Chaol awoke the next morning and could barely move.
They’d repaired his room, added extra guards, and by the time the royals at last returned from the dunes at sundown, all was in order.
He didn’t see Yrene for the rest of that day, and wondered if she and the Healer on High had indeed found something of worth in that scroll. But when dinner came and she still hadn’t appeared, he sent Kadja to ask Shen for a report.
Shen himself had returned—blushing a bit, no doubt thanks to the beauty of the servant girl who’d led him here—and revealed that he’d made sure word was received from the Torre that Yrene had returned safely and had not left the tower since.
Still, Chaol had debated calling for Yrene when his back began to ache to the point of being unbearable, when even the cane couldn’t help him hobble across the room. But the suite was not safe. And if she began to stay here, and Nesryn returned before he could explain—
He couldn’t get the thought out of his mind. What he’d done, the trust he’d broken.
So he’d managed to take a bath, hoping to ease his sore muscles, and had nearly crawled into bed.
Chaol awoke at dawn, tried to reach for his cane beside the bed, and bit down his bark of pain.
Panic crashed into him, wild and sharp. He gritted his teeth, trying to fight through it.
Toes. He could move his toes. And his ankles. And his knees—
His neck arched at the rippling agony as he shifted his knees, his thighs, his hips.
Oh, gods. He’d pushed it too far, he’d—
The door flung open, and there she was, in that purple gown.
Yrene’s eyes widened, then settled—as if she’d been about to tell him something.
Instead, that mask of steady calm slid over her face while she tied her hair back in her usual half-up fashion and approached on unfaltering feet. “Can you move?”
“Yes, but the pain—” He could barely speak.
Dropping her satchel to the carpet, Yrene rolled up her sleeves. “Can you turn over?”
No. He’d tried, and—
She didn’t wait for his answer. “Describe exactly what you did yesterday, from the moment I left until now.”
Chaol did. All of it, right until the bath—
Yrene swore viciously. “Ice. Ice to help strained muscles, not heat.” She blew out a breath. “I need you to roll over. It will hurt like hell, but it’s best if you do it in one go—”
He didn’t wait. He gritted his teeth and did it.
A scream shattered from his throat, but Yrene was instantly there, hands on his cheek, his hair, mouth against his temple. “Good,” she breathed onto
his skin. “Brave man.”
He hadn’t bothered with more than undershorts while sleeping, so she had little to do to prepare him as she hovered her hands over his back, tracing the air above his skin.
“It … it crept back,” she breathed.
“I’m not surprised,” he said through his teeth. Not at all. She lowered her hands to her sides. “Why?”
He traced a finger over the embroidered coverlet. “Just—do what you have to.”
Yrene paused at his deflection—then riffled through her bag for something. The bit. She held it in her hands, however, instead of sliding it into his mouth. “I’m going in,” she said quietly.
“No—I’m going in, and I’m ending this. Today. Right now.”
It took a moment for the words to sink in. All that it’d entail. He dared ask, “And what if I can’t?” Face it, endure it?
There was no fear in Yrene’s eyes, no hesitation. “That’s not my question to answer.”
No, it never had been. Chaol watched the sunlight dance on her locket, over those mountains and seas. What she might now witness within him, how badly he’d failed, over and over—
But they had walked this far down the road. Together. She had not turned away. From any of it.
And neither would he.
His throat thick, Chaol managed to say, “You could hurt yourself if you stay too long.”
Again, no ripple of doubt or terror. “I have a theory. I want to test it.” Yrene slid the bit between his lips, and he clamped down lightly. “And you
—you’re the only person I can try it on.”
It occurred to Chaol, right as she laid her hands on his bare spine, why he was the only one she could try it on. But there was nothing he could do as pain and blackness slammed into him.
No way to stop Yrene as she plunged into his body, her magic a white swarming light around them, inside them.
The Valg. His body had been tainted by their power, and Yrene—
Yrene did not hesitate.
She soared through him, down the ladder of his spine, down the corridors of his bones and blood.
She was a spear of light, fired straight into the dark, aiming for that hovering shadow that had stretched out once more. That had tried to reclaim him.
