any longer.
When she laid her head back down on the cool pillow, she was out within milliseconds. Though she didn’t stay asleep for long, because the nightmare continued right from where she left off. She was lying in cold mud, and she knew the stubs where her wings had been were infected. She was going to die. She was going to die and she didn’t even have the presence of her wings to comfort her.
This time when she woke up, it was slow and groggy, and all she wanted to do was close her eyes once again. But she wouldn’t because that nightmare was horrid and rotting. It would eat her alive if she fell asleep once more, and she was panicking enough as it was.
She forced her eyes to stay open even as they stung, and sat up, cradling her head in her hands. Slowly, she rocked back and forth, trying to forget the nightmare and why she’d had it.
She tried to ignore the real fear that bubbled in her chest: that all she was doing with training the females and establishing herself in Windhaven was for naught. That as soon as she started to pose a real threat, someone would crawl out of the shadows and take her. Kill her. Make sure she’s no longer a threat.
No—this thought process wouldn’t get her anywhere. She was here at the House of Wind, Cassian merely rooms away, and he wouldn’t let any harm come to her. She could trust him with that, at least.
Crawling out of her bed, she didn’t even care that the silken white sheets of her bed were tangled around her legs. They trailed behind her until she got fed up, stepping out of the sheets surrounding her, noticing that she had practically dragged all of the blankets off of the bed.
That would be easy to fix later when her mind wasn’t shrouded in fog and she could actually gather herself together enough to understand up from down.
She wandered to the bathroom and sat down on the toilet, dropping her head into her hands. She took slow, even breaths, trying to gather her thoughts and trudge out of this hazy cloud set over her every sense. The porcelain of the toilet bowl bit into the bare skin of her thigh, and she made sure she focused on it instead of the creeping thoughts that kept trying to worm their way into her mind.
The nightmare had been fake, something crafted by the darkest parts of her unconscious self made for the sole reason of tormenting her. That was all—it wasn’t real. She wasn’t going to lose her wings, no matter what happened in the upcoming years.
She had the ability to fight anyone off if they did try anything.
That’s what she needed to do: train. Go, practice some of her training exercises, return her mind to her body. Remind herself that she wasn’t helpless, and no one could touch her without her permission.
She got up and dressed in her most comfortable clothes. She didn’t care that they were sweatpants and a loose sweater. It was late at night—or very early morning—and it was bound to be a little cold, so maybe the warmer clothes were smart.
Walking down the dimly-lit halls, she made sure her steps were light and silent, holding her leather boots in her hand. Bare feet were far more silent than leather souls of boots and she didn’t want a certain someone hearing her and worrying.
She had been right, it was pretty cold. The air bushed past her neck, raising goosebumps. Looking up at the sky, she looked over the stars, counting them and recounting them, trying to push away that fog as much as she could before she started doing anything, lest she makes a wrong move and pulls a muscle.
As soon as she deemed herself aware enough to not hurt herself, she started to ease her way through stretches and training exercises. Ones that she hardly had to be consciously aware of. The ones that were second-nature and had been for a couple of years.
She didn’t even know how long she’d been out here, but what she did know was that she was sweating and had picked up an Illyrian blade somewhere along the line to work through exercises with them.
She paused, panting, her breaths coming slower and slower as she gripped the slick hilt of the blade. Blinking, she tilted her head toward the sky, watching as the sky lightened and the stars blinked out. Sunrise was near, meaning that Cassian would be waking up and coming here to have a good twenty minutes of warm-up time before she was supposed to arrive.
A breeze flitted across her sweat-slick face, the coolness settling her pounding heart. Maybe having him here would help. He could remind her that she was safe, that, if she really wanted, they could back down from this plan even when he knew she would never.
The hinges on the door squeaked as it was pushed open, and she looked over to find Cassian standing in the doorway, blinking blearily at her. The watery light from inside the House haloed him and his scruffy, messed up hair and loose cotton shirt.
“You’re early,” she said, brushing the hair away from her forehead with the back of her hand.
He nodded, composing himself. “You are too, deary,” he said, and she smiled at the nickname he had taken to using for her. He stepped into the ring, closing the door behind him, and she turned to face him fully, crossing her arms in front of her chest that deflated with a breath.
Seeing him comforted her; lifted a weight off of her chest.
He noticed this shift in her behavior and the smile that had been starting to light up his face disappeared. He walked up to her, a deep sincerity in his eyes. “Why are you up so early?” he asked, a playful tone to his voice, but she could see right past it. He couldn’t hide anything from her.
She blinked, her breath hitching, and she dropped the blade, the clatter sounding around them, and she reached out to wrap her arms around him. His muscles tensed underneath her but soon relaxed, his arms came to wrap around her, holding her tight to him.
Pulling back, she went up on her toes, bringing her lips to his.
It was just as magical as the first time, maybe even more so now that she wasn’t so drunk. He was tender; yet hungry. Casual; yet passionate, wanting more but knowing that he had hundreds of years to do it. It felt like he knew exactly what she needed from him and was willing to give it.
His hand snaked up the back of her head to grab a fist full of her silky black hair, tugging it so he could angle her head for better access. Parting her lip with his tongue, he slipped it into her mouth, running it along her teeth. Searching. Exploring.
A moan sounded in the back of her throat, deep and guttural. He responded with a growl that made heat pool in her core, a gasp working its way up her throat that was quickly swallowed by his mouth.
His free hand worked down to her hips and slowly slipped it under her heavy shirt. The rough calluses on his fingers and hand sent sparks spurring through her blood as he felt her bare waist, not going any higher.
“You’re absolutely gorgeous,” he breathed between kisses, his breath hot on her face. She begrudgingly pulled away, her lips bruised a delicious red, her breath rasping in her chest, her heart beating wildly like an untamed beast against her ribcage.
She would’ve been embarrassed were it not for the fact that she could hear his ragged breathing and thumping heart. Desire burned in his eyes, fueling her need to bring him into another kiss.
“And you’re eyes are the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.” Her voice was heavy with emotion, the taste of him still lingering on her tongue.
She lifted her hand to place it on his cheek, the light stubble there brushing up against her skin. He leaned into her touch, those soft, kind eyes fluttering shut, exhaling a slow breath. His hand continued to trace shapes on her bare waist, his other hand dropping away from her hair to rest on her shoulder.
“I don’t want to ruin this moment,” he whispered, and she could hear the twinge of regret in his voice. His eyes opened once again, but he didn’t move his head even an inch away from her touch. “But how long have you been out here?”
“A couple of hours, I think,” she said, the beginnings of a smile tugging at her lips. The desire in his eyes flicked off instantly, shifting over to concern. He was a damned open book when it came to her and sometimes she wished he could keep his emotions to himself, but she also never wanted to be left in the dark.
“Since you’re already warmed up, why don’t you teach me some things?” he asked, and she quirked an eyebrow. His answering smile was wild. “I want to know what’s going on in that beautiful brain of yours when you fire those arrows and how you have such good accuracy. Maybe I could learn a couple of things,”
She snorted, taking her hand away from his face to pat his chest, feeling the hard muscles beneath her hand. Keeping her hand there, she leaned in and pressed another kiss to his lips. Short and sweet, though she wished it had been longer.
She took the offer as what it was—a way for him to see how well she was with instructing as well as a way that she could be out here training without pushing too hard. She had, after all, been working out for hours already and her muscles were weary and tired. Not to mention the fact that she had probably only gotten a few hours of sleep.
P.S. I'm really struggling with writing chapter twenty. Been at it for two hours now, and I only have 700 words. I just hope it ends up being worth it.
Esophina sat on the floor of her apartment, the wooden planks beneath her chilly to the touch. Wind rattled the windows and whistled through the cracked window in the hallway, heralding the arrival of autumn and the brisk weather that came along with it.
Cassian sat beside her, the powerful muscles in his leg pushed against hers, his wing wrapped around her shoulder to warm her, even though the fire in front of them burning and crackling in front of them was enough for it to not be needed. He pointed at the pieces of parchment in front of them, his fingers tracing the words as he read them aloud for her.
She could’ve read the plans by herself and had done so many times in the days before, but his voice soothed her nerves and kept her mind distracted from the constant chatter of fear rattling around her head.
“We’ll do twenty minutes there today so that you can get some training done with them,” he said, taking his eyes away from the paper to look up at her, his eyes holding a gentleness that made her gut clench. “Then next week, you and Rhys will pop in and say hi, just so that you don’t miss a week. Routine is the goal here,”
She nodded slowly, her eyes trailing over the planes his face, lingering on his full and enticing lips before she looked back up to his eyes. She could see that he was concerned for her in the shifting flash of his eyes, and she could understand why.
Last night when they’d gone over the plan for their visit to the Windhaven camp that they left for in an hour, she had stuttered and choked up, even though she was excited about it. She was excited to get out there once again and see those girls, get to know them and their skills and bring them up to be bright, strong warriors. But still, she was worried that someone would ambush her or it would all shatter.
“Why will Rhys be coming with me, again?” She already had the answer in the back of her mind just out of reach, but she couldn’t grab onto it. It was far too buried underneath the traces of her fear.
He tilted his head, his hair falling to the side, but the amusement that normally accompanied the gesture was nowhere in sight. He reached out a hand, taking hers in his. “The amount of time you’ll be spending there today will put them on edge. So next week, when you go back, if they want to attack, they will think more than twice about it when they see him.”
“Ah, yes, of course,” she said, smirking lightly at the humor that had found its way into her voice. He smiled, brushing a kiss against her temple with feather-light lips.
“If you’re that stressed, we can shift the schedule back. Have you only go five minutes today and do the training next week,” he said, not moving his head away from her head. His breath tickled her skin and she leaned into it, falling into his arms. He wrapped his arms around her shoulders, holding her close, his thumb brushing up against her shoulder.
“Being stressed is just inconvenient,” she muttered, the intoxicating smell of him pushing away all the fear and anxiety nibbling away at her. It was a nice reprieve, even if it would only last for so long.
“It’s not in any way inconvenient, my dear. Not for me, not for anyone. I don’t want you stressed or worried,” he said, nuzzling her hair, breathing in deeply.
His words were a reminder that, whatever this was between them, was real and precious. Just the thought that he truly cared for her made butterflies flutter in her belly, kicking up a storm of emotions that she hadn’t dared to look too closely at.
“I’m only worried now, but once I get there I’ll be fine,” she said, glancing over the papers in front of her and the elegant writing on it.
All of them had fully-fleshed plans written out on them for any slight thing that could go wrong, read and reread by all the members of the Inner Circle to make sure there were no holes in them. All to make sure that she, and the future of those females, was sure and safe.
“Just let me know, at any time, if you have a change of heart.” He said, and she hummed softly, looking over the papers, her eyes snagging on a specifically interesting one.
It was a plan for if she got ill or fainted, since that impossible outcome was somehow something important. Which it sort of was, considering that if she did faint, it would show extreme weakness. And weakness of any kind isn’t good when being stared down by dozens of egotistical Illyrian males.
“You’re my top priority, Nina. All this training and building up a group of females willing to fight means nothing if you aren’t proud of it.” The sincerity in his words was nearly painful with how much it made her gut clench.
“I am excited—and proud. Just… worried,” she whispered, her voice trailing off at the end. He didn’t need to hear any more, especially since he already knew all she was worried about.
He pressed another kiss on her hair, humming a faint tune.
Every male was watching her with hatred burning in their eyes; the females watching with a sort of cautious awe in their eyes, the barest hint of hope lighting up. Just seeing that was worth standing here, in front of both Alreah and Reyna, their eyes a burning flame of motivation and power.
Cassian hovered somewhere behind her, deep in conversation with Verrin. They were speaking about the improvements and training exercises the females had been going through, which Cassian would then relay to her.
“Keep your back straight and your eyes forward, Alreah. Look away from your opponent and you are opening yourself to getting killed,” she said to the small female, the bags that had been bruised under her eyes already lightening thanks to the long nights of sleep and full meals she was now receiving.
