“I don’t have anywhere else to go.” Before I could object, he said, “You ruined any chance I have of going back to Spring. Not to Tamlin, but to the court beyond his house. Everyone either still believes the lies you spun or they believe me complicit in your deceit. And as for here …” He shook off my grip and headed for the door. “I can’t stand to be in the same room as her for more than two minutes. I can’t stand to be in this court and have your mate pay for the very clothes on my back.”
I studied the jacket he wore. I’d seen it before. Back in—
“Tamlin sent it to our manor yesterday,” Lucien hissed. “My clothes. My belongings. All of it. He had it sent from the Spring Court and dumped on the doorstep.”
Bastard. Still a bastard, despite what he’d done for Rhys and me during that last battle. But the blame for that behavior was not on Tamlin’s shoulders alone. I’d created that rift. Ripped it apart with my own two hands.
I didn’t quite feel guilty enough to warrant apologizing for it. Not yet. Possibly not ever.
“Why?” It was the only question I could think to ask.
“Perhaps it had something to do with your mate’s visit the other day.”
My spine stiffened. “Rhys didn’t involve you in that.”
“He might as well have. Whatever he said or did, Tamlin decided he wishes to remain in solitude.” His russet eye darkened. “Your mate should have known better than to kick a downed male.”
“I can’t say I’m particularly sorry that he did.”
“You will need Tamlin as an ally before the dust has settled. Tread carefully.”
I didn’t want to think about it, consider it, today. Any day. “My business with him is done.”
“Yours might be, but Rhys’s isn’t. And you’d do well to remind your mate of that fact.”
A pulse down the bond, as if in answer. Everything all right?
I let Rhys see and hear all that had been said, the conversation conveyed in the blink of an eye. I’m sorry to have caused him trouble, Rhys said. Do you need me to come home?
I’ll handle it.
Let me know if you need anything, Rhys said, and the bond went silent.
“Checking in?” Lucien asked quietly.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said, my face the portrait of boredom.
He gave me a knowing look, continuing to the door and grabbing his heavy overcoat and scarf from the hooks mounted on the wood paneling beside it. “The bigger box is for you. The smaller one is for her.”
It took me a heartbeat to realize he meant the presents. I glanced over my shoulder to the careful silver wrapping, the blue bows atop both boxes.
When I looked back, Lucien was gone.
I found my sister in the kitchen, watching the kettle scream.
“He’s not staying for tea,” I said.
No sign of Nuala or Cerridwen.
Elain simply removed the kettle from the heat.
I knew I wasn’t truly angry with her, not angry with anyone but myself, but I said, “You couldn’t say a single word to him? A pleasant greeting?”
Elain only stared at the steaming kettle as she set it on the stone counter.
“He brought you a present.”
Those doe-brown eyes turned toward me. Sharper than I’d ever seen them. “And that entitles him to my time, my affections?”
“No.” I blinked. “But he is a good male.” Despite our harsh words. Despite this Band of Exiles bullshit. “He cares for you.”
“He doesn’t know me.”
“You don’t give him the chance to even try to do so.”
Her mouth tightened, the only sign of anger in her graceful countenance. “I don’t want a mate. I don’t want a male.”
She wanted a human man.
Solstice. Today was Solstice, and everyone was supposed to be cheerful and happy. Certainly not fighting left and right. “I know you don’t.” I loosed a long breath. “But …”
But I had no idea how to finish that sentence. Just because Lucien was her mate didn’t mean he had a claim on her time. Her affection. She was her own person, capable of making her own choices. Assessing her own needs.
“He is a good male,” I repeated. “And it … it just …” I fought for the words. “I don’t like to see either of you unhappy.”
Elain stared at the worktable, baked goods both finished and incomplete arrayed on the surface, the kettle now cooling on the counter. “I know you don’t.”
There was nothing else to be said. So I touched her shoulder and strode out.
Elain didn’t say a word.
I found Mor sitting on the bottom steps of the stairs, wearing a pair of peach-colored loose pants and a heavy white sweater. A combination of Amren’s usual style and my own.
Gold earrings flashing, Mor offered a grim smile. “Drink?” A decanter and pair of glasses appeared in her hands.
“Mother above, yes.”
She waited until I’d sat beside her on the oak steps and downed a mouthful of amber liquid, the stuff burning its way along my throat and warming my belly, before she asked, “Do you want my advice?”
Mor drank deeply from her glass. “Stay out of it. She’s not ready, and neither is he, no matter how many presents he brings.”
I lifted a brow. “Snoop.”
Mor leaned back against the steps, utterly unrepentant. “Let him live with his Band of Exiles. Let him deal with Tamlin in his own way. Let him figure out where he wants to be. Who he wants to be. The same goes with her.”
She was right.
“I know you still blame yourself for your sisters being Made.” Mor nudged my knee with her own. “And because of that, you want to fix everything for them now that they’re here.”
“I always wanted to do that,” I said glumly.
Mor smiled crookedly. “That’s why we love you. Why they love you.”
Nesta, I wasn’t so sure about.
Mor continued, “Just be patient. It’ll sort itself out. It always does.”
Another kernel of truth.
I refilled my glass, set the crystal decanter on the step behind us, and drank again. “I want them to be happy. All of them.”
“They will be.”
She said the simple words with such unflagging conviction that I believed her.
I arched a brow. “And you—are you happy?”
Mor knew what I meant. But she just smiled, swirling the liquor in her glass. “It’s Solstice. I’m with my family. I’m drinking. I’m very happy.”
A skilled evasion. But one I was content to partake in. I clinked my heavy glass against hers. “Speaking of our family … Where the hell are they?”
Mor’s brown eyes lit up. “Oh—oh, he didn’t tell you, did he?”
My smile faltered. “Tell me what.”
“What the three of them do every Solstice morning.”
“I’m beginning to be nervous.”
Mor set down her glass, and gripped my arm. “Come with me.”
Before I could object, she’d winnowed us out.
Blinding light hit me. And cold.
Brisk, brutal cold. Far too cold for the sweaters and pants we wore.
Snow. And sun. And wind.
Mor pointed to the endless field atop the mountain. Covered in snow, just as I’d last seen it. But rather than a flat, uninterrupted expanse …
“Are those snow forts?”
Something white shot across the field, white and hard and glistening, and then—
Cassian’s yowl echoed off the mountains around us. Followed by, “You bastard!”
Rhys’s answering laugh was bright as the sun on snow.
I surveyed the three walls of snow—the barricades—that bordered the field as Mor erected an invisible shield against the bitter wind. It did little to drive away the cold, though. “They’re having a snowball fight.”
“Three Illyrian warriors,” I said. “The greatest Illyrian warriors. Are having a snowball fight.”
Mor’s eyes practically glowed with wicked delight. “Since they were children.”
“They’re over five hundred years old.”
“Do you want me to tell you the running tally of victories?”
I gaped at her. Then at the field beyond. At the snowballs that were indeed flying with brutal, swift precision as dark heads popped over the walls they’d built.