But when she blinked at him as if he'd spoken blasphemy, his temper flared hotter. As if she's never thought that.

"Not meant to be?"

"What? You've never considered bailing on me?"

"No. I haven't."

"When we are together, all we do is fight. It just wasn't this hard..." He trailed off.

She stood as well, moving to face him. "What? What were you going to say?"

"Nothing."

"It just wasn't this hard with other women?" When he didn't deny it, her lips parted. "I am so sick of you talking about your past conquests!"

"I can't do this anymore!" He kicked her latest ice tablet, shattering it.

She stood motionless, her eyes growing silver with hurt and confusion. A tear spilled, then another, each one a knife to his heart.

He wanted to comfort her, to take her in his arms and ease that confusion. Then he remembered he couldn't.

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"If you don't think fighting for us is worth the trouble," she murmured, "then I'm not going to bother either." She strode from the room, down the stairs, then out into the night.

He gave a vile curse, fighting the impulse to go after her. He was still angry, still exhausted. They would only fight more.

So he dressed, then traced to Mount Oblak, seeking one of his brothers or Rurik. He needed to talk with someone, to unburden himself. But never to speak about Daniela. No, never about her. What would he say anyway? "Just looking at her wrecks me. I'm tempted every second by something that's dazzling and perfect - and always just out of reach."

Though his brothers weren't there, he found Rurik, Lukyan, and a few others gambling in the castle's common area.

"Murdoch, join us!" Rurik called. "Have a drink."

Lukyan gave a snide laugh. "He won't."

Clearly nothing had changed between Murdoch and him since the demon attack. Worse, Lukyan was right - Murdoch had been just about to decline. When had he become so domesticated? So predictably domesticated.

Why not stay here? He resented another night of not having her, resented the strife between them that had no end in sight. A stiff whiskey seemed just the thing.

He took off his gloves and settled in front of the great hearth fire, rebelliously basking in its warmth.

Numb the ache. One shot down.

Blunt the need. Then another.

CHAPTER 33

Danii marched straight out into the blizzard. All around her, snowdrifts crested and furrowed, illustrating the path of the gusts.

With her gown whipping about her thighs, she sniffled, running her forearm over her teary eyes. She hadn't expected things to be easy between her and Murdoch, but she'd thought the prize was worth the fight.

Maybe he was right. Maybe I should bail. She'd never considered it before. Not until he'd all but dared her to. Another swipe over her eyes.

Murdoch equals misery. They would just keep hurting each other. Where was the limit? When do you give up on someone you love?

Ah, gods, she did love him. With all her heart.

Though the Valkyrie didn't have "fated mates" per se, they believed that one would know her partner when she realized she would always run to get into his arms.

If he came back now, I'd run right to him.

Which meant there'd be no bailing for Danii, not yet -

Her ears twitched. Even over the wind, she heard something moving behind her. Danii sensed she was being followed, but for some reason she didn't believe it was Murdoch.

Then who the devil would be out here?

When a footstep crunched in the snow, she whirled around, spied a male in the icy shadows. His breaths didn't smoke. He had pointed ears.

An Iceren. No, not again! Her eyes darted, scanning for the rest of the assassins in the blustery night. She'd been unwary; now she would pay for it.

And all she could think of was how she'd left things with Murdoch.

Yet the male raised his palms. "My name is Jadian the Cold." His voice was deep-toned, raspy.

"How did you find me?"

"Actually, you found us. The cryomancy symbols you've been carving were about to unlock a portal. We learned you were nearing and merely awaited."

Cryomancy? Portal symbols? "Now you've come to kill me?"

"Not in the least. I mean you no harm."

She gave a bitter laugh. "Where's the rest of your battalion to back you up?"

"I've come alone."

"Your mistake. Since the last batch you bastards sent didn't fare so well."

"They were sent by Sigmund - before I assassinated him."

"He was... killed? By you?"

This Jadian nodded. "I was a general in his army and led a coup against him."

"Wh-why?"

"Because our people want their true queen back."

Had he just said our people? True queen? Stay standing. "Why now?"

"First I had to find you. Then I had to determine whether you were strong enough to rule. To make sure you were worthy to be Svana's heir. You are."

"This could be a trick, a way to take me prisoner."

He frowned. "Nix didn't tell you about me?"

Was this Icere male the "pressy" coming her way? The one Nix had mentioned directly after Danii had tried to explain the symbols and carving? "Uh, not in so many words."

"She told me she would."

He and Nix had been talking?

"But then, your sister also said you'd be more accurate with your cryomancy."

"What does that mean?" Danii demanded.

"You're one symbol off from creating a portal into our realm. But yours would have opened two hundred miles south of Icergard, amid the White Death - a frozen wasteland that even you would have difficulty crossing."

"Then how did you find me?"

"One of your symbols was shattered tonight. It sounded like a cannon blast through the castle, and was a beacon for me."

When Murdoch kicked my tablet...

"I opened my own portal directly to you here." He pointed in the distance, to an oval of diffused air that rebuffed the driving snow.

She shook her head irritably. "My shoddy cryomancy notwithstanding, this doesn't make sense. Why would they want me? My mother was reviled for attempting to kill Sigmund."

"Not reviled, revered. But the Icere were too fearful of Sigmund to rebel. Especially once Queen Svana was gone and they knew of no one to replace her. They have a holiday in Svana's name now."

"Oh." Such a queenly answer. But to be fair, this was staggering. "Wait. They knew of no one to replace her?"

"It was forbidden to speak your name. After a few centuries, new generations didn't even know it." He stepped closer to her, now mere feet away. "But they do now. And they await you."