The shopkeeper was wide-eyed but beaming as we pointed to the piece, and swiftly laid it out on a black velvet pad. She made a sweet-tempered excuse to retrieve something from the back, granting us privacy to examine it as we stood before the polished wood counter.
“It’s perfect,” Mor breathed, the stones fracturing the light and burning with their own inner fire.
I ran a finger over the cool silver settings. “What do you want as a present?”
Mor shrugged, her heavy brown coat bringing out the rich soil of her eyes. “I’ve got everything I need.”
“Try telling Rhys that. He says Solstice isn’t about getting gifts you need, but rather ones you’d never buy for yourself.” Mor rolled her eyes. Even though I was inclined to do the same, I pushed, “So what do you want?”
She ran a finger along a cut stone. “Nothing. I—there’s nothing I want.”
Beyond things she perhaps was not ready to ask for, search for.
I again examined the piece and casually asked, “You’ve been at Rita’s a great deal lately. Is there anyone you might want to bring to Solstice dinner?”
Mor’s eyes sliced to mine. “No.”
It was her business, when and how to inform the others what she’d told me during the war. When and how to tell Azriel especially.
My only role in it was to stand by her—to have her back when she needed it.
So I went on, “What are you getting the others?”
She scowled. “After centuries of gifts, it’s a pain in my ass to find something new for all of them. I’m fairly certain Azriel has a drawer full of all the daggers I’ve bought him throughout the centuries that he’s too polite to throw away, but won’t ever use.”
“You honestly think he’d ever give up Truth-Teller?”
“He gave it to Elain,” Mor said, admiring a moonstone necklace in the counter’s glass case.
“She gave it back,” I amended, failing to block out the image of the black blade piercing through the King of Hybern’s throat. But Elain had given it back—had pressed it into Azriel’s hands after the battle, just as he had pressed it into hers before. And then walked away without looking back.
Mor hummed to herself. The jeweler returned a moment later, and I signed the purchase to my personal credit account, trying not to cringe at the enormous sum of money that just disappeared with a stroke of a golden pen.
“Speaking of Illyrian warriors,” I said as we strode into the crammed Palace square and edged around a red-painted cart selling cups of piping hot molten chocolate, “what the hell do I get either of them?”
I didn’t have the nerve to ask what I should get for Rhys, since, even though I adored Mor, it felt wrong to ask another person for advice on what to buy my mate.
“You could honestly get Cassian a new knife and he’d kiss you for it. But Az would probably prefer no presents at all, just to avoid the attention while opening it.”
I laughed. “True.”
Arm in arm, we continued on, the aromas of roasting hazelnuts, pine cones, and chocolate replacing the usual salt-and-lemon-verbena scent that filled the city. “Do you plan to visit Viviane during Solstice?”
In the months since the war had ended, Mor had remained in contact with the Lady of the Winter Court, perhaps soon to be High Lady, if Viviane had anything to do about it. They’d been friends for centuries, until Amarantha’s reign had severed contact, and though the war with Hybern had been brutal, one of the good things to come of it had been the rekindling of their friendship. Rhys and Kallias had a still-lukewarm alliance, but it seemed Mor’s relationship with the High Lord of Winter’s mate would be the bridge between our two courts.
My friend smiled warmly. “Perhaps a day or two after. Their celebrating lasts for a whole week.”
“Have you been before?”
A shake of her head, golden hair catching in the faelight lamps. “No. They usually keep their borders closed, even to friends. But with Kallias now in power, and especially with Viviane at his side, they’re starting to open up once more.”
“I can only imagine their celebrations.”
Her eyes glowed. “Viviane told me about them once. They make ours look positively dull. Dancing and drinking, feasting and gifting. Roaring fires made from entire tree trunks and cauldrons full of mulled wine, the singing of a thousand minstrels flowing throughout their palace, answered by the bells ringing on the large sleighs pulled by those beautiful white bears.” She sighed. I echoed it, the image she’d crafted hovering in the frosty air between us.
Here in Velaris, we would celebrate the longest night of the year. In Kallias’s territory, it seemed, they would celebrate the winter itself.
Mor’s smile faded. “I did find you for a reason, you know.”
“Not just to shop?”
She nudged me with an elbow. “We’re to head to the Hewn City tonight.”
I cringed. “We as in all of us?”
“You, me, and Rhys, at least.”
I bit back a groan. “Why?”
Mor paused at a vendor, examining the neatly folded scarves displayed. “Tradition. Around Solstice, we make a little visit to the Court of Nightmares to wish them well.”
Mor grimaced, nodding to the vendor and continuing on. “As I said, tradition. To foster goodwill. Or as much of it as we have. And after the battles this summer, it wouldn’t hurt.”
Keir and his Darkbringer army had fought, after all.
We eased through the densely packed heart of the Palace, passing beneath a latticework of faelights just beginning to twinkle awake overhead. From a slumbering, quiet place inside me, the painting name flitted by. Frost and Starlight.
“So you and Rhys decided to tell me mere hours before we go?”
“Rhys has been away all day. I decided that we’re to go tonight. Since we don’t want to ruin the actual Solstice by visiting, now is best.”
There were plenty of days between now and Solstice Eve to do it. But Mor’s face remained carefully casual.
I still pushed, “You preside over the Hewn City, and deal with them all the time.” She as good as ruled over it when Rhys wasn’t there. And handled
her awful father plenty.
Mor sensed the question within my statement. “Eris will be there tonight. I heard it from Az this morning.”
I remained quiet, waiting.
Mor’s brown eyes darkened. “I want to see for myself just how cozy he and my father have become.”
It was good enough reason for me.
I was curled up on the bed, toasty and drowsy atop the layers of blankets and down quilts, when Rhys finally returned home as dusk fell.
I felt his power beckoning to me long before he got near the house, a dark melody through the world.
Mor had announced we wouldn’t be going to the Hewn City for another hour or so, long enough that I’d forgone touching that paperwork on the rosewood writing desk across the room and had instead picked up a book. I’d barely managed ten pages before Rhys opened the bedroom door.
His Illyrian leathers gleamed with melted snow, and more of it shone on his dark hair and wings as he quietly shut the door. “Right where I left you.”
I smiled, setting down the book beside me. It was nearly swallowed by the ivory down duvet. “Isn’t this all I’m good for?”
A rogue smile tugging up one corner of his mouth, Rhys began removing his weapons, then the clothes. But despite the humor lighting his eyes, each movement was heavy and slow—as if he fought exhaustion with every breath.
“Maybe we should tell Mor to delay the meeting at the Court of Nightmares.” I frowned.
He shucked off his jacket, the leathers thumping as they landed on the desk chair. “Why? If Eris will indeed be there, I’d like to surprise him with a little visit of my own.”
“You look exhausted, that’s why.”
He put a dramatic hand over his heart. “Your concern warms me more than any winter fire, my love.”
I rolled my eyes and sat up. “Did you at least eat?”
He shrugged, his dark shirt straining across his broad shoulders. “I’m fine.” His gaze slid over my bare legs as I pushed back the covers.
Heat bloomed in me, but I shoved my feet into slippers. “I’ll get you food.”
“I don’t want—”