Yrene slammed into the darkness and screamed. It roared back, and they tangled, grappling.
It was foreign and cold and hollow; it was rife with rot and wind and hate.
Yrene threw herself into it. Every last drop.
And above, as if the surface of a night-dark sea separated them, Chaol bellowed with agony.
Today. It ended today.
I know what you are.
So Yrene fought, and so the darkness raged back.
The agony tore through him, unending and depthless.
He blacked out within a minute. Leaving him to free-fall into this place.
The bottom of the descent.
The hollow hell beneath the roots of a mountain.
Here, where all was locked and buried. Here, where all had come to take root.
The empty foundation, mined and hacked apart, crumbled away into nothing but this pit.
Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.
Worthless and nothing.
He saw his father first. His mother and brother and that cold mountain keep. Saw the stairs crusted with the ice and snow, stained with blood. Saw the man he’d gladly sold himself out to, thinking it would get Aelin to safety. Celaena to safety.
He’d sent the woman he’d loved to the safety of another assassination. Had sent her to Wendlyn, thinking it better than Adarlan. To kill its royal family.
His father emerged from the dark, the mirror of the man he might have become, might one day be. Distaste and disappointment etched his father’s features as he beheld him, the son that might have been.
His father’s asking price … he’d thought it a prison sentence.
But perhaps it had been a shot at freedom—at saving his useless, wayward son from the evil he likely suspected was about to be unleashed.
He had broken that promise to his father.
He hated him, and yet his father—that horrible, miserable bastard—had upheld his end of the bargain.
He … he had not.
Everything he had done, Aelin had come to rip it apart. Starting with his honor.
She, with her fluidity, that murky area in which she dwelled … He’d broken his vows for her. Broken everything he was for her.
He could see her, in the dark.
The gold hair, those turquoise eyes that had been the last clue, the final piece of the puzzle.
Liar. Murderer. Thief.
She basked in the sun atop a chaise longue on the balcony of that suite she’d occupied in the palace, a book in her lap. Tilting her head to the side, she looked him over with that lazy half smile. A cat being stirred from its repose.
He hated her.
He hated that face, the amusement and sharpness. The temper and viciousness that could reduce someone to shreds without so much as a word
—only a look. Only a beat of silence.
She enjoyed such things. Savored them.
And he had been so bewitched by it, this woman who had been a living flame. He’d been willing to leave it all behind. The honor. The vows he’d made.
For this haughty, swaggering, self-righteous woman, he had shattered parts of himself.
And afterward, she had walked away, as if he were a broken toy.
Right into the arms of that Fae Prince, who emerged from the dark. Who approached that lounge chair on the balcony and sat on its end.
Her half smile turned different. Her eyes sparked.
The lethal, predatory interest honed in on the prince. She seemed to glow brighter. Become more aware. More centered. More … alive.
Fire and ice. An end and a beginning. They did not touch each other.
They only sat on that chaise, some unspoken conversation passing between them. As if they had finally found some reflection of themselves in the world.
He hated them.
He hated them for that ease, that intensity, that sense of completion.
She had wrecked him, wrecked his life, and had then strolled right to this prince, as if she were going from one room to another.
And when it had all gone to hell, when he’d turned his back on everything he knew, when he had lied to the one who mattered most to keep her secrets, she had not been there to fight. To help.
She had only returned, months later, and thrown it in his face. His uselessness. His nothingness.
You remind me of how the world ought to be. What the world can be.
Lies. The words of a girl who had been grateful to him for offering her freedom, for pushing and pushing her until she was roaring at the world again.
A girl who had stopped existing the night they’d found that body on the bed.
When she had ripped his face open.
When she had tried to plunge that dagger into his heart.
The predator he’d seen in those eyes … it had been unleashed.
There were no leashes that could ever keep her restrained. And words like honor and duty and trust, they were gone.
She had gutted that courtesan in the tunnels. She’d let the man’s body drop, closed her eyes, and had looked precisely as she had during those throes of passion. And when she had opened her eyes again …
Killer. Liar. Thief.
She was still sitting on the chaise, the Fae Prince beside her, both of them watching that scene in the tunnel, as if they were spectators in a sport. Watching Archer Finn slump to the stones, his blood leaking from him, face taut with shock and pain. Watching Chaol stand there, unable to move
or speak, as she breathed in the death before her, the vengeance.