Alreah nodded, her spine snapping straight as if a rod had been slipped into place. Her golden-brown eyes hardened and narrowed in on a spot far in the distance.
This girl had a fire in her soul that burned and crackled without abandon. She guessed that it had something to do with her being a bastard and having no family and nothing at all to live for. This was what she lived for, what kept her going.
“Go through it one more time, then you can have a quick five-minute break.” She said, nodding quickly when they started going through the slow, paced movements of their exercises. They moved, extending their arms in a punch, then pulling them back in tight to their body. Technique and precision favored over speed.
“Tighten your core, it’ll keep you steadier,” Esophina said to Reyna, though she made sure Alreah heard it and took notice.
Reyna was far more advanced in her training, able to do everything Esophina had asked of her this training session with barely any effort at all. Her punches were smooth and graceful, full of reined-in power, kept in check by a mind melded into a sharp blade.
She heard as Cassian’s boot hit the mud behind her, and she turned to watch him step over the rope barrier. She took a step toward him as he walked up to her, a ghost of a smile flickering across his face before it was schooled once again.
Verrin gave a flashing smile to Esophina as he turned around, waved, then started down the street. He would go and circle back around behind the buildings, hiding in the shadows to observe Esophina and the females to help make sure no one was going to attack.
“Reyna,” Cassian said, his voice a hushed whisper as he came to stand beside her, “has been training for five years. Observing what the males did and repeating it in the privacy of her room to some obvious success.” His eyes didn’t stop trailing over the surrounding space, seeing everything. “Alreah’s only experience is those three training sessions, but she is ready to do whatever it takes to become a fighter.”
Esophina nodded and resisted the urge to rock on her feet. That wouldn’t seem very general-like. “I already deduced all of that,” she whispered, if only so that no one else would hear the quiver of laughter in her voice. It was out of nervousness more than anything. “They both have great potential,”
Cassian nodded, looking to the two females in question who were just finishing up with their exercise. There was such amusement in his eyes that she could tell he was trying to not burst out laughing. Then, the very next second, that amusement had guttered out.
“Nina, you need to listen to me,” he spoke lowly, quickly, leaning in to whisper. A shiver ran down her spine, sending every hair standing on edge. “To the left, sitting on the roof of the clothing store, right behind the sign. A young soldier has an arrow trained on Reyna. Will you be able to deal with it?”
Every second counted; every breath mattered. Out of the corner of her eye, she looked to the building. She couldn’t see anybody but what she could see was the faint glint of an arrowhead. Without giving herself time to think too much about it, she nodded.
Cassian made a discreet hand signal for Azriel or whoever else was in on this plan, a sign that she or the females were in immediate danger, but to not act unless it was necessary. This was part of one of their many, many plans. She could cut arrows out of the air at a ninety-nine percent accuracy, so it wouldn’t be too hard for her to deal with the threat on her own.
She was focusing on the arrowhead, triggering her every sense to narrow in on every shift and flash of the arrow as the archer prepared to fire it. Her heart was pounding in her throat and adrenaline was pulsing through her system, every one of her senses becoming sensitive to even the most slight change in her surroundings.
She took a step forward, the dirt crunching beneath her feet, moving out from where she was safe behind Cassian’s hulking form. She thumbed the longest blade she had secured to her body, her other hand gripped tightly around a dagger. This was perhaps the most high-stakes thing she’d ever done. Before only her life had been at stake, now Reyna’s life was on the line.
“Trust me,” she told Cassian, her voice hard with calculation, “I have everything under control.”
That was all she needed to say to know that absolutely no one would interfere with what about to happen.
She took another step, and the world stopped and fluttered as a twang sounded through the space, the arrow flying straight toward Reyna’s exposed back at a speed that was just slow enough to track.
It took all but a step to be in the arrow’s line of fire, and a millisecond for her to have the long blade in her hand, poised and ready. Another quick-drawn breath and the arrow was a breadth away from her chest. She had no time for panic as she raised the blade, slicing down in a quick arc, sending the arrow ricocheting to the dirt.
The camp was as silent as Death aside from the feminine screams of horror and yelps from the young boys behind her.
She was not done yet, because she still had the slim dagger in her hand. It was flying through the air before the resounding thud of the arrow could finish, sticking itself into the chest of the male who had dared to fire the arrow. He slumped forward, tipping right off of the roof, his large form dropping to the ground like a rock, his body making a horrible, sickening crunch as it landed inches away from an already shook up female. That poor, poor lady.
She was sure that the High Lord had helped the knife to find its mark and made sure that the male had fallen forward to where his dead, traitorous form could be seen by everyone. She was so very grateful because it wouldn’t have been the same show without it.
The stunned silence was like music to her ears. A symphony made from her ministrations.
She spread her arms out, her eyes taking their time gliding over the surrounding males. Their faces were leeched of color, set in hard frowns. Some, though, sparked with admiration at her show of power. Those were the males she was showing off to, not the ones with their heads stuck up their asses.
“Does anyone else want to try and touch my girls?” she asked, her voice resonating loud and clear through the cavernous space. She let her pause drag on for a moment longer, a wild and untamed smirk coaxing its way onto her lips. “Or shall we continue our nice little afternoon tea party in peace?”
Satisfied when there was no answer, the silence so heavy she could hear the wind whistling far off in the mountains, she turned her back to the crowds, facing both Reyna and Alreah. Their eyes were the size of saucers, their mouths hanging open.
“Why don’t we pick up where we left off?” she said, gesturing to the ring, forcing her wild smirk to soften into something less frightening. “Reyna, go ahead and show Alreah how to block punches aimed for the head.”
Reyna’s eyes sparked and the opportunity to show off. She nodded, quickly jumping into a conversation with Alreah, speaking in a quick, enthusiastic tone.
Esophina glanced over her shoulder to look at Cassian, his eyes shining with pride and something far deeper. That one emotion she never wanted to look too deeply at or examine for fear of what she would find and what it would mean to the both of them.
So instead of trying to decipher the weight of the emotions in his eyes, she turned back to the two females, watching as Reyna taught Alreah how to keep her arms raised so that she could block any head-shots.
The next chapter is a bit... much. It took me far too long to write it and I'm still trying to edit it into something readable. Be ready, my dudes.
Two chapters as a Valentine's day gift <3. Plus, it just makes sense to post this chapter now.
AaH tHIs cHapTEr WAs aN EXpeRIrNcE To WrIte… I HArdLY mAde It thROUgH It.
I KEeP COmiNg bAcK To tHIs wHIlE I’m WrItinG ANd oH HaLP. ThIs Is PAInFUl. YOu BeTteR eNJoy ThiS. (It legit took like five hours just to get through the nsfw part. Another hour or so to go through and edit it. I labored for y’all, you better enjoy it or I’ll come and find you.)
(I'm totally embarrassed about this, but yolo. Do it for the ship)
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Esophina exhaled, her chest deflating, as she looked up at the stars. They flickered and danced across the sky, a sparkling display of beauty and serenity. Brisk air ran over her, rustling her loose hair and tickling the delicate membrane of her wings.
The stars reached out and took her soul, cradling it in its arms, shushing and cooing at it, willing the sadness and fear to melt away.
Every time she closed her eyes she could see the faces of the Illyrian males set in disgusted frowns or fear-stricken blankness. The way they stared at her like they would either step up and crack her neck, killing her instantly, or fall to their knees, begging for any kind of mercy she could offer.
Both Cassian and Rhysand had each told her separately that after what she did, her name would start being shared around circles of drunk males of someone to look out for. Even if they didn’t fear or respect her yet, they were at least wary and cautious which was all they could ask for this soon after she made her first appearance.
There was a knock at her door, dragging her out of her thoughts. She already knew it was Cassian, because for some strange reason he always came to her room late at night.
At least he was predictable.
Groaning softly, she stood up from the settee she was sitting on and walked back into her room. She made her way to the door, making sure to step around the papers that were strewn across the floor. Everything else was in pristine condition.
“What’s with you and visiting my room so late at night?” she asked, pulling the door open to see Cassian as she always did. His hair was pulled up into a bun, near-invisible wisps handing about his face. “They’ll start thinking,”
He grinned, openly and wildly. “Who?”
She opened her mouth but nothing came out, because she had no answer. “You have a point,” she whispered, cringing, and stepped back to let him in. “Maybe I’ll start coming to your room. I could only imagine the state of it,”
He snorted and entered her room, waiting for her to push closed the door. She raised her eyebrows suggestively at him, not hiding her half-smirk as she went to sit down on her bed. Her eyes drifted back to the open balcony doors and she contemplated standing up to go and close them but decided against it. It wasn’t too cold, plus she liked the bit of a breeze it provided.
“I’m sure I could clean up my room if I knew you were coming,” he said, the slightest tilt to his lips. He joined her on the bed, sitting down silently beside her, following her gaze to the open doorway. “You were outside?”
“Being outside helps me not worry,” she said, her eyes drifting back to his. As if he’d sensed it, he looked back at her, his eyes seeming to urge her to speak more. “I can’t always have you around to help,”
His features softened, his eyes holding a tenderness that she couldn’t look away from. She felt herself gravitating toward him, leaning closer. She hadn’t even realized what was happening until their lips touched and she melted into his hold. His arm coming to snake around her waist, his touch light and tender, pulling her closer toward him. He brought his hand up to the back of her neck, pulling her closer.
She wanted to be closer to him, she needed to be closer to him. She moved to sit on his lap, straddling his legs, her hands braced up against his chest.
A low growl rumbled through his chest and up her arms. She smiled at his reaction, barely keeping her laugh in. He started kissing her with more hunger, his tongue slipping into her mouth to continue its exploration that it hadn’t been able to complete a couple of days ago.
Pulling away, he bit down on her bottom lip and she moaned, unable to control it, not wanting him to move away from her. He laughed, low and filled with male pleasure. She lowered her half-lidded eyes to his lips, wanting to kiss them once again.
Before she could act and kiss him once again, he dipped his head to the base of her neck, nipping and kissing the soft flesh there. She gasped, throwing her head back to give him better access, his little bites trailing a path up to her jaw and back to her lips.
Her mind was blank, her every sense narrowed in on his hand as it trailed down her chest to the bottom of her shirt. He tugged and pulled at the bottom of her shirt before he slipped his hand underneath it. It was almost agonizing with how slow his hand was as it trailed up the planes of her stomach, leaving a trail of burning pin-pricks in its wake.
He grabbed onto her breast, kneading it slowly with his hand, drawing moans from somewhere deep inside herself.
“Tell me if you want to stop,” he whispered against her lips. She wasn’t able to form any coherent thoughts let alone speak. She greedily ground her hips against his, wanting to feel more, and he took that as answer enough. She could feel him hardening and her body loosened, reacting to it.
He slid his hand down away from her breast, pulling and tugging at the hem on her pants. She could right about kill him for how stupidly slow he was being.
“Please,” she ground out, breathless between their kisses. His answering growl making heat pool in her core, her gut tightening at the same time.
“Desperate, are you?” he teased, unlatching his lips from hers. He took both of his hands to start working her top off and she helped him, throwing the shirt down on the ground behind her. Her nipples peaked against the cold air breezing in from the open balcony doors.
A blush started to creep onto her cheeks when he didn’t do anything, just looked at her, his eyes going all the from the top of her head to the hem of her pants. The blush quickly disappeared, though, when he leaned forward hungrily, his mouth latching around her breast.
She gasped and while one of his hands grabbed onto her other breast, the other one dipping back down to the hem of her pants.
“I could very well just lie down and go to sleep,” she growled, and apparently the tone was enough for him to finally relent, his hand sliding underneath the hem of her pants. A jolt of pleasure burned through her and he bit down on her nipple, only enhancing it.
She raised up on her knees to give him better access and he growled in approval. He ran his fingers along her folds, then slid one inside, her eyes falling shut. He started pumping his finger, biting and licking at her nipples.
