A line in the sand. And an unusual one. Cassian shook her hand, unsurprised to find her grip strong and unfaltering.
He’d known Proteus. Had been surprised when the male had joined the ranks during the war. Cassian knew he’d had one daughter and no sons. No close male relatives, either. With his death, the store would have gone to one of them. But for his daughter to step up, to insist this store was hers, and to keep running it … He surveyed the small, tidy space.
Glanced through the front window to the shop across the street, the sold-out sign there.
Stock filled Emerie’s store. As if she’d just gotten a fresh shipment. Or no one had bothered to come in. Ever.
For Proteus to have owned and built this place, in a camp where the idea of shops was one that had only started in the past fifty or so years, meant he’d had a good deal of money. Enough perhaps for Emerie to coast on. But not forever.
“It certainly seems like it’s your shop,” he said at last, turning his attention back to her. Emerie had drifted a few feet away, her back straight, chin upraised.
He’d seen Nesta in that particular pose, too. He called it her I Will Slay My Enemies pose.
Cassian had named about two dozen poses for Nesta at this point. Ranging from I Will Eat Your Eyes for Breakfast to I Don’t Want Cassian to Know I’m Reading Smut. The latter was his particular favorite.
Suppressing his smile, Cassian gestured to the pretty piles of shearling-lined gloves and thick scarves that bedecked the window display. “I’ll take every bit of winter gear you have.”
Her dark brows rose toward her hairline. “Really?”
He fished a hand into the pocket of his leathers to pull out his money pouch and extended it to her. “That should cover it.”
Emerie weighed the small leather pouch in her palm. “I don’t need charity.”
“Then take whatever the cost is for your gloves and boots and scarves and coats out of it and give the rest back to me.”
She made no answer before chucking the pouch on the counter and bustling to the window display. Everything he asked for she gathered onto the counter in neat piles and stacks, even going into the back room behind the counter and emerging with more. Until there wasn’t an empty bit of space on the polished counter, and only the sound of clinking coins filled the shop.
She wordlessly handed him back his pouch. He refrained from mentioning that she was one of the few Illyrians who’d ever accepted his money. Most had spat on it, or thrown it on the ground. Even after Rhys had become High Lord.
Emerie surveyed the piles of winter goods on the counter. “Do you want me to find some bags and boxes?”
He shook his head. “That won’t be necessary.”
Again, her dark brows rose.
Cassian reached into his money pouch and set three heavy coins onto the only sliver of empty space he could find on the counter. “For the delivery charges.”
“To whom?” Emerie blurted.
“You live above the shop, don’t you?” A terse nod. “Then I assume you know enough about this camp and who has plenty, and who has nothing. A storm is going to hit in a few days. I’d like you to distribute this amongst those who might feel its impact the hardest.”
She blinked, and he saw her reassessment. Emerie studied the piled goods. “They—a lot of them don’t like me,” she said, more softly than he’d heard.
“They don’t like me, either. You’re in good company.”
A reluctant curl of her lips at that. Not quite a smile. Certainly not with a male she didn’t know.
“Consider it good advertising for this shop,” he went on. “Tell them it was a gift from their High Lord.”
“Why not you?”
He didn’t want to answer that. Not today. “Better to leave me out of it.”
Emerie took his measure for a moment, then nodded. “I’ll make sure this has been delivered to those who need it most by sundown.”
Cassian bowed his head in thanks and headed for the glass door. The door and windows on this building alone had likely cost more than most Illyrians could afford in years.
Proteus had been a wealthy man—a good businessman. And a decent warrior. To have risked this by going to war, he had to have possessed some shred of pride.
But the scars on Emerie’s wings, proof that she’d never taste the wind again …
Half of him wished that Proteus were still alive. If only so he could kill the male himself.
Cassian reached for the brass handle, the metal cold against his palm.
He peered over a shoulder to where Emerie still stood behind the counter. He didn’t bother to correct her, to say that he did not and would never accept using lord before his name. “Happy Solstice,” she said tersely.
Cassian flashed her a smile. “You, too. Send word if you have any trouble with the deliveries.”
Her narrow chin rose. “I’m sure I won’t need to.”
Fire in those words. Emerie would make the families take them, whether they wanted to or not.
He’d seen that fire before—and the steel. He half wondered what might happen if the two of them ever met. What might come of it.
Cassian shouldered his way out of the shop and into the freezing day, the bell tinkling in his wake. A herald of the storm to come.
Not just the storm that was barreling toward these mountains.
But perhaps one that had been brewing here for a long, long time.
I shouldn’t have eaten dinner.
It was the thought tumbling through my head as I neared the studio Ressina occupied, darkness full overhead. As I saw the lights spilling into the frosted street, mixing with the glow from the lamps.
At this hour, three days before Solstice, it was packed with shoppers—not just residents of the quarter, but those from across the city and its countryside. So many High Fae and faeries, many of the latter kinds that I had never seen before. But all smiling, all seeming to shimmer with merriment and goodwill. It was impossible not to feel the thrum of that energy under my skin, even as nerves threatened to send me flying home, frigid wind or no.
I’d hauled a pack full of supplies down here, a canvas tucked under my arm, unsure whether they would be provided or if it would look rude to show up at Ressina’s studio and appear to have expected to be given them. I’d walked from the town house, not wanting to winnow with so many things, and not wanting to risk losing the canvas to the tug of the bitter wind if I flew.
Staying warm aside, shielding against the wind while still flying on the wind was something I’d yet to master, despite my now-occasional lessons with Rhys or Azriel, and with additional weight in my arms, plus the cold … I didn’t know how the Il
lyrians did it, up in their mountains, where it was cold all year.
Perhaps I’d find out soon, if the grumblings and malcontent spread across the war-camps.
Not the time to think about it. My stomach was already uneasy enough.
I paused a house away from Ressina’s studio, my palms sweating within my gloves.
I’d never painted with a group before. I rarely liked to share my paintings with anyone.
And this first time back in front of a canvas, unsure of what might come spilling out of me …
A tug on the bond.
Everything all right?
A casual, soft question, the cadence of Rhys’s voice soothing the tremors along my nerves.
He’d told me where he planned to go tomorrow. What he planned to inquire about.
He’d asked me if I’d like to go with him.
I’d said no.
I might owe Tamlin my mate’s life, I might have told Tamlin that I wished him peace and happiness, but I did not wish to see him. Speak with him. Deal with him. Not for a good long while. Perhaps forever.
Maybe it was because of that, because I’d felt worse after declining Rhys’s invitation than I had when he’d asked, that I’d ventured out into the Rainbow tonight.
But now, faced with Ressina’s communal studio, already hearing the laughter flitting out from where she and others had gathered for their weekly paint-in, my resolve sputtered out.
I don’t know if I can do this.
Rhys was quiet for a moment. Do you want me to come with you?
I’d be an excellent nude model.
I smiled, not caring that I was by myself in the street with countless people streaming past me. My hood concealed most of my face, anyway. You’ll forgive me if I don’t feel like sharing the glory that is you with anyone else.
Perhaps I’ll model for you later, then. A sensuous brush down the bond that had my blood heating. It’s been a while since we had paint involved.
That cabin and kitchen table flashed into my mind, and my mouth went a bit dry. Rogue.
A chuckle. If you want to go in, then go in. If you don’t, then don’t. It’s your call.
I frowned down at the canvas tucked under one arm, the box of paints cradled in the other. Frowned toward the studio thirty feet away, the shadows thick between me and that golden spill of light.