As Celaena Sardothien ended, shattering completely.
He had still tried to protect her. To get her out. To atone.
You will always be my enemy.
She had roared those words with ten years’ worth of rage.
And she had meant it. Meant it as any child who had lost and suffered at Adarlan’s hand would mean it.
As Yrene meant it.
The garden appeared in another pocket of the darkness. The garden and the cottage and the mother and laughing child.
The thing he had not seen coming. The person he had not expected to find.
Here in the darkness … here she was.
And yet he had still failed. Hadn’t done right by her, or by Nesryn.
He should have waited, should have respected them both enough to end one and begin with another, but he supposed he had failed in that, too.
Aelin and Rowan remained on that chaise in the sunshine.
He saw the Fae Prince gently, reverently, take Aelin’s hand, turning it over. Exposing her wrist to the sun. Exposing the faint marks of shackles.
He saw Rowan rub a thumb over those scars. Saw the fire in Aelin’s eyes bank.
Over and over, Rowan brushed those scars with his thumb. And Aelin’s mask slid off.
There was fire in that face. And rage. And cunning. But also sorrow. Fear. Despair. Guilt.
Pride and hope and love. The weight of a burden she had run from, but now …
I love you.
She had tried to explain. Had said it as clearly as she could. Had given him the truth so he might piece it together when she had left and understand. She meant those words. I’m sorry.
Sorry for the lies. For what she had done to him, his life. For swearing that she would pick him, choose him, no matter what. Always.
He wanted to hate her for that lie. That false promise, which she had discarded in the misty forests of Wendlyn.
There, with that prince, without the mask … That was the bottom of her pit.
She had come to Rowan, soul limping. She had come to him as she was, as she had never been with anyone. And she had returned whole.
Still she had waited—waited to be with him.
Chaol had been lusting for Yrene, had taken her into his bed without so much as thinking of Nesryn, and yet Aelin …
She and Rowan looked to him now. Still as an animal in the woods, both of them. But their eyes full of understanding. Knowing.
She had fallen in love with someone else, had wanted someone else—as badly as he wanted Yrene.
And yet it was Aelin, godless and irreverent, who had honored him.
More than he’d honored Nesryn.
Aelin’s chin dipped as if to say yes.
And Rowan … The prince had let her return to Adarlan. To make right by her kingdom, but to also decide for herself what she wanted. Who she wanted. And if Aelin had chosen Chaol instead … He knew, deep down, Rowan would have backed off. If it had made Aelin happy, Rowan would have walked away without ever telling her what he felt.
Shame pressed on him, sickening and oily.
He had called her a monster. For her power, her actions, and yet … He did not blame her.
That perhaps she had promised things, but … she had changed. The path had changed.
He’d promised Nesryn—or had implied it. And when he had changed, when the path had altered; when Yrene appeared down it …
Aelin smiled softly at him as she and Rowan rippled into a sunbeam and vanished.
Leaving a red marble floor, blood pooling across it. A head bumping vulgarly over smooth tile.
A prince screaming in agony, in rage and despair.
I love you. Go.
That—if there had been a cleaving, it was that moment.
When he turned and ran. And he left his friend, his brother, in that chamber.
When he ran from that fight, that death.
Dorian had forgiven him. Did not hold it against him. Yet he had still run. Still left.
Everything he had planned, worked to save, all came crumbling down. Dorian stood before him, hands in his pockets, a faint smile on his face. He did not deserve to serve such a man. Such a king.
The darkness pushed in further. Revealing that bloody council room. Revealing the prince and king he’d served. Revealing what they had done. To his men.
In that chamber beneath the castle.
How Dorian had smiled. Smiled while Ress had screamed, while Brullo had spat in his face.
His fault—all of it. Every moment of pain, those deaths …
It showed him Dorian’s hands as they wielded those instruments beneath the castle. As blood spurted and bone sundered. Unfaltering, clean hands. And that smile.
He knew. He had known, had guessed. Nothing would ever make it right. For his men; for Dorian, left to live with it.
