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PART THREE

THE HOUSE OF MIST CHAPTER

52

There was a deep, sunken tub in the floor of the mountain cabin—large enough to accommodate Illyrian wings. I filled it with water near-scalding, not caring how the magic of this house operated, only that it worked. Hissing and wincing, I climbed in.

Three days without a bath and I could have wept at the warmth and cleanliness of it.

No matter that I’d once gone weeks without one—not when drawing hot water for it in my family’s cottage had been more trouble than it was worth. Not when we didn’t even have a bathtub and it required buckets and buckets to get clean.

I washed with dark soap that smelled of smoke and pine, and when I was done, I sat there, watching the steam slither amongst the few candles.

Mate.

The word chased me from the bath sooner than I wanted, and hounded me as I pulled on the clothes I’d found in a drawer of the bedroom: dark leggings, a large, cream-colored sweater that hung to mid-thigh, and thick socks. My stomach grumbled, and I realized I hadn’t eaten since the day before, because—

Because he’d been injured, and I’d gone out of my mind—absolutely insane—when he’d been taken from me, shot out of the sky like a bird.

I’d acted on instinct, on a drive to protect him that had come from so deep in me …

So deep in me—

I found a container of soup on the wood counter that Mor must have brought in, and scrounged up a cast iron pot to heat it. Fresh, crusty bread sat near the stove, and I ate half of it while waiting for the soup to warm.

He’d suspected it before I’d even freed us from Amarantha.

My wedding day … Had he interrupted to spare me from a horrible mistake or for his own ends? Because I was his mate, and letting me bind myself to someone else was unacceptable?

I ate my dinner in silence, with only the murmuring fire for company.

And beneath the barrage of my thoughts, a throb of relief.

My relationship with Tamlin had been doomed from the start. I had left—only to find my mate. To go to my mate.

If I were looking to spare us both from embarrassment, from rumor, only that—only that I had found my true mate—would do the trick.

I was not a lying piece of traitorous filth. Not even close. Even if Rhys … Rhys had known I was his mate.

While I’d shared a bed with Tamlin. For months and months. He’d known I was sharing a bed with him, and hadn’t let it show. Or maybe he didn’t care.

Maybe he didn’t want the bond. Had hoped it’d vanish.

I’d owed nothing to Rhys then—had nothing to apologize for.

But he’d known I’d react badly. That it’d hurt me more than help me.

And what if I had known?

What if I had known that Rhys was my mate while I’d loved Tamlin?

It didn’t excuse his not telling me. Didn’t excuse the recent weeks, when I’d hated myself so much for wanting him so badly—when he should have told me. But … I understood.

I washed the dishes, swept the crumbs off the small dining table between the kitchen and living area, and climbed into one of the beds.

Just last night, I’d been curled beside him, counting his breaths to make sure he didn’t stop making them. The night before, I’d been in his arms, his fingers between my legs, his tongue in my mouth. And now … though the cabin was warm, the sheets were cold. The bed was large—empty.

Through the small glass window, the snow-blasted land around me glowed blue in the moonlight. The wind was a hollow moan, brushing great, sparkling drifts of snow past the cabin.

I wondered if Mor had told him where I was.

Wondered if he’d indeed come looking for me.

Mate.

My mate.

Sunlight on snow awoke me, and I squinted at the brightness, cursing myself for not closing the curtains. It took me a moment to remember where I was; why I was in this isolated cabin, deep in the mountains of—I did’t know what mountains these were.

Rhys had once mentioned a favorite retreat that Mor and Amren had burned to cinders in a fight. I wondered if this was it; if it had been rebuilt. Everything was comfortable, worn, but in relatively good shape.

Mor and Amren had known.

I couldn’t decide if I hated them for it.

No doubt, Rhys had ordered them to keep quiet, and they’d respected his wishes, but …

I made the bed, fixed breakfast, washed the dishes, and then stood in the center of the main living space.

I’d run away.

Precisely how Rhys expected me to run—how I’d told him anyone in their right mind would run from him. Like a coward, like a fool, I’d left him injured in the freezing mud.

I’d walked away from him—a day after I’d told him he was the only thing I’d never walk away from.

I’d demanded honesty, and at the first true test, I hadn’t even let him give it to me. I hadn’t granted him the consideration of hearing him out.

You see me.

Well, I’d refused to see him. Maybe I’d refused to see what was right in front of me.

I’d walked away.

And maybe … maybe I shouldn’t have.

