If the cabin seemed compact from the first floor, the second surprised Nesta. There were three doors leading to separate bedrooms, two with a joining bathroom. A ladder stood in the center of the landing that led to an open attic.
Normally more comfortable with high spaces, she’d chosen that room.
Mor and Elain bid her goodnight, separating into their own rooms, before she crept up the ladder.
Fortunately the space was tasked as a bedroom already. With a plush bed with its head pushed to the single window on the far wall, it also held a small dresser and a stack of pillows upon a rug in the guise of a sitting area.
Placing her things neatly on the floor so as to not disrupt the dust that had settled on the dresser, she crawled across the mattress, using the sloping ceiling on either side to balance her. The window revealed a plane of earth, cleared of vegetation, weapons strewn about. A dagger stuck from the dirt, a sword laid haphazardly by it. Like there’d been a battle, and they were stolen away – leaving traces of their existence to wither with the weather.
A light rain had started again, and judging by the state of their roads, she wondered if the Illyrians warriors ever experienced a dry, warm day.
Surely no condition to leave weapons lying around in. She scoffed and flipped onto the mattress, closing her eyes with relief.
“I’d have to agree.”
Nesta sat forward suddenly, bearing her weight on her elbows behind her, and peered past where the moonlight lit the room.
“But then again,” Cassian said, laughing as he stepped into the white glow from her window. “Illyrians have never been known for their intelligence. Bastard-born brutes, yes. But not knowledge of things that matter.” At that he scowled. Okay, sensitive subject.
“Is this the part where you tell me that’s where they’ve underestimated you,” she replied, quirking an eyebrow at him.
His form swallowed the room and she was mildly impressed that he was able to fit in the attic. His dark hair swung forward to shadow one eye as he ducked below the rafters. She hadn’t even heard the ladder creak when he came up.
“Catching on, are you,” he asked from deep within his throat, venturing another step toward her.
She watched his gaze settle on where her chest inflated erratically. She schooled her face into an impassive mask, completely ignoring the fact that her blood felt electrified.
“Am I intruding? You must be tired,” he finally said, raking a hand through hair still wet and unruly from being outside earlier that night. Shy was a fresh look for him. “I… I just thought we could discuss what you said at dinner. When you said that you wanted to help. Did you mean that?”
“Ah, I… yes, I meant it. Please sit.” She waved a hand to the end of the bed and curled her legs beneath her.
Cassian tentatively sat on the edge of the mattress, wings tucked tightly to one side, not yet looking at her, but at his wringing hands. It seemed like he was settling himself.
“I wish…” He paused. “I wish this wasn’t happening again. We supposed it would, after Amarantha, but not of this magnitude. You and your sisters shouldn’t have this burden, not when you’ve only just been Made. The things my family and I have seen… Unspeakable things. I just wanted to make sure you’ve acknowledged the brutality still to be come, and the possible outcome.”
She knew what outcome he was referring to, had mentally prepared herself for it. But thinking about death, and staring it in the face were totally separate entities.
“Cassian. You forget they tossed my family in the slums when we lost our wealth. Watching death eat someone slowly from starvation has hardened us, I think,” she said soothingly, placing a hand atop his shoulder. He stopped moving altogether, stopped breathing. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have.”
She slowly withdrew her fingers, planning on holding the hand to her chest for the remainder of their conversation – a silent promise not to touch him again – when his own hand shot out blindingly fast to capture her wrist.
Nesta gasped at the contact of skin on skin. His grip was enough to hurt her, yet she was tempted to tell him to wrap those lovely hands around her whole body and hurt her everywhere.
“Sometimes,” he said, sounding strained. His attention was now where his hand traveled to her palm, stroking softly with his thumb. “I forget you are unaware of our traditions. Dinner, for instance. Making your mate a meal, allowing him to eat something that you alone made, is a part of the acceptance of the mating bond.”
It was her turn to stop breathing. She had no idea the significance.
“Don’t worry, sweetness,” he said quickly, noting her expression. No doubt she looked horrified. She wished that wasn’t the first expression he saw. “I won’t hold you to it. There are things our kind takes very seriously, however, mannerisms and traditions that I can teach you with time. Things that you would not have known otherwise. What I said at dinner was also true – the choice is yours alone.”
“I know,” she replied softly.