For Dorian, whom he’d abandoned in that castle.
That moment, over and over, the darkness showed him.
As Dorian held his ground. As he revealed his magic, as good as a death sentence, and bought him time to run.
He had been so afraid—so afraid of magic, of loss, of everything. And that fear … it had driven him to it anyway. It had hurried him down this path. He had clung so hard, had fought against it, and it had cost him everything. Too late. He’d been too late to see clearly.
And when the worst had happened; when he saw that collar; when he saw his men swinging from the gates, their broken bodies picked over by crows …
It had cracked him through to his foundation. To this hollow pit beneath the mountain he’d been.
He had fallen apart. Had let himself lose sight of it.
And he had found some glimmer of peace in Rifthold, even after the injury, and yet …
It was like applying a patch over a knife wound to the gut.
He had not healed. Unmoored and raging, he had not wanted to heal. Not really. His body, yes, but even that …
Some part of him had whispered it was deserved.
And the soul-wound … He had been content to let it fester. Failure and liar and oath-breaker.
The darkness swarmed, a wind stirring it.
He could stay here forever. In the ageless dark.
Yes, the darkness whispered.
He could remain, and rage and hate and curl into nothing but shadow. But Dorian remained before him, still smiling faintly. Waiting.
He had made one promise. He had not broken it yet. To save them.
His friend, his kingdom. He still had that.
Even here at the bottom of this dark hell, he still had that.
And the road that he had traveled so far … No, he would not look back.
What if we go on, only to more pain and despair?
Aelin had smiled at his question, posed on that rooftop in Rifthold. As if she had understood, long before he did, that he would find this pit. And learn the answer for himself.
Then it is not the end. This …
This was not the end. This crack in him, this bottom, was not the end. He had one promise left.
To that he would still hold.
It is not the end.
He smiled at Dorian, whose sapphire eyes shone with joy—with love.
“I’m coming home,” he whispered to his brother, his king. Dorian only bowed his head and vanished into the darkness. Leaving Yrene standing behind him.
She was glowing with white light, bright as a newborn star.
Yrene said quietly, “The darkness belongs to you. To shape as you will.
To give it power or render it harmless.”
“Was it ever the Valg’s to begin with?” His words echoed into nothing. “Yes. But it is yours to keep now. This place, this final kernel of it.”
It would remain in him, a scar and a reminder. “Will it grow again?”
“Only if you let it. Only if you do not fill it with better things. Only if you do not forgive.” He knew she didn’t just mean others. “But if you are kind to yourself, if you—if you love yourself …” Yrene’s mouth trembled. “If you love yourself as much as I love you …”
Something began to pound in his chest. A drumbeat that had gone silent down here.
Yrene held a hand toward him, her iridescence rippling into the darkness.
It is not the end.
“Will it hurt?” he asked hoarsely. “The way back—the way out?” The path back to life, to himself.
“Yes,” Yrene whispered. “But just this one last time. The darkness does not want to lose you.”
“I’m afraid I can’t say the same.”
Yrene’s smile was brighter than the glow rippling off her body. A star.
She was a fallen star.
She extended her hand again. A silent promise—of what waited on the other side of the dark.
He still had much to do. Oaths to keep. And looking at her, at that smile … Life. He had life to savor, to fight for.
And the breaking that had started and ended here … Yes, it belonged to him. He was allowed to break, so that this forging might begin.
So that he might begin again.
He owed it to his king, his country. And he owed it to himself.
Yrene nodded as if to say yes. So Chaol stood.
He surveyed the darkness, this piece of him. He did not balk at it. And smiling at Yrene, he took her hand.
It was agony and despair and fear. It was joy and laughter and rest.
It was life, all of it, and as that darkness lunged for Chaol and Yrene, he did not fear it.
He only looked toward the dark and smiled. Not broken.
And when the darkness beheld him …
Chaol slid a hand against its cheek. Kissed its brow.
It loosened its grip and tumbled back into that pit. Curled up on that rocky floor and quietly, carefully, watched him.
He had the sense of rising up, of being sucked through a too-thin door.
Yrene grasped him, hauling him along with her.
She did not let go. Did not falter. She speared them upward, a star racing into the night.
