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Chapter 27

“I’m still not entirely sure I understand.” Mia and Orden walked side by side through the pasture, past grazing horses that raised their heads as they passed. Some nickered soft greetings while others gave them the side-eye before returning their attention to the dry, autumn grass.

Mia adjusted the heavy saddle slung across her shoulder to stop it rubbing. The resulting clatter of cookware spooked a curious foal who’d come to investigate, the animal’s hooves sending up clots of earth as it spun away. “Think of it as like—a play—but the actors are in a box—” Mia winced. “And the box has lots of different plays happening at the same time that you can choose from.”

She could hear Orden thinking. Of all the things she’d told him about her world as they’d ridden home these past few days, cars and skyscrapers; the subway and electric lights; television was the one thing that Orden couldn’t wrap his head around and Mia, after her third attempt was at a loss.

“So the actors live in the box?” Orden gave her an appalled look, “How do they all fit in there? What do they eat?”

“No! They don’t live—” Mia rolled her eyes skyward. She breathed through her irritation. Her fault, this was her fault, not Orden’s who was just trying to understand. Mia shook her head, a smile curling her lips. “They don’t live in the box Orden.”


Twenty-odd minutes later, they were still discussing the ins and outs of the filming industry while they walked past the dugout. Up ahead, the farmyard shone like a beacon. For a moment, Mia was breathless, struck by the beauty of clean lines and angles, shadows and glowing pine boards set ablaze by the light of the setting sun. She completely forgot what she was saying. “Wow.” Beside her, Orden hummed in agreement.

Suddenly the saddle and supplies Mia had laden herself with when they’d turned their horses out in the pasture felt pounds lighter. The ache in the soles of her feet gone with home now in sight. Mia threw Orden a grin and hurried toward the house, smoke curling from the stone chimney.

A muffled shout came from the house, and then the kitchen door swung open with such force that it slammed into the wall with a loud bang. Mia had a second to let all of her baggage drop to the dirt before thin, strong arms wrapped around her and squeezed so hard that tears sprang into her eyes. Lavender and sun-warmed skin, fresh soil; Mia breathed it all in as she hugged Hana back, giving as good as she got.

A muffled shout came from the house, and then the kitchen door swung open with such force that it slammed into the wall with a loud bang. Mia had a second to let all of her baggage drop to the dirt before thin, strong arms wrapped around her and squeezed so hard that tears sprang into her eyes. Lavender and sun-warmed skin, fresh soil; Mia breathed it all in as she hugged Hana back, giving as good as she got.

“Oh, thank Eldhor,” Hana breathed, “ ye’re back!” She held Mia at arm’s length, “Let me look at ye.” She scanned Mia from head to toe, those sharp blue eyes missing nothing. There were bags under Hana’s eyes and deep lines on either side of her pursed lips. Mia could have sworn there were a few more silver streaks in Hana’s dark braid.

“Well, ye look to be all in one piece.” Hana cut a glare at Orden over Mia’s shoulder. Yup, she was still pissed about the way they’d left. “Too thin,” she tutted, looking at Mia again, “did he not feed ye at all?”

Mia opened her mouth to protest, but Breahn said from behind her mother, “Of course he fed her Ma. It’s not Da’s fault. All the food in the world couldn’t fatten that bony ass.”

Breahn ducked out of the way in time to avoid the hand Hana swung at her. “Watch yer mouth girl,” Hana seethed, brandishing a finger at her daughter who kept a safe distance, grinning all the way. Breahn met Mia’s eye and winked.

Mia smirked and said to Hana, “He really did take good care of me.” She didn’t miss the look of gratitude Orden shot at her.

Hana turned to Mia, brows lifted in disbelief. Before she could say a word Breahn piped up again, “Great care,” her teeth flashed white from behind the hand she waved in front of her face, “ye could curdle milk with that stench. And ye’ve got leaves in yer hair.”

Months of dodging blades had Mia jerking back fast enough to avoid being hit by Hana’s long braid as she whipped around snarling, “That’s just about enough out of you—”

Mia ducked her head, grinning as Breahn, with a few well-chosen words, took all of Hana’s attention upon herself. Mia glanced at Orden. He stood there, a rock in the middle of a raging river, watching Hana lay into Breahn. Desperate to flee but equally desperate to escape notice. It was all rather amusing. These people. This family.

“Actually,” Mia took a step into the fray, effectively placing herself between mother and daughter, “ she has a point. I could really use a bath. And maybe something to eat?” Hana’s eyes narrowed. “I’m not starving or anything, but I could eat,” Mia added quickly before Hana could start in on Orden.

“Don’t think I don’t know what ye’re doing.” Mia kept her face blank, feigning innocence as Hana pinned her with her cornflower blue eyes. Mia’s mouth betrayed her. Hana noticed the twitch of Mia’s lips, and after a moment, her stern expression melted away. She blew out a breath and shook her head, her braid falling from her shoulder down her back with the movement. “Come on then,” Hana’s cheeks were flushed, but her eyes danced, “there’s supper in the pot. Leave yer things where they are, we’ll sort them out tomorrow.” The skirts of her plain homespun dress kissed the dirt as she turned for the house.

Breahn tossed Mia a grin as she passed, following her mother through the kitchen door. Mia met Orden’s gaze and raised her brows. Orden shrugged his broad shoulders, beard twitching, then he too made for the kitchen.

She watched him go. Already voiced drifted from the open door, Hana and Breahn going at it again. Mia didn’t try to hide the small smile that curled her lips. She took a breath and started toward the house—and stopped, head turning.