He took his hand away from her breast, wrapping it around her back, pulling her chest closer to his. He brought his lips up to hers for a quick, sweet kiss. She was just about to ask what he was doing when he lifted her into his arms, flipping around to lay her down on the bed, causing her to yelp.
Seeing him above her like this had some deep, primal part of her reacting. In a quick movement, he pulled his top off, his muscled chest traced lovingly by the moonlight. He reached down and grabbed onto the top of her pants and took them down and off, throwing them behind him to where his shirt was laying. Kneeling down, he put both of his hands onto her waist and carefully pulled her toward the edge of the bed before he brought his head down between her legs.
Her back arched off the comfortable bed beneath her but his arm was already braced across her hips, stopping her from moving away. She started trembling, her moans coming out in a shaking breath, balling her fists in the blankets around her.
He lifted his head and she reached forward to grab onto him, wrapping her arms around his shoulders bringing him toward her. His hair hung around his face like a curtain, somehow coming loose from the tie he had it in. Those hazel eyes were foggy with pleasure and desire.
“We can stop,” he whispers, his voice husky. He settled his hips on top of her, his lips coming down to brush up against her cheek.
She shook her head, grounding her hips up against his for emphasis, feeling how hard he had become. “No, please,” she begged, her voice a breathless huff.
He nodded, brushing another whisper of a kiss on her cheek. The next thing she knew he was sliding inside her, slow and careful with that gentleness she had become accustomed to. His eyes found hers, watching her carefully, gauging her reactions.
It took a few moments for her to get used to it, but it felt like nothing other. It was pure bliss and he was here, kissing her, touching her. Nothing at this moment could get any better no matter what happened.
Soon she was at her finish, writhing beneath him and he was at his. He rolled off of her, settling in the bed beside her, his breaths rasping in his chest. Moving over, he righted himself in the bed, helping her along with him, tucking her into his chest.
She breathed him in and listened as his pounding heart slowed, tangling their legs together and shimmying underneath the blankets. His wing came to wrap around them both, casting them into complete darkness. She would be happy and content to never get up or leave this absolute paradise.
“I love you,” he whispered, his breath hot against the top of her head. She stilled and hope he didn’t notice, the words setting in. Something else settled in alongside those warming words: the strong, pulsing mating bond. It lived and breathed, radiating the deep well of love and peace from his end, making her mind go completely and utterly blank.
“I love you too,” It was the only thing she could say, the only words that made even the slightest sense.
She listened to the slow beating of his heart, but all she could hear was mate, mate, mate, mate, over and over and over again. A mantra that was running through her very blood and soul.
There was no way he knew about it. If he did, he would’ve told her, right? He couldn’t have kept something that big a secret from her. It didn’t seem right. It wasn’t right. But was she any better right now not telling him instantly? She didn’t want to answer that question, because it didn’t matter. She would tell him when the time was right and when she understood it all herself.
P.S. I said “pull” too much in this. Sorry bout that.
P.P.S. 45k words. I’ve never gotten that far in any fic, so I’m quite proud of myself. I'm also just writing the next chapter, so I'm going out of my comfort zone and not having one ready... Oof.
Esophina woke to warm, watery light on the back of her head. She groaned and pushed her head farther into Cassian’s chest, not wanting to wake up.
“It’s noon, deary. I thought I would tell you,” Cassian said, the clear and smooth tone of his voice making it clear he’d been awake for a while already, letting her sleep in his arms. The smell of his skin was intoxicating, drawing memories of last night to the front of her mind.
Everything had been more than amazing, far better than any words could even start to explain. But the thing that really got her—they were mates. Mates. Chosen by the Mother herself as equals and forever partners. They were destined to be with each other. Love each other.
“Are the doors still open?” she asked, feeling a chill breeze run along the nape of her neck, raising goosebumps. She shivered and curled in further on herself, nestling farther under the blankets. His arm tightened around her waist, bringing her closer to his chest. The warmth of his skin wrapped around her.
“I can close them,” he offered and she shook her head, not wanting him to leave her. His wing came back around her, softening the brightness of the sun and the coolness of the breeze swirling through the room. She could easily fall back asleep, but she knew that she had to wake up at least some time today.
She shifted onto her back, her eyes landed on his wings. Her eyes glided over the veins in his wings, the light filtering through them making the different shades of blue and red stand out.
“Can I touch them?” she asked, her voice raspy with sleep, not aware of what she was saying until she said it. It looked so soft and she’d never touched anyone’s wings that weren’t her own. She wasn’t allowed to since that was something only lovers did. Not to mention the fact that any male would kill her if she ever got close enough to look at them like this.
“Of course,” he whispered, the smoothness of his voice breaking away. She reached up with a tentative hand, resting one of her fingers above a red vein, tracing slowly. It was velvety and soft, far more smooth and relaxing than any silk.
“I never knew they could be so soft,” she said, retracting her hand. She’d felt her own wings many times before, but there was something different when she was touching her mate’s wings.
She moved slightly and his wing folded back instantly. She sat up straight, wincing at the brightness of the sun as it landed on her face. The blankets pooled around her waist, but she felt no need to hide. Cassian sat up with her, watching as she dropped her head into hands, running them over her face and through her tangled hair.
“I didn’t get much work done yesterday because of that whole thing that went down at Windhaven.” She said, frowning at how many knots she found in her hair. “I really shouldn’t have left all my work stuff at my apartment.”
“Eh, a nice flight always does a soul good,” he said, leaning over her rest his shoulder against hers. She smiled pushing her face further into her hand, though she made no effort to move away from his touch.
“I suppose you’re right,” she said, laughing lowly. “It’s just always a bitch to fly when it's chilly.”
“It’s hardly chilly,”
“Says the three-hundred-year-old male who has no doubt flown through so many snowstorms he can’t even recall a quarter of them. You’re used to it, I’m very much not,” she grumbled, practically rolling off of the bed to pick up the soft satin robe folded up underneath the bed. She slipped it on, feeling the softness of the material against her skin. It was still nothing compared to the softness of her mate’s wings.
“Comes with experience,” he said, and she could hear the blankets rustling as he stood up, quickly pulling on a pair of pants.
She took slow, groggy steps toward the center of her room and crossed her arms in front of her chest. She looked out the open glass doors, breathing in deeply. The sheer white curtains framing the doorway fluttered and swirled in the fresh breeze, bringing the salty scent of the sea along with it. There were sounds of music and joy streaming up from the streets as everybody celebrated the first official day of autumn.
She’d seen it yesterday—the ribbons being put up, spiced breads being baked to share and give out. It wasn’t the sort of festivities that they had in the Autumn Court, but it was far more than what happened up at the camps. Those at the Autumn Court would be holding grand balls and feasts, while here there would just be small, quiet family dinners or one extra drink at the bar.
“I…” she trailed off, not completely understanding what she was going to say. She cleared her throat and tried again after gathering her thoughts, “Would you like to go out to dinner with me?”
When he didn’t answer her after a moment, she turned to look at him and was frozen when she saw the way he was looking at her.
His eyes held warmth in hope and peace. As well as that one other emotion that had seemed so confusing and distant to her before was as clear as crystals—it was love. Her mate loved her. It wasn’t just words muttered in the darkness of night, it was a true emotion that lived and breathed. He loved her so much that she could feel his emotions spilling out from his side of the mating bond.
“Shouldn’t I be the one asking you?” he asked, a smile breaking onto his face. She raised her eyebrows and turned to face him fully, gesturing quickly to urge him to speak.
He took a step forward, puffing out his chest with all that male Illyrian ego. The sun traced over his toned muscles, his unruly hair swaying as he fell into the most grandiose bow that she had ever seen. A bubble of nervous laughter floated out of her lips, a blush coming to her cheeks.
“Would you do me the honor, oh beautiful lady, of going out to dinner with me?” he asked, holding a hand out to her, amusement and joy in his eyes that was reflected in his wide smile.
She forced her smile down and lifted her nose in the air, taking a step forward to, so very daintily, place her hand in his. “Only if the handsome male is paying,” she said, and couldn’t keep her smile hidden much longer when he brought her hands up to his lips, planting a kiss on the back of it. “It would be bad taste for my date to find out I don’t have enough money to pay for even a singular glass of wine.”
He smiled, pulling her into his arms, folding his fingers with hers as the other arm came around the small of her back. They swayed to a distant tune and she wasn’t sure if it was to an actual song playing down in the streets or one that was sung through their souls.
“You really have that little money?” he asked, his voice a distant sound.
“It’s fine, I get paid in a couple of days. Besides, I get served three meals a day and I have far too many clothes to be considered normal. I’m sure I’ll live,” she said, hearing the way her own voice was sluggish. She didn’t mean it to sound like she was uninterested, but she could hardly think straight with the strong and intoxicating scent of her mate stuffing its way up her nose and wrapping itself around her mind. It was the only thing she could think about.
“Plus, you have me,” he said, and she snorted, stepping away from him with great reluctance. It was already noon, she had to get dressed and at least get some work done before their little dinner date.
“That I do,” she said, smiling. The idea of him being called hers sent her heart fluttering in her chest and the mating bond flaring between them. “Now hurry and get out of my sight so I can finally get ready for the day and do at least some sort of work.”
“I’ll meet you at your apartment?” he asked and she nodded, then he grinned, turning around to leave. She hated him, because he was very obviously shirtless and very obviously leaving her room when it was in the middle of the day and every member of the Circle was taking today off. Anyone could come walking by, and he very obviously didn’t care.
“If you go around boasting how very male you are I’m going to start boasting about how very female I am.” She said, and he turned to look at her, raising an eyebrow filled with every ounce of amusement that he could muster.
“Maybe I would enjoy that,” he teased, giving her the wildest smirk as he slipped out of the door.
Just to spite him, Esophina held to the promise she’d made and wore one of the only dresses she possessed. A dress of the most expensive wine-red tulle made with an open back and a neckline low enough to be somewhat embarrassing. But she completely forgot about that when she saw the string-thin shoulder strap that showed her tattoo off.
It had been a gift from Mor, along with a delicate diamond necklace that matched her ring perfectly and a silver pair of heels that had taken a whole day of walking in to get used to. She had said that a girl should have at least two dresses, but Esophina thought that was probably just an excuse to buy something for her.
A quick, rapt knock sounded out her door and while a flash of excitement coursed through her, she frowned down at the paper in front of her.
“Come in!” she called, sliding aside the paper at the top of the small stack. The dim light from the only candle on the table lit up the clean parchment in front of her. She had this one last page to do, then she was finished with work for at least a couple of days unless she got some information before she visited Windhaven again.
“I could be a stranger,” Cassian said, easing the door open, the hinges squeaking softly.
“I suppose,” she said, not stopping her slow smile. She knew that it was him, partially because of his knock that she’d become attuned to, but mostly because of the mating bond that had gone tight at his presence. “But your knock is pretty easy to recognize since I hear almost every day.”
“That’s not my fault,” he said, closing the door behind him as he furthered into the room, coming to sit across the table from her. “You tend to sleep in,”
“No,” she said, leaning back to look up at him. “You just wake up far too early.”
It took far too much effort for her not to stumble over her words, because he looked… like something else. His hair was freshly clean, some bits of it still darkened with water, the top half pulled up into one of those buns he loved so much. He’d switched out of his black leather armor for a comfortable-yet-clean-looking white linen shirt that was molded to his chest and the well-formed muscles on his stomach. It was the best he’d ever looked and she wasn’t even afraid to admit that.
Finally, she made it back up to his eyes, smiling softly when she found that he was looking over her like she had him. She even thought that she was beautiful, her hair has grown out to hang slightly lower than her shoulders. And the dress—the dress accentuated every good part of her, drawing out her slightly tanned skin that kept darkening with all the hours she spent outside training with Cassian and her delicate and feminine curves she didn’t mind showing off.
“I keep saying this, but I’ll say it again: you’re beautiful,” he said, awe coating his words, as his eyes came back up to hers. She dipped her head in thanks, allowing the blush to creep onto her cheeks.