Boredom hit me halfway through the day.

Supreme, unrelenting boredom, thanks to being trapped inside while the snow slowly melted under the mild spring day, listening to it drip-drip-dripping off the roof.

It made me nosy—and once I’d finished going through the drawers and closets of both bedrooms (clothes, old bits of ribbon, knives and weapons tucked between as if one of them had chucked them in and just forgotten), the kitchen cabinets (food, preserved goods, pots and pans, a stained cookbook), and the living area (blankets, some books, more weapons hidden everywhere), I ventured into the supply closet.

For a High Lord’s retreat, the cabin was … not common, because everything had been made and appointed with care, but … casual. As if this were the sole place where they might all come, and pile into beds and on the couch, and not be anyone but themselves, taking turns with who cooked that night and who hunted and who cleaned and—

A family.

It felt like a family—the one I’d never quite had, had never dared really hope for. Had stopped expecting when I’d grown used to the space and formality of living in a manor. To being a symbol for a broken people, a High Priestess’s golden idol and puppet.

I opened the storeroom door, a blast of cold greeting me, but candles sputtered to life, thanks to the magic that kept the place hospitable. Shelves free of dust (another magical perk, no doubt) gleamed with more food stores. Books, sporting equipment, packs and ropes and, big surprise, more weapons. I sorted through it all, these remnants of adventures past and future, and almost missed them as I walked past.

Half a dozen cans of paint.

Paper, and a few canvases. Brushes, old and flecked with paint from lazy hands.

There were other art supplies—pastels and watercolors, what looked to be charcoal for sketching, but … I stared at the paint, the brushes.

Which of them had tried to paint while stuck here—or enjoying a holiday with them all?

I told myself my hands were trembling with the cold as I reached for the paint and pried open the lid.

Still fresh. Probably from the magic preserving this place.

I peered into the dark, gleaming interior of the can I’d opened: blue.

And then I started gathering supplies.

I painted all day.

And when the sun vanished, I painted all through the night.

The moon had set by the time I washed my hands and face and neck and stumbled into bed, not even bothering to undress before unconsciousness swept me away.

I was up, brush in hand, before the spring sun could resume its work thawing the mountains around me.

I paused only long enough to eat. The sun was setting again, exhausted from the dent it’d made in the layer of snow outside, when a knock sounded on the front door.

Splattered in paint—the cream-colored sweater utterly wrecked—I froze.

Another knock, light, but insistent. Then—“Please don’t be dead.”

I didn’t know whether it was relief or disappointment that sank in my chest as I opened the door and found Mor huffing hot air into her cupped hands.

She looked at the paint on my skin, in my hair. At the brush in my hand.

And then at what I had done.

Mor stepped in from the brisk spring night and let out a low whistle as she shut the door. “Well, you’ve certainly been busy.”

Indeed.

I’d painted nearly every surface in the main room.

And not with just broad swaths of color, but with decorations—little images. Some were basic: clusters of icicles drooping down the sides of the threshold. They melted into the first shoots of spring, then burst into full blooms of summer, before brightening and deepening into fall leaves. I’d painted a ring of flowers round the card table by the window; leaves and crackling flames around the dining table.

But in between the intricate decorations, I’d painted them. Bits and pieces of Mor, and Cassian, and Azriel, and Amren … and Rhys.

Mor went up to the large hearth, where I’d painted the mantel in black shimmering with veins of gold and red. Up close, it was a solid, pretty bit of paint. But from the couch … “Illyrian wings,” she said. “Ugh, they’ll never stop gloating about it.”

But she went to the window, which I’d framed in tumbling strands of gold and brass and bronze. Mor fingered her hair, cocking her head. “Nice,” she said, surveying the room again.

Her eyes fell on the open threshold to the bedroom hallway, and she grimaced. “Why,” she said, “are Amren’s eyes there?”

Indeed, right above the door, in the center of the archway, I’d painted a pair of glowing silver eyes. “Because she’s always watching.”

Mor snorted. “That simply won’t do. Paint my eyes next to hers. So the males of this family will know we’re both watching them the next time they come up here to get drunk for a week straight.”

“They do that?”

“They used to.” Before Amarantha. “Every autumn, the three of them would lock themselves in this house for five days and drink and drink and hunt and hunt, and they’d come back to Velaris looking halfway to death but grinning like fools. It warms my heart to know that from now on, they’ll have to do it with me and Amren staring at them.”

