Elain’s voice was colder than usual. I glanced at Nuala and Cerridwen, the latter giving me a shake of her head as if to say, Not a good day for her.
Like the rest of us, Elain’s recovery was ongoing. She’d wept for hours the day I’d taken her to a wildflower-covered hill on the outskirts of the city—to the marble headstone I’d had erected there in honor of our father.
I’d turned his body to ashes after the King of Hybern had killed him, but he still deserved a resting place. For all he’d done in the end, he deserved the beautiful stone I’d had carved with his name. And Elain had deserved a place to visit with him, talk with him.
She went at least once a month.
Nesta had never been at all. Had ignored my invitation to come with us that first day. And every time afterward.
I took up a spot beside Elain, grabbing a knife from the other side of the table to begin cutting the bread. Down the hall, the sounds of my family echoed toward us, Mor’s bright laughter ringing out above Cassian’s rumble.
I waited until I had a stack of steaming slices before I said, “Nesta is still a part of this family.”
“Is she?” Elain sawed deep into the next loaf. “She certainly doesn’t act like it.”
I hid my frown. “Did something happen when you saw her today?”
Elain didn’t answer. She just kept slicing the bread.
So I continued as well. I didn’t appreciate when other people pushed me to speak. I’d grant her that same courtesy, too.
In silence, we worked, then set about filling the platters with the food Nuala and Cerridwen signaled was ready, their shadows veiling them more than usual. To grant us some sense of privacy. I threw them a look of gratitude, but they both shook their heads. No thanks necessary. They’d spent more time with Elain than even I had. They understood her moods, what she sometimes needed.
It was only when Elain and I were hauling the first of the serving dishes down the hall toward the dining room that she spoke. “Nesta said she didn’t want to come to Solstice.”
“That’s fine.” Even though something in my chest twisted a bit.
“She said she didn’t want to come to anything. Ever.”
I paused, scanning the pain and fear now shining in Elain’s eyes. “Did she say why?”
“No.” Anger—there was anger in Elain’s face, too. “She just said … She said that we have our lives, and she has hers.”
To say that to me, fine. But to Elain?
I blew out a breath, my stomach gurgling at the platter of slow-roasted chicken I held between my hands, the scent of sage and lemon filling my nose. “I’ll talk to her.”
“Don’t,” Elain said flatly, starting once more into a walk, veils of steam drifting past her shoulders from the roasted rosemary potatoes in her hands, as if they were Azriel’s shadows. “She won’t listen.”
Like hell she wouldn’t.
“And you?” I made myself say. “Are you—all right?”
Elain looked over a shoulder at me as we entered the foyer, then turned left—to the dining room. In the sitting room across the way, all conversation halted at the smell of food. “Why wouldn’t I be all right?” she asked, a smile lighting up her face.
I’d seen those smiles before. On my own damn face.
But the others came barreling in from the sitting room, Cassian kissing Elain’s cheek in greeting before he nearly lifted her out of the way to get to the dining table. Amren came next, giving my sister a nod, her ruby necklace sparkling in the faelights speckled throughout the garlands in the hall. Then Mor, with a smacking kiss for either cheek. Then Rhys, shaking his head at Cassian, who began helping himself to the platters Nuala and Cerridwen winnowed in. As Elain lived here, my mate gave her only a smile of greeting before taking up his seat at Cassian’s right.
Azriel emerged from the sitting room, a glass of wine in hand and wings tucked back to reveal his fine, yet simple black jacket and pants.
I felt, more than saw, my sister go still as he approached. Her throat bobbed.
“Are you just going to hold that chicken all night?” Cassian asked me from the table.
Scowling, I stomped toward him, plunking the platter onto the wooden surface. “I spat in it,” I said sweetly.
“Makes it all the more delicious,” Cassian crooned, smiling right back. Rhys snickered, drinking deeply from his wine.
