Something in her power whispered not to touch it, not to go near it. Even from this distance.
But she still watched that darkness in the thorns, as if a shadow had fallen asleep amongst them.
Not like Azriel’s shadows, twining and whispering.
Something that stared back, watching her in turn.
Best left undisturbed. Especially with the promise of a crackling fire and glass of wine at home.
“Let’s take the short route back,” she murmured to Ellia, patting her neck.
The horse needed no further encouragement before launching into a gallop, turning them from the woods and its shadowy watcher.
Over and between the hills they rode, until the woods were hidden in the mists behind them.
What else might she see, witness, in lands where none in the Night Court had ventured for millennia?
The question lingered with every thunderous step from Ellia over snow and brook and hill.
Its answer echoed off the rocks and trees and gray clouds overhead.
Two days later, I stood in the doorway of Polina’s abandoned studio.
Gone were the boarded-up windows, the drooping cobwebs. Only open space remained, clean and wide.
I was still gaping when Ressina found me, halting on her path down the street, no doubt coming from her own studio. “Happy Solstice, my lady,” she said, smiling brightly.
I didn’t return the smile as I stared and stared at the open door. The space beyond.
Ressina laid a hand on my arm. “Is something wrong?”
My fingers curled at my sides, wrapping around the brass key in my palm. “It’s mine,” I said quietly.
Ressina’s smile began to grow again. “Is it, now?”
“They—her family gave it to me.”
It had happened this morning. I’d winnowed to Polina’s family farm, somehow surprising no one when I’d appeared. As if they’d been waiting.
Ressina angled her head. “So why the face?”
“They gave it to me.” I splayed my arms. “I tried to buy it. I offered her family money.” I shook my head, still reeling. I hadn’t even been back to the town house. Hadn’t even told Rhys. I’d woken at dawn, Rhys already off to meet with Az and Cassian at Devlon’s camp, and decided to hell with waiting. Putting life off didn’t make a lick of sense. I knew what I wanted. There was no reason to delay. “They handed me the deed, told me to sign my name to it, and gave me the key.” I rubbed my face. “They refused my money.”
Ressina let out a long whistle. “I’m not surprised.”
“Polina’s sister, though,” I said, my voice shaking as I pocketed the key in my overcoat, “suggested I use the money for something else. That if I wanted to give it away, I should donate it to the Brush and Chisel. Do you know what that is?”
I’d been too stunned to ask, to do anything other than nod and say I would.
Ressina’s ochre eyes softened. “It’s a charity for artists in need of financial help—to provide them and their families with money for food or rent or clothes. So they needn’t go hungry or want for anything while they create.”
I couldn’t stop the tears that blurred my vision. Couldn’t stop myself from remembering those years in that cottage, the hollow ache of hunger. The image of those three little containers of paint that I’d savored.
“I didn’t know it existed,” I managed to whisper. Even with all the committees that I volunteered to help, they had not mentioned it.
I didn’t know that there was a place, a world, where artists might be valued. Taken care of. I’d never dreamed of such a thing.
A warm, slender hand landed on my shoulder, gently squeezing.
Ressina asked, “So what are you going to do with it? The studio.”
I surveyed the empty space before me. Not empty—waiting.
And from far away, as if it was carried on the cold wind, I heard the Suriel’s voice.
Feyre Archeron, a request. Leave this world a better place than how you found it.
I swallowed down my tears, and brushed a stray strand of my hair back into my braid before I turned to the faerie. “You wouldn’t be looking for a wholly inexperienced business partner, would you?”
The girls were in the training ring.
Only six of them, and none looking too pleased, but they were there, cringing their way through Devlon’s halfhearted orders on how to handle a dagger. At least Devlon had given them something relatively simple to learn. Unlike the Illyrian bows, a stack of them lingering by the girls’ chalk-lined ring. As if in a taunt.
