A Court of Mist and Fury Page 116

Mate.

The word chased me from the bath sooner than I wanted, and hounded me as I pulled on the clothes I’d found in a drawer of the bedroom: dark leggings, a large, cream-colored sweater that hung to mid-thigh, and thick socks. My stomach grumbled, and I realized I hadn’t eaten since the day before, because—

Because he’d been injured, and I’d gone out of my mind—absolutely insane—when he’d been taken from me, shot out of the sky like a bird.

I’d acted on instinct, on a drive to protect him that had come from so deep in me …

So deep in me—

I found a container of soup on the wood counter that Mor must have brought in, and scrounged up a cast iron pot to heat it. Fresh, crusty bread sat near the stove, and I ate half of it while waiting for the soup to warm.

He’d suspected it before I’d even freed us from Amarantha.

My wedding day … Had he interrupted to spare me from a horrible mistake or for his own ends? Because I was his mate, and letting me bind myself to someone else was unacceptable?

I ate my dinner in silence, with only the murmuring fire for company.

And beneath the barrage of my thoughts, a throb of relief.

My relationship with Tamlin had been doomed from the start. I had left—only to find my mate. To go to my mate.

If I were looking to spare us both from embarrassment, from rumor, only that—only that I had found my true mate—would do the trick.

I was not a lying piece of traitorous filth. Not even close. Even if Rhys … Rhys had known I was his mate.

While I’d shared a bed with Tamlin. For months and months. He’d known I was sharing a bed with him, and hadn’t let it show. Or maybe he didn’t care.

Maybe he didn’t want the bond. Had hoped it’d vanish.

I’d owed nothing to Rhys then—had nothing to apologize for.

But he’d known I’d react badly. That it’d hurt me more than help me.

And what if I had known?

What if I had known that Rhys was my mate while I’d loved Tamlin?

It didn’t excuse his not telling me. Didn’t excuse the recent weeks, when I’d hated myself so much for wanting him so badly—when he should have told me. But … I understood.

I washed the dishes, swept the crumbs off the small dining table between the kitchen and living area, and climbed into one of the beds.

Just last night, I’d been curled beside him, counting his breaths to make sure he didn’t stop making them. The night before, I’d been in his arms, his fingers between my legs, his tongue in my mouth. And now … though the cabin was warm, the sheets were cold. The bed was large—empty.

Through the small glass window, the snow-blasted land around me glowed blue in the moonlight. The wind was a hollow moan, brushing great, sparkling drifts of snow past the cabin.

I wondered if Mor had told him where I was.

Wondered if he’d indeed come looking for me.

Mate.

My mate.

Sunlight on snow awoke me, and I squinted at the brightness, cursing myself for not closing the curtains. It took me a moment to remember where I was; why I was in this isolated cabin, deep in the mountains of—I did’t know what mountains these were.

Rhys had once mentioned a favorite retreat that Mor and Amren had burned to cinders in a fight. I wondered if this was it; if it had been rebuilt. Everything was comfortable, worn, but in relatively good shape.

Mor and Amren had known.

I couldn’t decide if I hated them for it.

No doubt, Rhys had ordered them to keep quiet, and they’d respected his wishes, but …

I made the bed, fixed breakfast, washed the dishes, and then stood in the center of the main living space.

I’d run away.

Precisely how Rhys expected me to run—how I’d told him anyone in their right mind would run from him. Like a coward, like a fool, I’d left him injured in the freezing mud.

I’d walked away from him—a day after I’d told him he was the only thing I’d never walk away from.

I’d demanded honesty, and at the first true test, I hadn’t even let him give it to me. I hadn’t granted him the consideration of hearing him out.

You see me.

Well, I’d refused to see him. Maybe I’d refused to see what was right in front of me.

I’d walked away.

And maybe … maybe I shouldn’t have.

Boredom hit me halfway through the day.

Supreme, unrelenting boredom, thanks to being trapped inside while the snow slowly melted under the mild spring day, listening to it drip-drip-dripping off the roof.

It made me nosy—and once I’d finished going through the drawers and closets of both bedrooms (clothes, old bits of ribbon, knives and weapons tucked between as if one of them had chucked them in and just forgotten), the kitchen cabinets (food, preserved goods, pots and pans, a stained cookbook), and the living area (blankets, some books, more weapons hidden everywhere), I ventured into the supply closet.

For a High Lord’s retreat, the cabin was … not common, because everything had been made and appointed with care, but … casual. As if this were the sole place where they might all come, and pile into beds and on the couch, and not be anyone but themselves, taking turns with who cooked that night and who hunted and who cleaned and—

A family.

It felt like a family—the one I’d never quite had, had never dared really hope for. Had stopped expecting when I’d grown used to the space and formality of living in a manor. To being a symbol for a broken people, a High Priestess’s golden idol and puppet.

I opened the storeroom door, a blast of cold greeting me, but candles sputtered to life, thanks to the magic that kept the place hospitable. Shelves free of dust (another magical perk, no doubt) gleamed with more food stores. Books, sporting equipment, packs and ropes and, big surprise, more weapons. I sorted through it all, these remnants of adventures past and future, and almost missed them as I walked past.

Half a dozen cans of paint.

Paper, and a few canvases. Brushes, old and flecked with paint from lazy hands.

There were other art supplies—pastels and watercolors, what looked to be charcoal for sketching, but … I stared at the paint, the brushes.

Which of them had tried to paint while stuck here—or enjoying a holiday with them all?

I told myself my hands were trembling with the cold as I reached for the paint and pried open the lid.

Still fresh. Probably from the magic preserving this place.

I peered into the dark, gleaming interior of the can I’d opened: blue.

And then I started gathering supplies.

I painted all day.

And when the sun vanished, I painted all through the night.

The moon had set by the time I washed my hands and face and neck and stumbled into bed, not even bothering to undress before unconsciousness swept me away.

I was up, brush in hand, before the spring sun could resume its work thawing the mountains around me.

I paused only long enough to eat. The sun was setting again, exhausted from the dent it’d made in the layer of snow outside, when a knock sounded on the front door.

Splattered in paint—the cream-colored sweater utterly wrecked—I froze.

Another knock, light, but insistent. Then—“Please don’t be dead.”

I didn’t know whether it was relief or disappointment that sank in my chest as I opened the door and found Mor huffing hot air into her cupped hands.

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