“Good, because I didn’t spend two hours getting ready for nothing.” She scooted forward in her seat and lifted a pen, writing with a careful hand, making sure it didn’t shake. It was hard for her to focus with his attention still fixed on her.
“It took me three hours,” he said and she paused her writing, glancing up at him. Her little smile slowly turned feral and his face when he realized his mistake was worth more than any amount of gold.
“Really? I thought it would’ve taken longer,” she said, and it took him a moment to fully comprehend it. But when he did he roared out a laugh, making her smile even wider. The mating bond reacting, pulling on her ribcage, elicited a delightful bubble of laughter from her.
Looking down at the paper, she bit her lip in thought, narrowing her eyes slightly. She still had the whole page of information she needed to write down, but she could do that easy enough in the morning. If she remembered to bring her work back up to the House, that is.
“Let’s get going before I decide that I’m not going anywhere until my work is done.” She said, standing up. He rose with her and he averted his eyes when she started readjusting the gown so it fell properly.
Dresses were lovely to wear, but she refused to wear them outside of special occasions for the pure reason that they were impractical. She didn’t want to have to watch her every move to make sure something didn’t slip or not be able to jump into battle instantly if she needed to.
“Hope you know where we’re going,” she said, walking up beside him, dodging his wing when it flared out slightly as she passed. She left her apartment and waited for him to join her before she locked the door, dropping the key to the ground and nudging it underneath the door with her toe.
“I made reservations,” he said, surprising her, and she looked up at him. He glanced down at the bottom of the door then back up at her. “How are you going to get back in?”
She brought a hand up to her hair and the two pins that held together with the small braided bun at the back of her head, smiling sweetly at the way his eyebrows rose in surprise. “Verrin and I snuck out at night, sometimes Mother would lock the door on us. I learned to be prepared,” she explained as he folded her hand into the crook of his arm.
“I should add that to the long list of things that make you unbelievably attractive. Along with that gleam you get in your eyes when you finally let go of who and what people expect you to be. That confidence is like its own sort of drug,” he said in a low, seductive voice that had her blushing furiously. He flirted—sometimes—but this was a whole new level.
She opened her mouth to try and say something back, but nothing could come to mind. Nothing could possibly top what he’d just said. The mating bond was flaring at it, proving that his words were spoken from true admiration and not just a way to try and flatter her.
They made their way down the stairs then into the bustling night streets of Velaris. The streets were busier at night than they were during the day. They were full of ladies dressed in their finest dresses, their hair done up in swirling braided designs, their faces painted with cosmetics.
One such lady was Mor, but as soon as she saw the two of them together, she turned around and walked the other way. Even though she blended back into the crowd easily with the trained talent of a spy, Esophina had still been able to spot her.
A cool night breeze flitted by her face and she shivered, but she didn’t mind the cold. Especially with the way it soothed the heat away from her face. Plus, she had Cassian, and the heat from his body wended its way into her bones, warming her.
“Are you too cold?” he asked, and she realized they’d been walking for quite a while in silence. She shook her head, watching the beauty of everything. This city still marveled her, with all the colors and life. She was proud to call it home. “Just wait until you see where we’re having dinner,”
She looked up at him, raising her eyebrows. He just gave her a slight tilt of his lips. He had said he’d made reservations, but she had no idea where. For all she knew they were going to some busy dance club, but with the clothes he was wearing, she doubted it.
They kept walking until they made it to the walkway right beside the beach. People were lounging on the sand, sharing drinks, laughing and smiling. At first, Esophina thought they were going to the beach like everyone seemed to be doing, but then Cassian led them into a quaint little restaurant.
The waitress quickly waved them through, letting Cassian guide her to the back where the wall was removed to have seating outside that looked out over the water. But he didn’t stop there—no, he led them up a staircase that was closed off from the public.
“Do you mind telling me wh—” She cut off her words when they emerged from the small staircase. She was completely and utterly speechless.
It was a small roof-top garden, full of potted plants of herbs and flowers still bright and blooming thanks to whatever magic kept the area warm. Faerielights blinked and danced in the shadowy depths of the deck, making it just bright enough for them to see by. A table was positioned in the center of the floor, a silky table-cloth dripped over it. Two crystal wine glasses sat on the table already, half-filled with sparkling white wine.
And the view—the view. It was breathtaking. The lights from all the buildings were reflected on the calm ocean water, flashing and dancing across the surface like a dream.
“This is… This is too much,” She choked on her emotions, tears clawing their way up her throat. Realizing that she’d wandered out of his reach, she looked over her shoulder.
“Nothing is too much for you,” he said, and the absolute sincerity in his voice and eyes sent the tears falling. But they were tears of joy and peace and love. She loved him, more than words could express, and this was far, far more precious to her than he probably realized.
“I love you,” she whispered, looking up at the stars that seemed extra bright tonight as if he’d willed them to glow brighter just for her.
“I love you too, my dear,” he said, coming up beside her to snake an arm around her waist. “Now let’s sit down before you faint.”
She couldn’t stop herself from snorting a laugh, bringing a hand up to her cover her mouth. She knew that she probably looked like a fool, but she couldn’t care less. So she let him guide her back to the table and sit her down on the comfortable upholstered seat. He took it another step and lifted the glass of wine and placed it in her hand.
He sat down across from her, lifting his glass of wine to his lips and sipping it. She raised her eyebrows at him, lifting the glass, taking a long drag of it. It had a lovely floral aroma, the taste lovely and smooth. It had to be one of the most expensive things she’d ever consumed.
“I took it from Rhys. One of his oldest,” he said and she nearly choked on it. “He once told me, a couple of decades ago, that should I ever need to show off to a remarkable female I have full access to his alcohol collection.”
“Cauldron bless him,” she said, raising her glass in salute. Cassian spoke his quick agreement, raising his glass to the toast before he took a long sip of it.
“To our future and the future of female Illyrian rights,” he said, and they both drank to that. Deeply. Tonight, she knew, was going to be absolute paradise and she never wanted it to end.
I hardly know what to do next. I have a place I need to get to, but I have no idea how to get there. This is difficult.
“So what did you and Cassian do last night?” Mor asked, settling onto the couch across from her. A wild, joy-filled smile was on her face and a glass of water—not wine—in her hand. Esophina looked up from the book in her lap, the light from the large window in front of them warm against her skin.
She was tucked away in a small alcove on the side of one of the main hallways of the House. The comfortable, plush seat wrapped around the whole semi-circle area of the room, a circular dark-wood table sitting in the middle of it. Blankets and throw pillows were laying around on the seats, making it feel like it was one big, cozy bed.
“Nothing,” Esophina said, fighting to hide her smile, and looked out the window at the calm city streets.
Mor hummed, an all-knowing smile on her lips. “What do you classify as nothing?”
“You truly want to know?” Esophina asked, shifting in the seat to face Mor fully. Mor nodded excitedly, lounging back on the pile of pillows, holding her glass steadily. “We had dinner,”
Mor smiled, though it was obvious she wanted to know more. She sat up straight, leaned across the table, and whispered in a conspirator’s tone, “It couldn’t have been just a dinner. Mother help him if he didn’t, he better have given you the best night ever.”
It was the closest thing to a threat she’d ever heard Mor say, and Esophina cocked her head to the side, unable to stop herself. She had the urge to spill everything, of how wonderful the night had been. Of how after they’d had a dinner of the finest food she’d ever tasted and how they danced for hours under the stars, not uttering a word to each other. It was the most peaceful night of her life, and she wished to just take her mate in her arms and spend weeks and months just dancing like that.
“It was lovely,” she said, smiling wistfully at the memory. Mor was still for a moment—assessing, watching—before she leaned back, downing the whole glass of water in one swig.
“I’ll be back in a moment, I’m going to find Rhys,” Mor said, rising from the seat, placing the empty glass on the table. She quickly slipped past the drawn curtains cutting off the small alcove. The heavy blue velvet material made it feel like it was its own separate room away from the hallway.
Esophina raised her eyebrows in confusion, looking back out the window before her eyes drifted back down to the pages of her book, trying to distract herself from the fact that Cassian was nowhere near her. That he was instead flying off to the second-most civilized camp to see if they were ready for her start making some appearances.
She could still smell him on her skin; still taste him on her tongue; feel the mating bond flare and buzz and fade. The fading—it was almost painful. With every second that went by, she could feel it stretching and thinning. Like a whole piece of her soul was going farther and farther into the distance with every beat of his wings.
She wanted so badly to join him, but she knew she couldn’t. It wasn’t safe for her to go. The stability of the whole Court was at risk if she did. If that camp wasn’t ready to see a female in power and she showed up, they could spring for an instant revolt, dragging many of the more rural comps along with them.
“I’ve returned with a very hungover Rhys,” Mor announced, reaching out and grabbing onto the edge of the curtain, pulling it back and gesturing for a very uncharacteristic Rhysand, his black hair a dead thing atop his head and skin as pale as the moon.
“You look dead,” Esophina said, picking up the now lukewarm cup of tea off of the table and sipped at it, trying to make sure not to make too much sound. She now knew how painful hangovers could be and was glad she’d only have two glasses of wine the whole of last night.
Rhys snorted, then winced at the headache he’d caused himself. He shuffled along until he sat down as a lump on a pile of pillows and blankets, nearly disappearing as he threw them over himself. Mor followed quickly after with deep pity in her eyes and two glasses of water in her hands, handing one over to Rhys who took it gratefully. She took a long sip of her own glass before she settled into the cushions right underneath the window, laying back to let the light land on her face.
Rhys looked over at Esophina with half-lidded eyes, and she was struck with the fact that this was the most un-High-Lord-like position she’d ever seen him in before.
“You don’t look hungover,” he observed, and she shook her head, trying to push away her need to laugh outwardly. “With the fact that Cass hadn’t returned the bottle of wine, I suspected that you both drained it.”
“No, no,” she said, taking another sip of tea. “Well…” Mor raised her eyebrows, instantly curious, and Esophina sent her a withering glare. “I had two glasses and I have no idea how many he had.”
“Two glasses over how many hours?” Mor asked, and Esophina sighed, smiling quickly. There was no way Mor was going to leave her alone until she shared at least some of what happened last night.
“Six-ish hours,” she said, and Mor’s jaw fell open. Rhysand seemed to recover from his hangover quickly, sitting up, his curiosity more important than any headache. They were two gossiping hens. “We had dinner then talked.”
“Just talked?” Mor teased, and Esophina narrowed her eyes. Mor quickly backed off, throwing her hands up in surrender, laying back down. “I’m happy for you two,” she added quietly, full of complete and utter kindness.
“Thank you,” Esophina whispered, looking back down to her book. There was no need to try and hide the fact that there was something between them. After all, she was coated in his scent and they had gone out to dinner for six hours. They spent practically all day with each other, during their free time along with the time they were required to spend together for work. It was no wonder she suspected they were together.
Reyna could barely control herself as she looked down at the two blades in Esophina’s hand. Her green eyes were sparkling with a feral sort of excitement, and Esophina was sure that nothing she was saying was making its way into that girl’s head. She couldn’t be mad, though. This excitement was exactly what they all needed.
The wind was harsh and cold, a warning call that winter was nearing. Both she and Cassian suspected that there would be the season’s first blizzard in a day. So they would need to leave before the winds picked up too much and it was too harsh to fly. At least too harsh for her to fly. She was pretty sure he could fly in the worst conditions without it being more than just a minor inconvenience.
“This is a weapon and a tool, you must treat it as such. The second you forget that is the second you face death,” Esophina said, and she couldn’t only see the amusement in Cassian’s eyes but could feel it pulsing along the bond. Every Illyrian male was taught that lesson, but they all immediately cast it aside in favor of dressing themselves in the glistening metal.
“How, exactly, would that result in my death?” Reyna asked, resurfacing from her haze, though a blissful smile remained on her lips. Alreah, on the other side, looked like she wanted to just melt into the mud and wait until their lesson continued.