A good number of males couldn’t muster the strength to wield those mighty bows. I could still feel the whip of the string against my cheek, my wrist, my fingers during the years it had taken to master it.
If one of the girls decided to take up the Illyrian bow, I’d oversee her lessons myself.
I lingered with Cassian and Azriel at the far end of the sparring rings, the Windhaven camp glaringly bright with the fresh snow that had been dumped by the storm.
As expected, the storm had finished yesterday—two days after Solstice. And as promised, Devlon had the girls in the ring. The youngest was around twelve, the eldest sixteen.
“I thought there were more,” Azriel muttered.
“Some left with their families for Solstice,” Cassian said, eyes on the training, hissing every now and then when one of the girls did a painfully wrong maneuver that went uncorrected. “They won’t be back for a few more days.”
We’d shown him the lists Az had compiled of the possible troublemakers in these camps. Cassian had been distant ever since. More malcontents than we’d expected. A good number of them from the Ironcrest camp, notorious rival of this clan, where Kallon, son of its lord, was taking pains to stir up as much dissent as possible. All directed toward Cassian and myself.
A ballsy move, considering Kallon was still a warrior-novice. Not even due to take the Rite until this spring or the next. But he was as bad as his brute of a father. Worse, Az claimed.
Accidents happen in the Rite, I’d only suggested when Cass’s face had tightened with the news.
We won’t dishonor the Rite by tampering with it, was his only reply.
Accidents happen in the skies all the time, then, Azriel had coolly countered.
If the whelp wants to bust my balls, he can grow a pair himself and do it to my face, Cassian had growled, and that was that.
I knew him well enough to leave him to it—to decide how and when to deal with Kallon.
“Despite the grumblings in the camps,” I said to Cassian, gesturing toward the training rings. The males kept a healthy distance from where the few females trained, as if frightened of catching some deadly disease. Pathetic. “This is a good sign, Cass.”
Azriel nodded his agreement, his shadows twining around him. Most of the camp women had ducked into their homes wh
en he’d appeared.
A rare visit from the shadowsinger. Both myth and terror. Az looked just as displeased to be here, but he’d come when I asked.
It was healthy, perhaps, for Az to sometimes remember where he’d come from. He still wore the Illyrian leathers. Had not tried to get the tattoos removed. Some part of him was Illyrian still. Always would be. Even if he wished to forget it.
Cassian said nothing for a minute, his face a mask of stone. He’d been distant even before we’d gathered around the table in my mother’s old house to deliver the report this morning. Distant since Solstice. I’d bet decent money on why.
“It will be a good sign,” Cassian said at last, “when there are twenty girls out there and they’ve shown up for a month straight.”
Az snorted softly. “I’ll bet you—”
“No bets,” Cassian said. “Not on this.”
Az held Cassian’s stare for a moment, cobalt Siphons flickering, and then nodded. Understood. This mission of Cassian’s, hatched years ago and perhaps close to fruition … It went beyond bets for him. Went down to a wound that had never really healed.
I slung my arm around Cassian’s shoulders. “Small steps, brother.” I threw him a grin, knowing it didn’t meet my eyes. “Small steps.”
For all of us.
Our world might very well depend on it.
The city bells chimed eleven in the morning.
A month later, Ressina and I stood near the front door, both of us in nearly identical clothes: thick, long sweaters, warm leggings, and sturdy, shearling-lined work boots.
Boots that were already splattered with paint.
In the weeks since Polina’s family had gifted me the studio, Ressina and I had been here nearly every day. Readying the place. Figuring out our strategy. The lessons.
“Any minute now,” Ressina murmured, glancing to the small clock mounted on the bright white walls of the studio. That had been an endless debate: what color to paint the space? We’d wanted yellow, then decided that it might not display the art well enough. Black and gray were too dreary for the atmosphere we wanted, beige could also clash with the art … So we’d gone with white. The back room, at least, we’d painted brightly—a different color on each wall. Green and pink and red and blue.