It could have been me. And Rhys. Had very nearly gone that way.
Yet he had lived, and the weaver’s husband had not. We had lived, and their story had ended. She did not have a piece of him left. At least, not in the way she wished.
I was lucky—so tremendously lucky to even be complaining about shopping for my mate. That moment when he had died had been the worst of my life, would likely remain so, but we had survived it. These months, the what-if had haunted me. All of the what-ifs that we’d so narrowly escaped.
And this holiday tomorrow, this chance to celebrate being together, living …
The impossible depth of blackness before me, the unlikely defiance of Hope shining through it, whispered the truth before I knew it. Before I knew what I wanted to give Rhys.
The weaver’s husband had not come home. But mine had.
Elain was again at my side. I hadn’t heard her steps. Hadn’t heard any sound for moments.
The gallery had emptied out, I realized. But I didn’t care, not as I again approached the weaver, who had stopped once more. At the mention of my name.
The weaver’s eyes were slightly wide as she bowed her head. “My lady.”
I ignored the words. “How.” I gestured to the loom, the half-finished piece taking form on its frame, the art on the walls. “How do you keep creating, despite what you lost?”
Whether she noted the crack in my voice, she didn’t let on. The weaver only said, her sad, sorrowful gaze meeting mine, “I have to.”
The simple words hit me like a blow.
The weaver went on, “I have to create, or it was all for nothing. I have to create, or I will crumple up with despair and never leave my bed. I have to create because I have no other way of voicing this.” Her hand rested on her heart, and my eyes burned. “It is hard,” the weaver said, her stare never leaving mine, “and it hurts, but if I were to stop, if I were to let this loom or the spindle go silent …” She broke my gaze at last to look to her tapestry. “Then there would be no Hope shining in the Void.”
My mouth trembled, and the weaver reached over to squeeze my hand, her callused fingers warm against mine.
I had no words to offer her, nothing to convey what surged in my chest. Nothing other than, “I would like to buy that tapestry.”
The tapestry was a gift for no one but myself, and would be delivered to the town house later that afternoon.
Elain and I browsed various stores for another hour before I left my sister to do her own shopping at the Palace of Thread and Jewels.
I winnowed right into the abandoned studio in the Rainbow.
I needed to paint. Needed to get out what I’d seen, felt in the weaver’s gallery.
I wound up staying for three hours.
Some paintings were quick, swift renderings. Some I began plotting out with pencil and paper, mulling over the canvas needed, the paint I’d like to use.
I painted through the grief that lingered at the weaver’s story, painted for her loss. I painted all that rose within me, letting the past bleed onto the canvas, a blessed relief with each stroke of my brush.
It was little surprise I was caught.
I barely had time to leap off my stool before the front door opened and Ressina entered, a mop and bucket in her green hands. I certainly didn’t have enough time to hide all the paintings and supplies.
Ressina, to her credit, only smiled as she stopped short. “I suspected you’d be in here. I saw the lights the other night and thought it might be you.”
My heart pounded through my body, my face as warm as a forge, but I managed to offer a close-lipped smile. “Sorry.”
The faerie gracefully crossed the room, even with the cleaning supplies in hand. “No need to apologize. I was just headed in to do some cleaning up.”
She dumped the mop and bucket against one of the empty white walls with a faint thud.
“Why?” I laid my paintbrush atop the palette I’d placed on a stool beside mine.
Ressina set her hands on her narrow hips and surveyed the place.
By some mercy or lack of interest, she didn’t look too long at my paintings. “Polina’s family hasn’t discussed whether they’re selling, but I figured she, at least, wouldn’t want the place to be a mess.”
I bit my lip, nodding awkwardly as I lingered by the mess I’d added. “Sorry I … I didn’t come by your studio the other night.”
Ressina shrugged. “Again, no need to apologize.”
So rarely did anyone outside the Inner Circle speak to me with such casualness. Even the weaver had become more formal after I’d offered to buy her tapestry.
“I’m just glad someone’s using this place. That you are using it,” Ressina added. “I think Polina would have liked you.”
Silence fell when I didn’t answer. When I began scooping up supplies. “I’ll get out of your way.” I moved to set down a still-drying painting against the wall. A portrait I’d been thinking about for some time now. I sent it to that pocket between realms, along with all the others I’d been working on.
I bent to pick up my pack of supplies.
“You could leave those.”
I paused, a hand looped around the leather strap. “It’s not my space.”