“You forget the power it holds. You cut off a finger, accidentally slash an artery and bleed out.” Esophina shrugged and Reyna’s smile widened. Alreah was just not having it, the poor girl. “Or, some male overpowers you and takes it and uses it against you before you realize that you can use it to protect yourself.”
“No cutting myself and no forgetting that I can use it. Got it. Can I hold it now?” The enthusiasm in Reyna’s voice snapped Esophina’s hold, and she held one of the long, sharp blades out. Reyna reached forward and picked it up, her mouth falling open as she inspected it. Esophina gave the other one to Alreah who took it with careful hands, cradling it.
“Today, I just want you two to get used to holding a dagger and feeling comfortable around one.” Esophina said, and they both nodded, all of their attention on the weapon in their hands.
Cassian walked up beside her and whispered, “There’s a female who keeps watching, I’m not sure if she’ll come and talk with you, but I’m going to go for a little walk.” Esophina nodded and followed his glance over to a female standing in the shadow of a building, her pitch-black hair a crown around her head. Her pair of pants and top a pristine black.
With another look back at Cassian, she gave him a quick smile. He returned it then turned, walking down the road and out of sight. Alreah raised an eyebrow, curiosity in her every glance, but she said nothing. It was business between two generals, not something that she should concern herself with.
Esophina waited expectantly, watching the two females as they flailed the blades around. The only thing they had right was their iron-clad grip on the hilt of the dagger. They had that at least, and that was a good start.
“Miss Esophina,” a soft and gentle voice said, and she turned to look at the female that had been hiding. Esophina didn’t want to correct her, nor did she need to. “I’m sorry for not addressing you as general, but…” She trailed off and swallowed, squeezing her eyes shut. The scent of her fear started to permeate the air. “Your brother, my Verrin, and I are… together.” Esophina stilled, blinking, as the girl opened her beautiful blue eyes. “He’s been training me for quite a while and said that should I have the time, I could come to say hello and maybe train a little.”
Esophina blinked, opening and closing her mouth in surprise. The female was beautiful, her skin smooth and pale, her smile infectious. Verrin was… he… She made herself breathe and gather herself. It wasn’t smart to be surprised and open like that, even if she was shocked into silence.
The female held her hand out, mustering a warm smile. “My name is Odessa Roseige,” Esophina shook Odessa’s hand, surprised with how formal and elegant her name was. Not many had names like hers, especially not paired with an equally fancy surname.
“It’s an honor,” Esophina said, taking her had back. Cassian was already making his way back, looking between the two of them with a question in his eyes. “I didn’t know Verrin knew any females other than me,”
She cracked a grin that made Esophina immediately like her. “We’ve known each other for a couple of years. It’s just been me, no other female friends.” There was a glint in her eyes that held a promise that if there was, indeed, another female he snuck away to visit, she wouldn’t be around.
“A couple of years?” Esophina gasped, and Odessa shrugged, stepping over the rope barrier. Confusion flashed through the mating bond as Cassian got near enough to listen in on the conversation.
“He wanted to keep me safe,” Odessa said. Verrin would keep every female safe from everyone if he had the power to do so. Esophina pulled out her Illyrian blade and held it out to Odessa. She took it with a steady, trained hand. Her hold was careful but firm in a way that showed she knew exactly how to use it.
Esophina had the urge to sneak off and have a conversation with Verrin about why he had kept this lovely lady hidden for so long. She was beautiful and seemed kind and gentle but in a strong sort of way.
The mating bond went taught at his silent presence, and she couldn’t help her smile. Hidden as it was. It was nearly impossible to hide any sort of reaction when she was with him.
“Apparently,” she started in a whisper, leaning closer to him, but not taking her eyes off of Odessa as she started to go through slow, methodical exercises with the blade. “She—Odessa—is my brother’s… They’re a thing,”
He hummed and leaned his head down to whisper in her ear, “And are we a thing?” The hesitance in his voice made it clear that he was scared to ask, at least a little. He’d been thinking about it for a while, that much was clear. She remembered that he had been watching her closely for the last couple of days, wanting to say something. She guessed that this was what he wanted to say.
Now—she could tell him about the mating bond now. Tell him that they were soul-bonded. But she still had no idea how she felt about the bond. She wanted it; she loved it. It was half of what kept her sane so far away from Mother and Verrin. He kept her sane, and not in a stress-induced bout of depression.
“This isn’t the place, Cass.” Her voice was hard in a way she didn’t want it to be, and she just hoped he understood it. She hoped he didn’t think this was her saying she didn’t love him. Because, Mother, did she love him. She looked up at him, making sure her voice was as quiet as it could be, and said, “I do love you.”
He looked back at her, and she could see the intensity of emotions there, right alongside the strength of his love pulsing through the mating bond. She could sense his need to lean down and kiss her, show her how much he loved her. But doing that here, in the middle of an Illyrian camp, wasn’t the smartest decision.
“I know,” he whispered, and the only reason why she didn’t call him out on his reaction was the fact that his eyes were distant and caught in thought. “I’ll help with the rest of the lesson, you go to your brother. He’s waiting for you by the launders. Then I’ll come to get you so we can go back home.”
She nodded slowly, and he gestured with his head over to the road and she followed it to where Verrin stood barely visible in the shadows of the large wooden building. She looked back up at Cassian but he only urged her on. The two females were only getting used to being around the daggers, so there would be no pain in going off to see her brother for a couple of minutes.
“Okay, thank you,” she said, smiling genuinely at the way his face lit up at her agreement.
“You deserve to see your family,” he said, urging her to go. She nodded and started away from the ring after muttering a quick good-bye and good luck to the girls. Her steps were loud on the dirt, though she tried to keep them as silent as possible.
Males hissed under their breath as they passed, puffing their chests out and sticking their noses in the air. They were trying to be superior, but they were failing greatly for the sole reason that they weren’t daring to attack her or even yell at her, call her names. Maybe that had to do with the fact that Cassian’s eyes were pinned on her, or because she had both of her hands hovering near her weapons.
Verrin stepped out of the shadows to greet her, throwing his arms around her. “I see you’ve met my darling Odessa? She’s beautiful, isn’t she?”
Esophina couldn’t help but laugh at his enthusiasm, and she pulled away, letting him lead her down the familiar streets toward their childhood home. The males stayed at more of a distance now that she had someone with her. Now that she wasn’t a lone female. “Yes, I just wish you told me about her sooner.”
“I would’ve, but I didn’t want to tell you until it was just the right time.” She waited for him to speak, to explain why this was the exact right time to tell her about his special someone. “We’re getting married, and I would love you to come to the wedding.”
Esophina faltered a step and choked on air, crashing into a coughing fit. “Married?” she asked between coughs, ignoring the way everyone looked at her like she had gone mad. This would be the perfect time for someone to assassinate her. That thought itself made her cough disappear immediately.
“She’s my betrothed. Wife-to-be. My everything. And I want you to come to our wedding. It’s two weeks after Solstice, will you come?”
“Will I come? Will I come?” She laughed as they stepped up the little step in front of their house. “My brother is getting married to what seems to be a perfect female, how can I not come?”
He shrugged with a shoulder, pushing open the front door to the house. Esophina could instantly hear Mother’s soft singing and smell the freshly baked spiced bread. “You’re all fancy now. A general, best friends with the most powerful people in the whole Court—in the whole of Prythian. This is just a little wedding,”
“My brother’s wedding,” she pointed out, stepping into her house and pulling the door closed behind her. He sighed, defeated, and knocked the dirt off of his boots before he slid them off altogether. “I would take a full week off of work for that.”
“What do you even do for work?” he asked, walking off into the kitchen. She kicked the mud off of her boots before she followed, sitting down at the table across from him.
Two loaves of bread sit on top of the kitchen counter, another half one in the center of the table. Mother smiled at Esophina, gesturing for her to eat it, a pride-filled smile on her lips. She always loved baking, and nothing could rip that away from her. Not even her clipped wings.
“Read reports, take what I need from them, make notes on the unclipped females in all the camps and try to figure out if they would be willing to train.” She shrugged, cutting off a slice of the spiced bread. “Not much, honestly. There isn’t much I can do outside of wait for my next visit here.”
Esophina took the piece of bread and ate it, not holding back her moan. The food in Velaris was beyond delightful, but nothing compared to Miss Annelise Rerdovar’s spiced bread. Everyone in the camp knew it, so many of the females bought from her during the autumn season.
Mother stepped up to the table, taking a seat beside Verrin, and cut her own slice of bread, a soft smile on her lips. “What do you do in your free time? There has to be something fun to do up in that glittering castle.”
Rhysand’s Court of Nightmares home. She’d never been there, and from all the rumors, she hoped to never have to go there. Though she knew that was pointless. She would have to go there sometime, even if it wasn’t soon.
“Well, I train with Cassian,” she said between bites, not caring about etiquette. Mother was taken quite aback, her eyebrows lowered in confusion, though Verrin couldn’t care any less. “Then we hang out, go over some things for work. And when I’m not with him, I read or hang out with Mor.”
Verrin tilted his head and raised his eyebrows, a glint in his eyes that she wasn’t sure she liked. “I saw the way you two looked at each other,”
She stilled and Mother looked between the two of them, nibbling on her piece of bread. It wouldn’t be effective if she tried to step in, so instead, she just observed. It was smart, since the last time she’d interrupted one of their jests they didn’t speak to each other for a good week.
“And?” she asked, surprisingly defensive about it. Verrin was still for a moment as he assessed her, then he leaned back, holding his hands up in surrender. She’d apparently been frightening enough for him to decide not to push for an explanation. The thought was… strange. She was protective over her mate, just like Mother was. “He’s my mate,”
She didn’t know why she’d said it. Maybe because she trusted her brother and mother as much as she possibly could, or maybe it was because Mother had a mate and could help her sort out what to do.
“I wasn’t expecting that,” Verrin said after a pulse of silence, and she snorted, unable to stop it, and held a hand up to cover her mouth.
“I wasn’t either,” she said, trying to stop herself from laughing. “I didn’t even think I would tell you.”
Mother was frozen, and for a moment Esophina thought she’d broken her mother, but then the female broke out into the widest smile that the world had ever seen. Her eyes sparkled with joy, tears of happiness building up in the corner of her eyes. She was both a mated female who could sympathize with how she felt, as well as a mother whose child was finding her forever love.
“Does he know?” Mother asked, genuinely curious.
Esophina sobered and tore a piece of the bread off, popping it into her mouth. She took the time to think. “I’m not sure. If he does, he hasn’t told me. And I don’t think I’m ready to tell him.”
Mother’s features softened and she gave a tight, thoughtful smile. “Do you want it?”
She didn’t even have to think. “Yes,” she breathed, licking her lips to try and hide the smile that sprouted there. “I love him, but the mating bond is just… different.”
“If he loves you, then there shouldn’t be a problem.” Mother said, knowing exactly what Esophina’s fear was without even having to say it. “Bond or not, you love each other. That’s all that matters,”
Esophina nodded, pressing her lips together to try and hold back her shaking tears. Mother was right as always. Even without the mating bond, they were together. They loved each other, and that’s all that mattered. One day she would tell him when it was right. But for now, she was happy.
There was a knock at the door and she already knew who it was. She stood up, taking the piece of bread with her. “Come in,” she called, and Verrin shot her a look that meant he would kill her himself if she let in some psycho. But Cassian was no psycho, at least not when he was fully-fed.
Cassian opened the door, letting Odessa walk in first followed by Alreah. The latter took one look at everyone in the room and took her leave up the stairs, the Illyrian blade still in her hands. Verrin stood up and walked over to Odessa, muttering some quick words in her ear before they went into the living room.
Esophina looked between her mother and Cassian who were having one hell of a staredown. Poor Cassian had no idea why, but was giving his best, firm grin as he stared back. Mother never looked a male in the eyes let alone someone so powerful.