The smile slipped from her face as she beheld Vander standing in the doorway of the slaughterhouse, arms hanging loose at his sides. The sleeves of his white shirt were rolled to the elbow, exposing tan, muscled forearms smeared with blood. It stained his shirt in places too. A few strands of hair escaped the tie that held the rest back out of his face. They hung in his eyes, startlingly green beneath the broad shelf of his brow.

He stared at her and she stared right back, her entire body tense beneath that unfathomable gaze. And then he inclined his head in a slow, deliberate movement, and walked back inside the slaughterhouse.

Mia blinked. Right…

Warm from the bath and her stomach full to bursting with mashed potatoes and venison stew, all Mia wanted to do was pull on her nightgown, blow out the candles, and crawl into bed. She cast a longing glance at her bed, the fresh linens nicely turned down and beckoning. With a regretful puff of breath through her nose, Mia turned her back on it and faced the wardrobe.

She dressed quickly, throwing a loose, knit tunic, dyed a deep reddish-brown, over her bra and soft deerskin leggings. Her hair was a heavy wet sheet down her back. Mia scooped it off her neck and bent forward, twisting and twisting it into a knot, and then tucking the loose end between the tightly woven layers of hair. She straightened and gave a few experimental jerks of her head. When the whole thing didn’t immediately unravel, Mia gave a satisfied little grunt and headed for the door. She refused to check her reflection.

Moonlight slanted through the window at the end of the hall, draping the floor in cool shades. Mia’s boots were silent as she slipped down the stairs, taking care to avoid the squeaky ones. Despite the relatively early hour, the house was quiet. No one had seemed inclined to retire to the sitting room after supper tonight. Hana and Orden had retired to their bedroom once the dishes were cleared away, and Breahn went to bed soon after. Not a single word about Orden and Mia’s trip was mentioned. Not a question asked. Mia didn’t know what she would have said about it anyway, so she was pretty relieved.

Nothing but coals burned in the kitchen’s giant hearth, casting more shadows than light. Mia gave the table a wide berth as she strode past it and out the door. The warm air smelled of horse and dirt, dry grass, and pine. Mia took a deep, greedy breath of it as she walked toward the slaughterhouse.

The warm autumn air smelled of horse and dirt, lavender and pine. Mia took a deep, greedy breath of it as she crossed the yard to the slaughterhouse. Golden light seeped out of the open doorway, staining the hard-packed earth in one long, uninterrupted rectangular streak. Beside the door, in a big wooden pail, was the head, hooves, and innards of a deer. Mia grimaced at the gruesome sight and switched to breathing through her mouth. She’d adjusted well to her heightened senses since leaving Perilea, but the thick coppery-tang of blood was still enough to make her stomach roll. Steeling herself, Mia stepped inside.

Vander’s back was to her, his attention wholly on the waist-heigh table before him. A knife flashed in the light of a single oil lamp as he made quick, sure cuts. Dismembering the animal with ease.

Mia found herself leaning against the doorframe, watching him work. The muscles in his long back shifted as he tossed a cleaned leg bone into a pail to his right, and picked another from the pile sitting on the table to his left. His hair was like burnished copper in the lamplight.

“Did you need something?”

He didn’t stop what he was doing, didn’t even pause. Of course, he knew Mia was there; he’d probably heard her coming from the first step she’d taken out the kitchen door.

Mia narrowed her eyes, already regretting this decision. She clenched her jaw and shoved off from the door frame. Took a step further into the room. “Yeah, actually. I wanted to talk to you.”

Vander stilled for a fraction of a second. Then he went back to slicing. “So talk.”

She should have known this wasn’t going to be easy. Nothing with him ever was. Mia silently but soundly cussed herself out for creating this awkward situation. When that was done, she unclenched her jaw and moved it from side to side to relieve the ache. “I uh—” Mia closed her eyes, “I wanted to say thank you.”


Mia opened her eyes.

Vander stood there, knife still in his hands, staring at her with wide eyes.

“What?” Mia crossed her arms over her chest, shifting her weight to her back foot.

“Nothing,” Vander blinked as if coming back to himself, “I just—that’s not what I was expecting.”

Mia’s brows shot together, “What were you expecting?”

“I don’t know—but a thank you definitely was not on the list.”

Mia had no idea what to say to that—or to the faint upward tilt at the corner of Vander’s mouth. She dropped her gaze to the knife he held in front of himself. Watched as he ran a thumb over the bloody blade.

“What em—” Mia glanced up as Vander cleared his throat. Noted the frown on his face. “What exactly are you thanking me for?”

“Uh—” Mia hugged herself a little tighter, stifling the impulse to turn tail and run. She took a breath and loosed it. “I guess for what you did the other night. I know I was drunk, but I remember—bits and pieces,” she amended, cheeks heating. “You took care of me, and you weren’t a total ass about it, so... thank you.” He was still staring when she lifted her eyes from the scuffed toes of her boots. “Okay, well, I came to say thanks, and I did so—goodnight.” She was halfway out the door when—


“Ugh, come on Vander!” Mia exclaimed, rounding on him, “Do we really have to drag this out? I said thank you—”

“Get some sleep,” Vander said, eyes gleaming, “tomorrow we train hard.”

Mia pressed her lips together and nodded. Vander held her gaze for a heartbeat, then he turned his back on her and pulled a chunk of meat toward him. Mia stared at his back for a moment longer before she walked out into the night.

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