A smile tugged on my lips. “Who does this paint belong to?”

“Amren,” Mor said, rolling her eyes. “We were all here one summer, and she wanted to teach herself to paint. She did it for about two days before she got bored and decided to start hunting poor creatures instead.”

A quiet chuckle rasped out of me. I strode to the table, which I’d used as my main surface for blending and organizing paints. And maybe I was a coward, but I kept my back to her as I said, “Any news from my sisters?”

Mor started rifling through the cabinets, either to look for food or assess what I needed. She said over a shoulder, “No. Not yet.”

“Is he … hurt?” I’d left him in the freezing mud, injured and working the poison out of his system. I’d tried not to dwell on it while I’d painted.

“Still recovering, but fine. Pissed at me, of course, but he can shove it.”

I combined Mor’s yellow gold with the red I’d used for the Illyrian wings, and blended until vibrant orange emerged. “Thank you—for not telling him I was here.”

A shrug. Food began popping onto the counter: fresh bread, fruit, containers of something that I could smell from across the kitchen and made me nearly groan with hunger. “You should talk to him, though. Make him stew over it, of course, but … hear him out.” She didn’t look at me as she spoke. “Rhys always has his reasons, and he might be arrogant as all hell, but he’s usually right about his instincts. He makes mistakes, but … You should hear him out.”

I’d already decided that I would, but I said, “How was your visit to the Court of Nightmares?”

She paused, her face going uncharacteristically pale. “Fine. It’s always a delight to see my parents. As you might guess.”

“Is your father healing?” I added the cobalt of Azriel’s Siphons to the orange and mixed until a rich brown appeared.

A small, grim smile. “Slowly. I might have snapped some more bones when I visited. My mother has since banished me from their private quarters. Such a shame.”

Some feral part of me beamed in savage delight at that. “A pity indeed,” I said. I added a bit of frost white to lighten the brown, checked it against the gaze she slid to me, and grabbed a stool to stand on as I began painting the threshold. “Rhys really makes you do this often? Endure visiting them?”

Mor leaned against the counter. “Rhys gave me permission the day he became High Lord to kill them all whenever I pleased. I attend these meetings, go to the Court of Nightmares, to … remind them of that sometimes. And to keep communication between our two courts flowing, however strained it might be. If I were to march in there tomorrow and slaughter my parents, he wouldn’t blink. Perhaps be inconvenienced by it, but … he would be pleased.”

I focused on the speck of caramel brown I painted beside Amren’s eyes. “I’m sorry—for all that you endured.”

“Thank you,” she said, coming over to watch me. “Visiting them always leaves me raw.”

“Cassian seemed concerned.” Another prying question.

She shrugged. “Cassian, I think, would also savor the opportunity to shred that entire court to pieces. Starting with my parents. Maybe I’ll let him do it one year as a present. Him and Azriel both. It’d make a perfect solstice gift.”

I asked perhaps a bit too casually. “You told me about the time with Cassian, but did you and Azriel ever … ?”

A sharp laugh. “No. Azriel? After that time with Cassian, I swore off any of Rhys’s friends. Azriel’s got no shortage of lovers, though, don’t worry. He’s better at keeping them secret than we are, but … he has them.”

“So if he were ever interested would you … ?”

“The issue, actually, wouldn’t be me. It’d be him. I could peel off my clothes right in front of him and he wouldn’t move an inch. He might have defied and proved those Illyrian pricks wrong at every turn, but it won’t matter if Rhys makes him Prince of Velaris—he’ll see himself as a bastard-born nobody, and not good enough for anyone. Especially me.”

“But … are you interested?”

“Why are you asking such things?” Her voice became tight, sharp. More wary than I’d ever heard.

“I’m still trying to figure out how you all work together.”

A snort, that wariness gone. I tried not to look too relieved. “We have five centuries of tangled history for you to sort through. Good luck.”

Indeed. I finished her eyes—honey brown to Amren’s quicksilver. But almost in answer, Mor declared, “Paint Azriel’s. Next to mine. And Cassian’s next to Amren’s.”

I lifted my brows.

Mor gave me an innocent smile. “So we can all watch over you.”

I just shook my head and hopped off the stool to start figuring out how to paint hazel eyes.

Mor said quietly, “Is it so bad—to be his mate? To be a part of our court, our family, tangled history and all?”

I blended the paint in the small dish, the colors swirling together like so many entwined lives. “No,” I breathed. “No, it’s not.”

And I had my answer.

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