Cassian nodded, as if some agreement had been made, and turned those beautiful eyes to her own. “May I ask you a question?”
Now captured in his gaze, Nesta nodded slowly.
“How did you learn to block me from your mind? Sometimes I hear everything, others I hear total silence. Did Mor instruct you?” His finger stopped circling her still-outstretched palm and she wanted to scream at him to start again.
He winced and laughed gloriously. “Like that, right there? I heard that.” Still, though, his movements against her skin resumed.
Nesta smiled, angling her pointer finger upward to graze the inside of his wrist, and she felt the bond physically hum. Even the slightest touch and she had enough electricity coursing through her she could light the night. “No one instructed me. I imagine a knob inside my mind and I turn it until the bond quiets.”
“What an original and beautiful creature you are,” he said after a moment of studying every inch of her face.
“So now I’m reduced to a creature, am I?” She laughed. He grew serious and stared at her mouth, and then into her eyes again. Quickly recovering from his change in mood, and her now hammering pulse, she said, “And what could a creature like me contribute to your war, hmm? I’m not strong enough to carry you on my back through battle, but I could learn to jump through hoops if that pleases you.”
It felt like she was treading on dangerous ground for some reason.
“You could win a battle of wits with any male, and once we’ve trained you to harness your full power… you could win the war, if you so wished.”
Cassian’s words were intoxicating. He not only thought her capable, but believed her to be powerful. A woman. She was drunk on the feeling radiating from them both, and she reached up to capture his chin between the fingers of her free hand, feeling his day-old beard scrape her delicate skin.
Leaning forward to pin him with her gaze, she whispered, “Thank you.”
Gathering her hand in his, he slowly removed her grip from his face. “Nesta, you shouldn’t unless…,” he said, pained. “It’s just… I don’t know if I’ll be able to stop myself, if you don’t.”
Nesta felt like a greedy child. She never considered what her demand for comfort, or simply touching him, implied. Typical. She’d opened herself to another, let him see, and she’d gotten another door slammed in her face.
She wanted someone to take control – to not stop. But she couldn’t think that way. Not after last time.
Tomas briefly flitted through her mind. His hands, his mouth, the satisfying smack of tooth on lip as she slapped him away. Then the urge to smack herself as she thought of the times she allowed him to have his way with her, fortunately always over her skirts. When she had thought that if someone was willing to have her, she might as well yield to him.
Cassian’s growl shook the bed. “Tomas, is it? Thank you for such a clear image of his face, for I will look right over it in his time of need.” He sighed heavily. “Is that what you think of me? That my single focus is satisfying my urges? If I was granted an inch, it would be in your direction. You must know that.”
She considered his eyes for some sign of dishonesty, but found none.
Shaking her head to clear her thoughts, she said, “The night does funny things to people, I think. Maybe we should wait until morning to resume this conversation.”
Forcing self-control into the shape of modesty felt wrong, but she couldn’t trust herself. Not when she clenched her fists to stop herself from brushing another lock of umber hair from his forehead that had fallen from where it was tied at his neck.
“I’m glad you’re feeling better, though,” Nesta blurted when he began to draw away from her. “Your wing looks almost completely healed.”
Cassian smiled wryly at her. She hoped he didn’t think her attempt to placate him into innocent conversation was a flat-out refusal of him. “We’re meeting downstairs at sunrise. Then we convene with the Council. We’ll be discussing the human territory, and your input would be invaluable. The choice is yours.”
As it always is.
Sudden guilt came over her for not being ready to accept this arrangement, for everything. He had had a life before her, and she found it hard to believe he was a stranger to the female form. He could only be honoring the bond, and not be interested in her at all.
“You’re impossible,” he grimaced. Nesta realized he most likely heard every word of her doubt, and hated herself for not warding against projecting her emotions like a warning flare. “Listen to me, woman. I don’t involve myself in matters I don’t wish to be a part of. I don’t spend time with people who I care nothing for. If I was only honoring the bond as a matter of respect to the Mother, you’d know. If you want to paint me as a coldhearted predator, fine. I’ve been called much worse, trust me.” She felt every word released on her lips, snarled in her face like a repeated slap.
Nesta watched as he ducked to avoid the ceiling, disappearing into darkness again, like he’d never been there at all.