Elain smiled, her braid swishing with each step toward the growing mound of food. “They taste as good as they look.” She set down the tray and wiped her flour-coated hands on the apron she wore over her dusty-pink gown. Even in the middle of winter, she was a bloom of color and sunshine.

She handed me one of the tarts, sugar sparkling. I bit in without hesitation and let out a hum of pleasure. Elain beamed.

I surveyed the food she was assembling and asked between bites, “How long have you been working on this?”

A one-shouldered shrug. “Since dawn.” She added, “Nuala and Cerridwen were up hours earlier.”

I’d seen the Solstice bonus Rhys had given each of them. It was more than most families made in a year. They deserved every damned copper mark.

Especially for what they’d done for my sister. The companionship, the purpose, the small sense of normalcy in that kitchen. She’d bought them those cozy, fuzzy blankets from the weaver, one raspberry pink and the other lilac.

Elain surveyed me in turn as I finished off the tart and reached for another. “Have you had any word from her?”

I knew who she meant. Just as I opened my mouth to tell her no, a knock thudded on the front door.

Elain moved fast enough that I could barely keep up, flinging open the fogged glass antechamber door in the foyer, then unlatching the heavy oak front door.

But it wasn’t Nesta who stood on the front step, cheeks flushed with cold.

No, as Elain took a step back, hand falling away from the doorknob, she revealed Lucien smiling tightly at us both.

“Happy Solstice,” was all he said.

Chapter 18


“You look well,” I said to Lucien when we’d settled in the armchairs before the fire, Elain perched silently on the couch nearby.

Lucien warmed his hands in the glow of the birch fire, the light casting his face in reds and golds—golds that matched his mechanical eye. “You as well.” A sidelong glance toward Elain, swift and fleeting. “Both of you.”

Elain said nothing, but at least she bowed her head in thanks. In the dining room, Nuala and Cerridwen continued to add food to the table, their presence now little more than twin shadows as they walked through the walls.

“You brought presents,” I said uselessly, nodding toward the small stack he’d set by the window.

“It’s Solstice tradition here, isn’t it?”

I stifled my wince. The last Solstice I’d experienced had been at the Spring Court. With Ianthe. And Tamlin.

“You’re welcome to stay for the night,” I said, since Elain certainly wasn’t going to.

Lucien lowered his hands into his lap and leaned back in the armchair. “Thank you, but I have other plans.”

I prayed he didn’t catch the slightly relieved glimmer on Elain’s face.

“Where are you going?” I asked instead, hoping to keep his focus on me. Knowing it was an impossible task.

“I …” Lucien fumbled for the words. Not out of some lie or excuse, I realized a moment later. Realized when he said, “I’ve been at the Spring Court every now and then. But if I’m not here in Velaris, I’ve mostly been staying with Jurian. And Vassa.”

I straightened. “Really? Where?”

“There’s an old manor house in the southeast, in the humans’ territory. Jurian and Vassa were … gifted it.”

From the lines that bracketed his mouth, I knew who had likely arranged for the manor to fall into their hands. Graysen—or his father. I didn’t dare glance at Elain.

“Rhys mentioned that they were still in Prythian. I didn’t realize it was such a permanent base.”

A short nod. “For now. While things are sorted out.”

Like the world without a wall. Like the four human queens who still squatted across the continent. But now wasn’t the time to talk of it. “How are they—Jurian and Vassa?” I’d learned enough from Rhys about how Tamlin was faring. I didn’t care to hear any more of it.

“Jurian …” Lucien blew out a breath, scanning the carved wood ceiling above. “Thank the Cauldron for him. I never thought I’d say that, but it’s true.” He ran a hand through his silken red hair. “He’s keeping everything running. I think he’d have been crowned king by now if it wasn’t for Vassa.” A twitch of the lips, a spark in that russet eye. “She’s doing well enough. Savoring every second of her temporary freedom.”

I had not forgotten her plea to me that night after the last battle with Hybern. To break the curse that kept her human by night, firebird by day. A once-proud queen—still proud, yes, but desperate to reclaim her freedom. Her human body. Her kingdom.

“She and Jurian are getting along?”

I hadn’t seen them interact, could only imagine what the two of them would be like in the same room together. Both trying to lead the humans who occupied the sliver of land at the southernmost end of Prythian. Left ungoverned for so long. Too long.

No king or queen remained in these lands. No memory of their name, their lineage.

At least amongst humans. The Fae might know. Rhys might know.

But all that lingered of whoever had once ruled the southern tip of Prythian was a motley assortment of lords and ladies. Nothing else. No dukes or earls or any of the titles I’d once heard my sisters mention while discussing the humans on the continent. There were no such titles in the Fae lands. Not in Prythian.

No, there were just High Lords and lords. And now a High Lady.

I wondered if the humans had taken to using only lord as a title thanks to the High Fae who lurked above the wall.

Lurked—but no longer.

Lucien considered my question. “Vassa and Jurian are two sides of the same coin. Mercifully, their vision for the future of the human territories is mostly aligned. But the methods on how to attain that …” A frown to Elain, then a wince at me. “This isn’t very Solstice-like talk.”

Definitely not, but I didn’t mind. And as for Elain …

My sister rose to her feet. “I should get refreshments.”

Lucien rose as well. “No need to trouble yourself. I’m—”

But she was already out of the room.

When her footsteps had faded from earshot, Lucien slumped into his armchair and blew out a long breath. “How is she?”

“Better. She makes no mention of her abilities. If they remain.”

“Good. But is she still …” A muscle flickered in his jaw. “Does she still mourn him?”

The words were little more than a growl.

I chewed on my lip, weighing how much of the truth to reveal. In the end, I opted for all of it. “She was deeply in love with him, Lucien.”

His russet eye flashed with simmering rage. An uncontrollable instinct—for a mate to eliminate any threat. But he remained sitting. Even as his fingers dug into the arms of his chair.

I continued, “It has only been a few months. Graysen made it clear that the engagement is ended, but it might take her a while longer to move past it.”

Again that rage. Not from jealousy, or any threat, but—“He’s as fine a prick as any I’ve ever encountered.”

Lucien had encountered him, I realized. Somehow, in living with Jurian and Vassa at that manor, he’d run into Elain’s former betrothed. And managed to leave the human lord breathing.

“I would agree with you on that,” I admitted. “But remember that they were engaged. Give her time to accept it.”