“Hurt my daughter in any way and I will figure out how to kill you nice and slowly.” Mother’s voice was cold and hard, so unlike anything Esophina had ever heard coming from her mother’s mouth. Cassian was still, blinking slowly as he tried to register what the delicate female in front of him just said. Even Verrin’s quiet conversation with his betrothed had paused so that they could listen in.
“I don’t doubt that,” Cassian said, recovering from his bout of surprise quick enough. “Though I’m pretty sure she’ll kill me first.”
He looked to her, and she suppressed a shudder when his voice sounded in the back of her mind, Now I know where she gets her ferocity. It took everything in her not to react to that intimate presence of him in the very core of her being. That was what she was missing out on. That close connection between them that could only come with their mating bond.
She couldn’t muster enough focus to speak steadily, so she instead looked to her mother, waiting to see what would happen next. Mother gave Cassian another searing look before she turned around and picked up a loaf of bread from the counter and slid it into a brown paper bag. She held it out to Cassian and he took it with tentative hands like she’d snap and bite his fingers off.
“Don’t eat it too quickly, the spices will make you sick. Plus, it’s Phina’s favorite and she might kill you if she doesn’t get at least half of it.” Mother said, and Esophina blinked. Sure, Cassian was her mate, but they weren’t mated. They weren’t an official couple, yet Mother already seemed to think herself Cassian’s mother-in-law.
Cassian looked to her for confirmation and, still not trusting herself enough to speak, Esophina reached down to the table, picking up the quarter of the loaf still left and took a bite out of it. Cassian had a barely contained fit of laughter and Mother looked over at Esophina, a scolding frown already on her face.
“Esophina,” she scolded, and Esophina slowly set the nibbled-on piece of bread down. After another moment of being stared down by Mother, the kind female turned around and picked up another loaf of bread, packaged it, then added on top of the one Cassian was already holding. “That one is for the High Lord and anyone else who might want it,”
Cassian bowed his head quickly. “Thank you,” he said and lifted his head. “We have to get going or else someone’s going to come and check on us.” Azriel was going to come to check up on them soon, to make sure that someone hadn’t somehow assassinated them.
“I’ll be expecting you at the wedding!” Verrin called as she made it to the hallway.
“Wedding?” Cassian asked in a hushed voice as she came up beside him. She just looked between Verrin and Odessa, knowing that he would pick up on it quickly.
“I’ll be there, I promise,” Esophina said, and Cassian nodded slowly, understanding lighting up his face. “And I’ll be sure to buy the best presents money could buy.”
Verrin and Odessa bid them goodbye and they stepped outside into the streets. Cassian tried to seem as masculine as he could but the two wrapped loaves of bread in his hands didn’t do anything to help him.
Winter Solstice came quickly, along with the freezing storms of deep winter. The wind howled through the streets, heavy and wet snow barreling down on those who dared to leave their homes. The weather only worsened as the hours wore on and the sun started to set. She couldn’t be more happy with herself for the decision to go to her High Lord’s townhouse a couple of hours before anyone was expected.
She was ready for Rhysand to tell her to come back in a couple of hours when he would be ready, but he had welcomed her in. As soon as she told him of why she had come early, he’d asked a shadow-wraith servant to set up a room for her so that she didn’t have to worry about flying in this horrid weather.
Sitting next to the blazing fire, Esophina sipped on her spiked tea, the light floral taste complimenting the small bit of alcohol. The alcohol in the tea warmed her insides as much as the tea itself did, making the idea of tonight slightly more bearable.
It wasn’t that she didn’t like the idea of hanging out with everyone, she was quite excited about it, but she was worried about the memories that would surface. Like how Father would always take the week off to just hang out and talk with his children and mate. She and Mother would be in the kitchen for most of the day of the Solstice, cooking and baking, singing and sharing stories. Brother would try to help and end up just messing something up and Mother would send him out to pick up a gift for his little sister and would end up disappearing for a couple of hours.
Esophina took another sip of her tea and extended her legs toward the fire, sighing wistfully at the way the warmth of it melted into her bones. She looked over to the entrance of the home to watch as Mor stumbled in, pulling the door closed behind her with a loud bang. Her hair was covered in snow, the heavy woolen coat she wore nearly white with how much snow was attached to it, the small stack of presents in her hands wet.
“I don’t know how the hell you Illyrians fly in this weather,” Mor grumbled, addressing both Esophina in the living room and Rhysand wherever he had slunk away to.
“Honestly, I don’t either,” Esophina said, lifting the cup of tea to her lips and taking a long drag of it.
Mor threw her coat off, disappearing from view for a moment to put it away in the closet, then she came back into the living room. She dropped the stack of presents onto the dark-wooden coffee table then flopped down onto the couch, releasing a long, slow sigh. She ran a hand through her hair, rustling it to try and get rid of the snow stuck there.
“I had Cassian help me find your present, though I’m not sure if I did any good choosing,” Mor said, and Esophina shrugged like it was nothing. It was very much something, though. Mor had spent her hard-earned money on a gift for Esophina even though she didn’t have to.
“I had to buy a present for five people I haven’t known for longer than six months. I think I am the one struggling here,” Esophina said, and held out her teacup to Mor. She looked at it, narrowing her eyebrows, then took it and sipped. Her eyes light up as she tasted the alcohol and drank the rest of it in one swig.
“As long as you didn’t buy us actual shit, it’s fine,” Mor said, and Esophina snorted a laugh, taking the empty teacup back to refill it and make one for Mor. She stood up, holding the empty cup in her hand, and started toward the kitchen.
As she walked passed the front door, it opened to show Azriel, faint traces of snow on his shoulders and in his short black hair. He’d obviously winnowed in just outside from the Windhaven camp instead of braving any sort of flight. Her eyes instantly went to the large box in his hands, recognizing the delicious smell wafting off of it.
“Your mother wanted me to give this to you,” he said, his voice cool as night, and extended the box. She took it in her arms, nearly dropping the empty teacup in her haste, and shot off into the kitchen, barely hiding her squeal of excitement.
As she entered the kitchen, the smell of cooking meats and other foods tickled at her nose, but she ignored the wayward glances of the two shadow-wraiths and the unbelievably amused expression of her High Lord from where he leaned up against the wall. She dumped the box on an open spot on the wooden table in the center of the room, ripping it open to find two neatly-packaged loaves of bread and a sheet of paper beside it.
She pulled out the paper, her smile widening as she read it. It was the normal greetings, wishing her and her friends a good and happy Winter Solstice, but on the next page was an intricate recipe written down. There were so many ingredients she thought it was a joke but knew it was anything but.
Mother had given her the secret recipe to her wonderful bread that had every female in the Windhaven camp gathering their spare coins and taking a trip to the market to buy it.
“What is it?” Rhys asked, detaching himself from the wall to walk over to the table. He watched her with a bemused expression, his lips in a half-smirk.
She glanced up and leveled a blank stare at him. That only made him smile wider. “Bread,” she said simply, and his eyebrows shot up. In the end, the bread Mother had given Cassian for the High Lord had gone straight to Mor who ate the whole loaf in a day. She then was sick for a good two after that, unable to go to work. It was like the bread itself was warning you not to eat it all too quickly.
“The best bread a person could eat,” Esophina said, reaching into the box to pull out both of the loaves. He sniffed and tilted his head in curiosity. “Mother tried to send you some, but it didn’t make it the whole way.”
He laughed at that, his voice bouncing off the walls of the small kitchen. One of the shadow-wraiths—Nuala—turned away from the dishes she was washing and stepped up to the table. Esophina handed the recipe out to her and Nuala took it, her eyebrows raising continually as she read through it.
“It’s good, I promise,” Esophina said, unwrapping one of the loaves of bread. She rested it on a cutting board and took a knife to cut a piece off, splitting it into four pieces to share with the other three in the kitchen. “Just don’t eat too much,”
They all took a bite of the bread at the same time and she smiled triumphantly when their eyes lit up at the taste. This had to be how Mother felt when others ate her food: pride. She was sharing a piece of home with them, and they were enjoying it. That meant more than she could possibly explain.
She found a silver tray in one of the cupboards and placed the loaf of bread on it, adding a cube of butter and a couple of small plates. She had to smack away Rhys’s hand a few times, telling him that if he wanted it he had to come to join them in the living room. He then continued to laugh when she went to make her special tea for both her and Mor but said nothing when she cut a paper-thin slice of the bread and handed it to him.
She slips out of the kitchen, tray in hand, and nearly drops it when she sees Cassian standing by the door. His cheeks and nose were pink from the cold, a bag in his hands. He carefully dropped it onto the ground and huffed a breath of air into his gloved hands to try and warm them.
“It’s freezing,” he breathed, giving her a gentle and fond smile. There was something… off about him. She couldn’t place her finger on what it was, but she knew something was up.
“How ‘bout some bread and fancy tea? Should warm you up,” she said, walking over to the living room. Mor looked up at her and she reached forward and plucked the cup of tea off of the tray.
“I know what else could warm me up,” he said, and she burst out into a short laugh. She could just hear the suggestion in his voice, and it sent Mor laughing. She was struggling to keep the tea in her cup.
Esophina set the tray down on the coffee table, picking up her glass of tea to take a long sip of it. “Try it,” she said, holding the delicate porcelain cup out to Cassian. He watched her flatly for a heartbeat then gave in, grasping the cup from her hands. He brought it to his lips and chugged it down once the taste of the alcohol landed on his tongue.
She patted his chest, trying to ignore the fact that Azriel and Mor were both watching their every move. “You drink it; you refill it. Oh, and bring Rhys. He’s hiding away in the kitchen,”
He paused for a moment and glanced down at the empty teacup in his hand. There was a flicker in his eyes, where a bout of nervousness flashed through his calm joy. She was about to ask if he was okay, but he simply said, “Got it, deary,” and gave her a full, joy-filled smile before turning away and walking down the hall to enter the kitchen.
Mor was quiet as she took a too-long sip of tea, then she laughed. “You got him wrapped around your finger,” she said, but Esophina didn’t reply with a laugh or smile like she normally would’ve. Not even the words about him being wrapped around her finger could elicit any sort of emotion from her.
“He’s off,” Esophina said, her lips turning down. What upset her more than the simple fact that he was off was because she couldn’t tell if it was a good off or a bad off. If something was bothering him or if this was just a side of him she hadn’t seen yet. If something was bothering him, she just hoped that they could speak about it.
“Hmm?” Mor hummed, taking a slow sip of her tea. She didn’t see it, but she didn’t have to. All that matter was that Esophina noticed, and she cared.
Finally, Esophina tore her eyes away from the space he had been standing in and returned to her seat by the fire. She accepted a slice of bread from Mor who refused to eat any more of it, saying that it didn’t deserve to be eaten by her after how sick it had made her. She made a fair argument, though Esophina would like to argue that a little sickness was worth it in the end.
Azriel stood up from the chair he had been lounging on muttered something about finding out why Rhys and Cassian were hiding away in the kitchen before he disappeared down the hallway.
“What do you think they’re doing?” Mor asked, taking a long sip of the tea, draining it.
Esophina shrugged, pulling her legs up to her chest and resting her chin on her knees. “Gossiping?” she guessed.
Mor hummed and nodded, a smile on her lips that didn’t reach her eyes. She was noticing how dazed Esophina was, her mind far more focused on the uncertainty that flickered and pulsed through the bond. At this point, she wasn’t sure if it was her own nervousness, or if it was his. The emotion so strong that it had started to affect her.
But before Mor could ask what was wrong, the front door opened and the final dinner guest arrived: Amren, stuffed deeply into a fur coat, her red-painted lips in a deep frown. She shook her hair like a dog might do, trying to dislodge all of the snow speckling her silky black hair.
“Welcome!” Mor said, standing off of the couch. Amren turned her harsh, other-worldly gaze on Mor but the golden-haired female didn’t shrink. “Maybe you could go and drag those males out of the kitchen so we can finally have dinner.”