But I strode to my seat—nestled between Amren and Mor—in time to see Elain say to Azriel, “Hello.”
Az said nothing.
No, he just moved toward her.
Mor tensed beside me.
But Azriel only took Elain’s heavy dish of potatoes from her hands, his voice soft as night as he said, “Sit. I’ll take care of it.”
Elain’s hands remained in midair, as if the ghost of the dish remained between them. With a blink, she lowered them, and noticed her apron. “I—I’ll be right back,” she murmured, and hurried down the hall before I could explain that no one cared if she showed up to dinner covered in flour and that she should just sit.
Azriel set the potatoes in the center of the table, Cassian diving right in. Or he tried to.
One moment, his hand was spearing toward the serving spoon. The next, it was stopped, Azriel’s scarred fingers wrapped around his wrist. “Wait,” Azriel said, nothing but command in his voice.
Mor gaped wide enough that I was certain the half-chewed green beans in her mouth were going to tumble onto her plate. Amren just smirked over the rim of her wineglass.
Cassian gawked at him. “Wait for what? Gravy?”
Azriel didn’t let go. “Wait until everyone is seated before eating.”
“Pig,” Mor supplied.
Cassian gave a pointed look to the plate of green beans, chicken, bread, and ham already half eaten on Mor’s plate. But he relaxed his hand, leaning back in his chair. “I never knew you were a stickler for manners, Az.”
Azriel only released Cassian’s hand, and stared at his wineglass.
Elain swept in, apron gone and hair rebraided. “Please don’t wait on my account,” she said, taking the seat at the head of the table.
Cassian glared at Azriel. Az pointedly ignored him.
But Cassian waited until Elain had filled her plate before he took another scoop of anything. As did the others.
I met Rhys’s stare across the table. What was that about?
Rhys sliced into his glazed ham in smooth, skilled strokes. It had nothing to do with Cassian.
Rhys took a bite, gesturing with his knife for me to eat. Let’s just say it hit a little close to home. At m
y beat of confusion, he added, There are some scars when it comes to how his mother was treated. Many scars.
His mother, who had been a servant—near-slave—when he was born. And afterward. None of us bother to wait for everyone to sit, least of all Cassian.
It can strike at odd times.
I did my best not to look toward the shadowsinger. I see.
Turning to Amren, I studied her plate. Small portions of everything. “Still getting used to it?”
Amren grunted, rolling around her roasted, honeyed carrots. “Blood tastes better.”
Mor and Cassian choked.
“And it didn’t take so much time to consume,” Amren groused, lifting the teensiest scrap of roast chicken to her red-painted lips.
Small, slow meals for Amren. The first normal meal she’d eaten after returning—a bowl of lentil soup—had made her vomit for an hour. So it had been a gradual adjustment. She still couldn’t dive into a meal the way the rest of us were prone to. Whether it was wholly physical or perhaps some sort of personal adjustment period, none of us knew.
“And then there are the other unpleasant results of eating,” Amren went on, slicing her carrots into tiny slivers.
Azriel and Cassian swapped a glance, then both seemed to find their plates very interesting. Even as smiles tugged on their faces.
Elain asked, “What sort of results?”
“Don’t answer that,” Rhys said smoothly, pointing to Amren with his fork.
Amren hissed at him, her dark hair swaying like a curtain of liquid night, “Do you know what an inconvenience it is to need to find a place to relieve myself everywhere I go?”
A fizzing noise came from Cassian’s side of the table, but I clamped my lips together. Mor gripped my knee beneath the table, her body shaking with the effort of keeping her laugh reined in.
Rhys drawled to Amren, “Shall we start building public toilets for you throughout Velaris, Amren?”
“I mean it, Rhysand,” Amren snapped. I didn’t dare meet Mor’s stare. Or Cassian’s. One look and I’d completely dissolve. Amren waved a hand down at herself. “I should have selected a male form. At least you can whip it out and go wherever you like without having to worry about spilling on—”