The first snow of winter had begun whipping through Velaris an hour earlier.
The ground had finally frozen solid last week, and by the time I’d finished devouring my breakfast of toast and bacon, washed down with a heady cup of tea, the pale cobblestones were dusted with fine, white powder.
I had no idea where Rhys was. He hadn’t been in bed when I’d awoken, the mattress on his side already cold. Nothing unusual, as we were both busy to the point of exhaustion these days.
Seated at the long cherrywood dining table at the town house, I frowned at the whirling snow beyond the leaded glass windows.
Once, I had dreaded that first snow, had lived in terror of long, brutal winters.
But it had been a long, brutal winter that had brought me so deep into the woods that day nearly two years ago. A long, brutal winter that had made me desperate enough to kill a wolf, that had eventually led me here—to this life, this … happiness.
The snow fell, thick clumps plopping onto the dried grass of the tiny front lawn, crusting the spikes and arches of the decorative fence beyond it.
Deep inside me, rising with every swirling flake, a sparkling, crisp power stirred. I was High Lady of the Night Court, yes, but also one blessed with the gifts of all the courts. It seemed Winter now wanted to play.
Finally awake enough to be coherent, I lowered the shield of black adamant guarding my mind and cast a thought down the soul-bridge between me and Rhys. Where’d you fly off to so early?
My question faded into blackness. A sure sign that Rhys was nowhere near Velaris. Likely not even within the borders of the Night Court. Also not unusual—he’d been visiting our war allies these months to solidify our relationships, build trade, and keep tabs on their post-wall intentions. When my own work allowed it, I often joined him.
I scooped up my plate, draining my tea to the dregs, and padded toward the kitchen. Playing with ice and snow could wait.
Nuala was already preparing for lunch at the worktable, no sign of her twin, Cerridwen, but I waved her off as she made to take my dishes. “I can wash them,” I said by way of greeting.
Up to the elbows in making some sort of meat pie, the half-wraith gave me a grateful smile and let me do it. A female of few words, though neither twin could be considered shy. Certainly not when they worked—spied—for both Rhys and Azriel.
“It’s still snowing,” I observed rather pointlessly, peering out the kitchen window at the garden beyond as I rinsed off the plate, fork, and cup. Elain had already readied the garden for winter, veiling the more delicate bushes and beds with burlap. “I wonder if it’ll let up at all.”
Nuala laid the ornate lattice crust atop the pie and began pinching the edges together, her shadowy fingers making quick, deft work of it. “It’ll be nice to have a white Solstice,” she said, voice lilting and yet hushed. Full of whispers and shadows. “Some years, it can be fairly mild.”
Right. The Winter Solstice. In a week. I was still new enough to being High Lady that I had no idea what my formal role was to be. If we’d have a High Priestess do some odious ceremony, as Ianthe had done the year before—
A year. Gods, nearly a year since Rhys had called in his bargain, desperate to get me away from the poison of the Spring Court, to save me from my despair. Had he been only a minute later, the Mother knew what would have happened. Where I’d now be.
Snow swirled and eddied in the garden, catching in the brown fibers of the burlap covering the shrubs.
My mate—who had worked so hard and so selflessly, all without hope that I would ever be with him.
We had both fought for that love, bled for it. Rhys had died for it.
I still saw that moment, in my sleeping and waking dreams. How his face had looked, how his chest had not risen, how the bond between us had shredded into ribbons. I still felt it, that hollowness in my chest where the bond had been, where he had been. Even now, with that bond again flowing between us like a river of star-flecked night, the echo of its vanishing lingered. Drew me from sleep; drew me from a conversation, a painting, a meal.
Rhys knew exactly why there were nights when I would cling tighter to him, why there were moments in the bright, clear sunshine that I would grip his hand. He knew, because I knew why his eyes sometimes turned distant, why he occasionally just blinked at all of us as if not quite believing it and rubbed his chest as if to ease an ache.
Working had helped. Both of us. Keeping busy, keeping focused—I sometimes dreaded the quiet, idle days when all those thoughts snared me at last. When there was nothing but me and my mind, and that memory of Rhys lying dead on the rocky ground, the King of Hybern snapping my father’s neck, all those Illyrians blasted out of the sky and falling to earth as ashes.
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