Ressina leaned against the wall beside her mop and bucket. “Perhaps you could talk to Polina’s family about that. They’re motivated sellers.”
I straightened, taking the supply pack with me. “Perhaps,” I hedged, sending the rest of the supplies and paintings tumbling into that pocket realm, not caring if they crashed into each other as I headed for the door.
“They live out on a farm in Dunmere, by the sea. In case you’re ever interested.”
Not likely. “Thanks.”
I could practically hear her smile as I reached the front door. “Happy Solstice.”
“You, too,” I threw over my shoulder before I vanished onto the street.
And slammed right into the hard, warm chest of my mate.
I rebounded off Rhys with a curse, scowling at his laugh as he gripped my arms to steady me against the icy street. “Going somewhere?”
I frowned at him, but linked my arm through his and launched into a brisk walk. “What are you doing here?”
“Why are you running out of an abandoned gallery as if you’ve stolen something?”
“I was not running.”I pinched his arm, earning another deep, husky laugh.
“Walking suspiciously quickly, then.”
I didn’t answer until we’d reached the avenue that sloped down to the river. Thin crusts of ice drifted along the turquoise waters. Beneath them, I could feel the current still flowing past—not as strongly as I did in warmer months, though. As if the Sidra had fallen into a twilight slumber for the winter.
“That’s where I’ve been painting,” I said at last as we halted at the railed walkway beside the river. A damp, cold wind brushed past, ruffling my hair. Rhys tucked a strand of it behind my ear. “I went back today—and was interrupted by an artist, Ressina. But the studio belonged to a faerie who didn’t survive the attack this spring. Ressina was cleaning up the space on her behalf. Polina’s behalf, in case Polina’s family wants to sell it.”
“We can buy you a studio space if you need somewhere to paint by yourself,” he offered, the thin sunlight gilding his hair. No sign of his wings.
“No—no, it’s not being alone so much as … the right space to do it. The right feel to it.” I shook my head. “I don’t know. The painting helps. Helps me, I mean.” I blew out a breath and surveyed him, the face dearer to me than anything in the world, the weaver’s words echoing through me.
She had lost her husband. I had not. And yet she still wove, still created. I cupped Rhys’s cheek, and he leaned into the touch as I quietly asked, “Do you think it’s stupid to wonder if painting might help others, too? Not my painting, I mean. But teaching others to paint. Letting them paint. People who might struggle the same way I do.”
/> His eyes softened. “I don’t think that’s stupid at all.”
I traced my thumb over his cheekbone, savoring every inch of contact. “It makes me feel better—perhaps it would do the same for others.”
He remained quiet, offering me that companionship that demanded nothing, asked nothing as I kept stroking his face. We had been mated for less than a year. If things had not gone well during that final battle, how many regrets would have consumed me? I knew—knew which ones would have hit the hardest, struck the deepest. Knew which ones were in my power to change.
I lowered my hand from his face at last. “Do you think anyone would come? If such a space, such a thing, were available?”
Rhys considered, scanning my eyes before kissing my temple, his mouth warm against my chilled face. “You’ll have to see, I suppose.”
I found Amren in her loft an hour later. Rhys had another meeting to attend with Cassian and their Illyrian commanders out at Devlon’s war-camp, and had walked me to the door of her building before winnowing.
My nose crinkled as I entered Amren’s toasty apartment. “It smells … interesting in here.”
Amren, seated at the long worktable in the center of the space, gave me a slashing grin before gesturing to the four-poster bed.
Rumpled sheets and askew pillows said enough about what scents I was detecting.
“You could open a window,” I said, waving to the wall of them at the other end of the apartment.
“It’s cold out,” was all she said, going back to—
“A jigsaw puzzle?”
Amren fitted a tiny piece into the section she’d been working on. “Am I supposed to be doing something else during my Solstice holiday?”
I didn’t dare answer that as I shrugged off my overcoat and scarf. Amren kept the fire in the hearth near-sweltering. Either for herself, or her Summer Court companion, no sign of whom could I detect. “Where’s Varian?”
“Out buying more presents for me.”
A smaller smile this time, her red mouth quirking to the side as she fitted another piece into her puzzle. “He decided the ones he brought from the Summer Court were not enough.”
I didn’t want to get into that comment, either.
I took a seat across from her at the long, dark wood table, examining the half-finished puzzle of what seemed to be some sort of autumnal pastoral. “A new hobby of yours?”
“Without that odious Book to decipher, I’ve found I miss such things.” Another piece snapped into place. “This is my fifth this week.”