A sort of fury sparked in Amren’s eyes and she stomped down the hall, her voice ringing out as she yanked open the kitchen door. “I walk all the way from my apartment to come here to find you bastards cloistered away in a kitchen gossiping like a bunch of housewives.”
Cassian’s answering roar of laugher made the corner of her lips flicked up. At least he could still laugh.
Amren stepped aside and watched like a scolding mother as they came out of the room, one-by-one, Cassian leaving last. Both Rhys and Azriel went straight into the dining room, followed by Amren and Mor. They all sat down, but Esophina still didn’t make any move to get up.
Cassian didn’t follow the others, he instead came into the living room in search of her. His eyes found hers immediately and there was a flash of love and fondness that crossed his face, followed by a quick, gentle smile. He opened his mouth, searching for something to say, but nothing came out.
The others started up talking, falling into a quick conversation. She was sure that they were just giving the two of them time to talk.
“Are you all right?” he finally asked, his voice quiet enough that the busybodies in the other room wouldn’t be able to hear even if they tried.
“I should be asking you that,” she said, standing up. He was so close that her body was pressed up against his, her lips inches away from his. She wanted to lean in and take his lips in hers, the scent of him coaxing her to lean in closer to him.
“Why?” he asked, his voice hoarse. His eyes drifted down to her lips, then back up to her eyes. That only made her want to kiss him even more.
“Can’t I just want to know if you’re alright?” she asked, and he hummed, smiling shortly, then he leaned down and gave her a kiss that ended far too quickly.
“I’m perfectly fine, Nina,” he said, and took her hand in his, giving it a quick squeeze before he let go and led her out of the living room and into the dining room.
The Solstice dinner went by easily, full of laughs and snarls and wondrous winter foods. Rhys had even convinced Mor to eat more of the bread before he asked Nuala and Cerridwen to make a copy of the recipe so that they could make some more. There was wine, lots of wine. Esophina had two glasses of the beautifully tasting wine and when paired with the bit of alcohol she’d had in her tea earlier, she was well on her way to being well and surely drunk.
They wrapped up the dinner and slowly started to trickle their way into the living room so that they could open presents. Esophina was one of the first to enter the living room. She took her seat by the fireplace and extended her legs toward the blazing fire, sipping slowly at a glass of wine, enjoying the sparse peacefulness she’d found.
Rhysand had not-so-subtly told her to hold back on drinking any more, while Mor had gladly poured her another glass. She was grateful that Mor had because if she hadn’t been able to have this glass of wine, she wasn’t sure that she would be able to handle the next couple of hours.
Azriel and Mor drifted into the living room next, both sitting down on the plush couch, a glass of wine in each of their hands. Azriel said something quietly and Mor burst out in laughter, causing a bare smile to spring onto his face. Rhys came in next, caught in a deep conversation with Amren that most definitely had something to do with work.
She waited for Cassian to come in and when he finally came into the living room, he had a small glass full of amber liquid braced in his hand. His eyes darted over the room before they landed on her, a spark of excitement lighting up his eyes. He gave a quick flash of a smile before he sat down on a chair across the room from her.
Esophina frowned shortly at the realization. He was sitting at the farthest seat away from her, but only because all the other seats were taken. If she wanted, she could get up and go sit with him, or he could get up and come sit with her. But he still seemed off although he had told her he was fine only an hour ago. Maybe he just needed to have some space, or maybe he just wasn’t going to tell her what was wrong while they were here. That was fair enough.
They started handing gifts around and she watched with a careful eye and pounding heart when they started opening the presents she had got them. It seemed like Cassian had been right with what he recommending she buy because they were all excited. Amren the most, grinning like a feral animal as she looked down at the necklace of large sapphires.
She had given Cassian his gift last night out of nervousness and he had accepted it happily, completely understanding. Now, looking down at the small wrapped box in her hand, she hoped that he had given his gift to her last night, too. But they were already here, there was no going back.
Her heart was pounding in her throat as she grabbed onto the delicate blue silk ribbon and pulled on it. It unraveled easily and she tried her best to ignore the way all the males watched her in a way that was supposed to be nonchalant. Lifting the lid of the box off, she couldn’t help her smile at the sight of the dagger.
It was the other dagger she had admired one of those first days she’d spent out in Velaris with Cassian. The design was just as beautiful as it had been when she first saw it. The vines and roses looped and traced through the soft leather. Cassian was watching her closely, seeming to tune in to her every breath and reaction.
She didn’t completely understand why, but she was sure it had to do something with the fragrant scented letter. Azriel and Rhys both sent Cassian a long glace, but he dismissed him, his every sense narrowed in on her. She lifted the paper and opened it, taking a slow, deep breath. It read:
To my darling Esophina, I beg you to read this whole letter through before you make any brash decisions that involve throwing a dagger in my direction. I had Azriel help me with this since I knew I would mess it up somehow without his help. Well, here we go.
I love you more than anything in this world, so I can’t keep this from you anymore. We’re mates. I know it’s cowardly to tell you through a letter, so you can be as mad about it as you want. If you really want, I can redo it all. We can go out do dinner and I can be all romantic. Just think before you do anything, please.
Esophina looked down at the letter, read and re-read it. She could hardly comprehend it. He knew and he didn’t tell her until now. It was so Cassian-like to tell her in a letter, too. She couldn’t help but throw her head back and laugh at the thought, dropping the letter to her lap.
It was probably because of all the alcohol in her system or just because of the rush of relief that came with knowing she wouldn’t have to be the one to break the news, but she couldn’t laugh any harder if she tried.
“Don’t kill me,” Cassian pleaded, his voice coming through her roaring laughs. Everyone else was deathly silent as they watched her, trying to figure out if she was indeed getting ready to kill someone or not. She didn’t even know what she was thinking of herself, so she couldn’t imagine what they were thinking.
As the realization settled in, she could feel the mating bond becoming more prominent. It was intoxicating with the way it pulsed and flared, pulling her into its depths. She could feel as it snapped further into place, embedding itself into her very soul. She couldn’t fathom the idea of rejecting it. She didn’t understand why anyone would want to reject it. This was like paradise; a dream come true.
She brought the glass of wine to her lips and drank it all in one long drag, smothering her bubbles of laughter with the light taste of it. The traces of her laughter took place on her lips in a smile. She looked Cassian dead in his eyes and raised her eyebrows, unable to help herself, licking at her lips in an effort to rid her smile. He looked absolutely petrified, his eyes flaring with trepidation and hope. She couldn’t blame him.
How long have you known? she asked through the bond and he stilled. She didn’t even think he was breathing. Then he broke out into a wide grin, that off-ness that had been in him earlier vanishing in an instant at her answering smile.
Since I met your father and you tried to kill me. There was a sort of tension in his reply, a hesitation. He was still wondering if she’d do anything rash. She narrowed her eyes at him, thinking deeply, trying to remember back that one night weeks ago. Cassian had fought with Father because of the mating bond, because he’d realized it and was only trying to protect her.
“What’s going on?” Mor asked, breaking the silence that everyone else had been cast into. She snapped back to reality, resurfacing from that hazy dream-like state her mind had been in, glancing over at Mor from where she sat lounging on the couch next to an equally relaxed Ariel and Rhysand.
“Nothing,” both her and Cassian said at the same time, their voices completely in sync. Morrigan looked between the two of them, her eyebrows rising slowly. When neither of them answered her, she leaned back and took a long drag of wine, her eyes continuing to dart between them, trying to discern what was happening with them.
She took in a deep breath and looked back to Cassian. “You should’ve just told me,” she said, wishing that she hadn’t had all that wine. Maybe then she would be thinking straight.
He blinked. He wasn’t expecting her to say that. “Sorry,” he said, the sincerity in his voice making her gut clench. He truly was sorry for not telling her.
“I just wish you would’ve told me so I didn’t have to spend three months wondering how I should tell you.” She said, groaning softly as she stood, her legs tired and protesting.
“You knew?” he asked, his voice so quiet she wasn’t sure if he was speaking out loud or through the bond. Either way, she snorted, her steps not completely steady as she made her way across the living room toward the hallway. It was probably just the wine in her system that had her speaking so freely with all these eyes on her.
“I know everything when it comes to you. Though, that was a little surprising,” she said, and had the faint sense that her words were starting to slur together. When she passed him, Cassian rose to his feet and wrapped an arm around her waist, pulling her closer to him. She was definitely far more drunk than she thought.
He reached over and plucked the empty wine glass out of her hand and she frowned, looking at it blankly. “No more wine,” he declared, leading her across the hallway into the dining room. He pressed her down into one of the wooden chairs, pouring her a glass of water.
From the living room, Esophina heard Mor say, “What just happened?” followed by Rhysand’s roar of laughter. She couldn’t hear what he said next, but she guessed Cassian had since there was a flash of protectiveness in his eyes as he took a seat beside her, placing the glass of water in her hand.
He watched her until she brought the glass up to her lips and took one long sip of it. “I’m tired,” she whispered, leaning forward to rest her head on his shoulder. He took the glass out of her hand and set it down on the table beside them. His muscle flexed under her head and she sighed, not wanting him to move away from her. Not wanting her mate to move away.
“Then go sleep,” he said, leaning down to kiss the top of her head, lingering to breathe in her scent. “All we’re going to do is sit around and drink. And I think you’ve had enough to drink.”
She snorted and pulled her head away from him, wishing that she didn’t have to. Sighing, she pushed to her feet, taking the glass of water with her.
“All right,” she groaned, taking a long sip of water. “I’ll see you in the morning,”
He rose with her and caught her in a kiss that took her breath. She pressed into the kiss, hoping that he wouldn’t pull away. But alas, he did. She sighed, bringing her hand up to rest on his chest. She paused as she felt his heart beating beneath her palm, the beat echoing in the pulsing of the mating bond. It pulled her in, begged her to wrap her arms around her mate that was so close she could feel his breath on her face.
“I hate you,” she whispered, taking a painfully slow step away from him. He chuckled lowly and it took everything in her to not turn around and pull him into her arms.
Tired. Drunk. She needed rest, not her mate. But having her mate with her would definitely be much, much better. She had to go upstairs and go to sleep. Tomorrow, in the morning, she would be able to talk with Cassian all she wanted and spend as long as she wanted with him.
“I love you too,” he said as she took her first step up the stairs, and she grumbled under her breath, resisting the urge to turn around and give him a long, long glare. Sleep, yes. Sleep sounds good.
For the thousandth time that day, Esophina looked out the small fogged glass window and wondered why the hell her brother had chosen to have his wedding in the middle of winter.
It was freezing and she could hardly feel her toes or fingers although a hungry fire was already blazing steadily in the large fireplace built right into the center of the large banquet hall. The hall was so large and the fire had just been lit an hour ago, so it would probably take another hour or so for it to get at least moderately warm in here.
“Maybe we should just go off to someplace warmer,” Cassian said as he came up beside her, wrapping his arm around her waist and pulling her close into his body. The warmth that radiated off of him made her lean further into him, humming softly at the way he pulled her in tighter at the action.
They had only been officially mated for two weeks, but she felt as if she’d known him for her whole life. She could pick up on his every tell and see through his every mask. It was hard for her to believe that everything felt so normal and casual this soon. With the stories Mother would tell her, she was expecting to not take her eyes off of him for weeks, unable to go any farther than an inch away from him. Part of her wished that the frenzy would continue, but another part of her loved how natural this felt.
“No,” she said, leaning her head up against his shoulder. “Verrin will throttle me if he finds out I left his wonderful bride here in this ice-box of a building alone.”
She brought her hands up to her face, puffing air into her gloved hands to try and bring back some heat into her fingers. It was so damned cold that her breaths still clouded in front of her. People who walked past the window were bundled up so much that she could hardly see any part of their face. The only ones who weren’t bundled up in that way were the warriors that were on patrol, but they seemed about ready to give up and call it a day in favor of temperature that wouldn’t end up freezing their fingers off.
“I think Mor’s got that handled,” he said, his low chuckle rumbling through her whole body. Just upstairs, Odessa along with Mor and both Odessa’s mother and Verrin’s mother were all getting dressed up and ready for the wedding. Esophina was supposed to be up there with them, as well, but she’d come down here for a break from all the makeup-doing and dressing-up.
“I can’t have this as Odessa’s mother’s first impression of me. I have to show her I’m going to be an amazing sister-in-law,” she said, leaning in further to her mate. His smell smoothed the nerves that rose at the prospect of having to make a good impression. This lady and her family would forever be part of her life. For better or for worst.
“You’re amazing at everything, deary. There’s no reason why they wouldn’t love you,” he said, reassuring as always. She found his hand and squeezed it in hers before she stepped away from the warmth of Cassian’s hold, the old wooden floorboards squeaking loudly beneath her feet.
This building was the oldest in the whole Windhaven camp. Every notable wedding and mating was held hear, under this very roof. The floorboards were worn and practically every one creaked. There were holes and dents in the walls, both old and new, from fights that irrupted due to too large male egos and unhappy marriage pairings.
“So when are we getting married?” Cassian asked simply, a step behind her as she walked to the center of the building, crouching down to gather some longs and twigs in her arms and throwing them on top of the fire, sending it sparking and blazing.
“We’re getting married now?” she asked, straightening out and twisting to come face-to-face with Cassian, his nose practically brushing up against hers. It sent her heart racing and the mating bond reacting and pulling at her ribcage, beckoning her closer to him. To kiss him or simply hold him close.
He leaned down to press his forehead to hers, smiling softly before he took her lips in his. It still made her breathless, no matter how often they kissed or held each other close.
Why not both mated and married? he teased through the bond, only heightening the heat of their kiss. He broke away from the kiss but didn’t move his forehead away from hers.
That sounds perfect, but I would much rather get married in a good hundred years. Savor this, then have a wedding to look forward to. The thought of it was exhilarating. They’d be together for those hundred years and then they would be able to celebrate it with a grand wedding full of friends and family.
She waited expectantly, hoping that he would agree to it. That they could get married. He brushed a hand along her cheek, grabbing a wisp of her hair and tucking it behind her ear as he hummed softly in thought.
I like the idea of that, my dear. The tone was gentle and contemplative. We’ll do it somewhere where your whole family can come. Maybe a place further south, during the spring. You would look lovely all dressed up in flowers.
She smiled, letting out a light bubble of laughter. “In a hundred years, my love,” she promised, bringing up both of her hands to hold his head in her hands. He rested his chin against her palms, his eyes softening. “We’ll have the best wedding, it’ll put this one to shame.”
Humor sparked in his eyes and he took his forehead away from hers. She waited for his words to come, excited for what he would say. “Oh, come on, now. This is going to be a wonderful wedding, I just know it,”
He took a step back, going just out of her grasp. Her hands fell away from his face and she tried to put up a facade of a frown, but it quickly fell through, a bright grin sprouting on her lips. “It’s going to be a disaster if you don’t go and help my father. I’m afraid that he’s somehow frozen to death on his way to the market.”
Cassian smiled, stepping back enough to give her a quick half-bow. “I go where my lady bids,” he said, then turned and walked out of the large double-doors, a shivering and cold breeze tumbling in before he pulled the door tight behind himself.
She let out a long sigh, turning to stoke the fire before she walked around the large brick fireplace to walk down the aisle. The runner was a light pink woven rug that would later make its home in the house both Verrin and Odessa had bought together a couple of days ago. She was thankful for her lack of boots because she didn’t want to mess it up. It had probably taken whoever had woven it weeks upon weeks. Months, possibly.
Making it to the end of the aisle, she turned to the right and got to a door just large enough to fit a winged female. When she opened the door, a wave of warmth barreled down the small staircase, encasing her in its grasp. She stepped into the small hallway, pulling the door closed quietly behind her, starting up the stairs.
The calm, polite mix of voices reached her ears, and she found it strange. Mor was always so outwardly joyous, so her lowering her voice like this was weird to hear. It made her smile, to know that Mor had toned down who she was to make sure she didn’t startle anyone.
Esophina made her way to the top of the stairs, her arrival sounding much earlier thanks to the loose floorboards, to see Odessa sitting at a very used vanity. Odessa’s mother was standing behind her, humming and finger-combing her daughter’s hair, a bright, proud twinkle in her eyes.
“It’s freezing downstairs,” Esophina said, tugging at the sleeves of her leather armor to take it off. “That small fireplace does absolutely nothing.”
Mor raised her eyebrows from where she sat on the large, worn couch pushed up against one of the walls. She wore a long dress of warm gray wool, warmth favored over beauty. That was not to say it wasn’t beautiful, because it was. It was embroidered with shining silver thread, cut and sewn to fit an accentuate her form.
“We could have Rhys help with that if it’s still freezing by the time of the ceremony,” Mor said as Esophina took off her leather armor top, folding it and adding to a pile where her boots and weapons lay by the door. Mother, from where she sat on the couch beside Mor, poured a steaming cup of tea and holds it out to Esophina.
“It should be fine,” Esophina said, taking the cup of tea with a thank you, taking a small, burning sip of it.
“We have to get you out of those clothes and into something more wedding-appropriate,” Mother said, standing and herding Esophina into one of the back rooms before she could sound any requests. She shut and locked the door behind her, staring down Esophina from where she has her back pushed up against the door.
She waits like a child might do, waiting for what her mother has to say.
“You two accepted the bond,” Mother said, and Esophina blinked, nodding slowly. It wasn’t a secret, but nor had she found the time to tell her mother with how busy everyone was when they arrived. For extra measure, Mother sniffed the air, only confirming her thoughts more.
“He told me on Solstice,” she conceded, and Mother stepped forward, taking her in her arms.
“No grandchildren yet?” she teases, pulling away, a smile on her lips brighter than a thousand suns.
Esophina couldn’t help but laugh when Mother sniffed once again, looking for that tell-tale smell of a pregnant female. “Not yet,” she said. “We agreed that right now, with how much is changing in the Court, it’s smarter to wait.”
“But I will get grandchildren from you?”
“One day, yes,” Esophina said, unable to help her wild grin when Mother takes her into another rib-crushing hug. Of course, Mother would be excited about the prospect of grandchildren far more than she was over Esophina becoming a general. She couldn’t blame her mother, though, because this was her life—not daggers and organizing an army. At least she still had her family. They hadn’t abandoned her, and that meant the world to her.
“Your other child is getting married today,” Esophina said, and Mother pulled away, a light trill of laughter falling out of her lips.
“Yes, and you must look good for it. Not that you’re not beautiful already,” she said, and put her hands on Esophina’s shoulder, turning her to look at the dress that Mor had brought from Velaris laying on top of a chair.
Like always, Mor had bought an absolutely gorgeous dress that had no place in this frozen, stale place. It was a dress of mute green lace, the upper chest and arms thin enough that it would show her skin. Mor had also brought her the delicate diamond necklace from home. How Mor got it without her knowing, she wasn’t sure but was grateful for it nonetheless.
“Your mate better love you,” Mother whispered, a quiet fury there.
“He’s my mate, of course he loves me,” Esophina said, knowing the truth in her words. She stepped forward and lifted the soft, lacy dress. “Oh, and we’re getting married in a hundred years.”
“It better be the most extravagant wedding if you’re taking a hundred years to plan it,” Mother said, the smile evident in her voice. Esophina snorted, rubbing her thumb over the soft material. She would make sure it was the best wedding, at the most beautiful venue, filled with the most beautiful people: her family.
Odessa looked radiant in her frilly lace-and-tulle gown, walking down the aisle, a beaming smile on her lips. The layers of tulle brushed softly against the ground, her steps cushioned on the light-pink runner
She had admitted, minutes before Esophina had descended the stairs to find Cassian before the ceremony, that she would never wear this kind of dress for any other occasion, but her wedding was something special. She wanted to wear the most delicate and lady-like dress she could find, because she wouldn’t ever outside of this perfect day.
Verrin stood at the end of the aisle in front of the handful of gathered people, a barely-restrained smile on his lips. His black dress pants and matching jacket were both new—not a speck of dirt or dust on them. His awkward-length hair had been clipped and combed-through, looking fine and clean.
The priestess stood behind him, a slight furrow in her brown eyebrows. Her buttery yellow robes seemed to flutter in an invisible breeze like the Mother herself had set to making her seem enchanting and touched by the Cauldron’s gifts.
She wasn’t the normal priestess that made her home here in the Windhaven camp. She wasn’t even an Illyrian, but Verrin and Odessa had specifically asked for someone who could perform a ceremony that didn’t rely on the husband holding all the power and the wife being a gentle, docile servant. They wanted to get married as equals, as two souls who loved each other.
I hope our wedding isn’t this boring. His voice came humming through the bond and, without looking, she untangled her fingers from his and slapped the back of his hand. The sound resonated in the too-quiet space, causing Mother who sat on the other side of the aisle to send Esophina a long, withering glare.
She gave her best apologetic smile, gesturing discreetly with her head toward Cassian. The harshness in Mother’s eyes fell away almost instantly, replaced by a look of mated-female understanding.
It’s lovely. She replied, unable to keep the trace of her laughter from the words, not wanting to leave him without a reply. Odessa made it to the end of the aisle and everyone dropped to their seats at the calm command of the priestess.
They took their hands in each other’s, their attention wholly fixed on the moment. The intensity in their gazes showed enough about how they felt: they were off in another world, pulled in and enraptured by each other. It was like the small crowd watching them had completely disappeared and faded away.
The priestess started her speech, words about how the Mother had blessed them with the gift of finding their one true love trilling out of her lips in a well-practiced litany. She went on, saying that here in this union, they are devoting their lives and hearts to each other, that one is not more weighted with expectation. That they should both carry each other with wide and welcoming arms, ready to bear the brunt of the world and its harshness without judgment or anger. To protect and cherish and love.
Esophina was tearing up by the end of it, her lips quivering with the force of keeping her tears from falling. Cassian gave her hand a tight squeeze, noticing her rising emotions. This was her brother’s day, and she would not make it about her. Though she now, more than anything, wanted to get up and have the priestess perform another wedding.
The ceremony wrapped up and they drifted over to the other half of the building where they all continued to mull around while Mother and Odessa’s mother went to finish up cooking a nice meal for them all. Esophina was supposed to be with them, being the sister of the groom and all, but both mothers had insisted she stay and celebrate. It was as much as a party to celebrate her mating as much as it was to celebrate Odessa’s and Verrin’s wedding.
“A dress made out of diamonds, what do you think?” Cassian asked, his hovering form finally coming to pause beside her. He’d been talking with both Verrin and Father about something that wasn’t interesting enough for her to listen in on. Every now and then he would look over at her where she stood by the wall, a glass of near-frozen water in her hands.
“You would look lovely in it, I agree,” she said, the barest hint of a smile pulling at the corner of her lips. He looked to her, slightly aghast, and plucked the glass of water out of her hands to take a long sip of it.
“Not to say that I wouldn’t—” He grinned wildly when she snorted a laugh. “—but you would look ravishing in full diamonds.”
“I completely agree,” she said, lifting her hand to show her diamond ring. Still, to this day, she hardly ever took it off. “Seems too flashy, though. And heavy. And expensive. Too many cons,”
“You could wear nothing,” he said, lowering his voice, though the suggestive tone was not brushed over by Father. Who, when he heard, his eyes flared with protectiveness. A look that Cassian echoed right back. It was laughable, and she had to wonder who would win if it ever came down to a situation where both of them fought over her honor.
“Or we could try and not anger my father today or any other day,” she suggests, saying it loud enough that both her father and mate could hear. Father gave an apologetic look before he turned back into conversation with Verrin and Odessa, though part of his attention was still on them both.
“That, too, would be a good idea,” he agreed, handing the glass of water back to her. She sipped at it like it was the finest wine and smiled at her mate. This was absolute paradise, and she wished for her life to never change. She wished that in a hundred years they would have their wedding and hopefully sometime in their life they would have children.