White light slammed into them— No. Daylight.
He squeezed his eyes shut against the brightness. The first thing he felt was nothing.
No pain. No numbness. No ache or exhaustion. Gone.
His legs were … He moved one. It flowed and shifted without a flicker of pain or tension.
Smooth as butter.
He looked to the right, to where Yrene always sat. She was simply smiling down at him.
“How,” he rasped.
Joy lit her stunning eyes. “My theory … I’ll explain later.” “Is the mark—”
Her mouth tightened. “It is smaller, but … still there.” She poked a point on his spine. “Though I do not feel anything when I touch it. Nothing at all.”
A reminder. As if some god wanted him to remember this, remember what had occurred.
He sat up, marveling at the ease, the lack of stiffness. “You healed me.” “I think we both get considerable credit this time.” Her lips were too
pale, skin wan.
Chaol brushed her cheek with his knuckles. “Are you feeling well?” “I’m—tired. But fine. Are you feeling well?”
He scooped Yrene into his lap and buried his head in her neck. “Yes,” he breathed. “A thousand times, yes.”
His chest … there was a lightness to it. To his shoulders.
She batted him away. “You still need to be careful. This newly healed, you could still injure yourself. Give your body time to rest—to let the healing set.”
He lifted a brow. “What, exactly, does resting entail?”
Yrene’s smile turned wicked. “Some things that only special patients get to learn.”
His skin tightened over his bones, but Yrene slid off his lap. “You might want to bathe.”
He blinked, looking at himself. At the bed. And cringed. That was vomit. On the sheets, on his left arm.
“I’m not sure.”
The setting sun was indeed gilding the garden, cramming the room with long shadows.
Hours. All day, they’d been in here.
Chaol moved off the bed, marveling at how he slid through the world like a blade through silk.
He felt her watching him as he strode for the bathing room. “Hot water is safe now?” he called over his shoulder, stripping off his undershorts and stepping into the deliciously warm bath.
“Yes,” she called back. “You’re not full of strained muscles.”
He dunked under the water, scrubbing himself off. Every movement … holy gods.
When he broke from the surface, wiping the water from his face, she was standing in the arched doorway.
He went still at the smokiness in her eyes.
Slowly, Yrene undid the laces down the front of that pale purple gown.
Let it ripple to the floor, along with her undergarments.
His mouth turned dry as she kept her eyes upon him, hips swishing with every step she took to the pool. To the stairs.
Yrene stepped into the water, and his blood roared in his ears. Chaol was upon her before she’d hit the last step.
They missed dinner. And dessert.
And midnight kahve.
Kadja snuck in during the bath to change the sheets. Yrene couldn’t bring herself to be mortified at what the servant had likely heard. They certainly hadn’t been quiet in the water.
And certainly weren’t quiet during the hours following.
Yrene was limp with exhaustion when they peeled apart, sweaty enough that another trip to the bath was imminent. Chaol’s chest rose and fell in mighty gulps.
In the desert, he’d been unbelievable. But now, healed—beyond the spine, the legs; healed in that dark, rotting place within his soul …
He pressed a kiss to her sweat-sticky brow, his lips catching in the stray curls that had appeared thanks to the bath. His other hand drew circles on her lower back.
“You said something—down in that pit,” he murmured.
Yrene was too tired to form words beyond a low “Mmm.” “You said that you love me.”
Well, that woke her up.
Her stomach clenched. “Don’t feel obligated to—”
Chaol silenced her with that steady, unruffled look. “Is it true?”
She traced the scar down his cheek. She had not seen much of the beginning, had only broken into his memories in time to see that beautiful, dark-haired man—Dorian—smiling at him. But she had sensed it, known who had given him that recent scar.
“Yes.” And though her voice was soft, she meant it with every inch of her soul.
The corners of his mouth tugged upward. “Then it is a good thing, Yrene Towers, that I love you as well.”
Her chest tightened; she became too full for her body, for what coursed through her.
“From the moment you walked into the sitting room that first day,” Chaol said. “I think I knew, even then.”
“I was a stranger.”
“You looked at me without an ounce of pity. You saw me. Not the chair or the injury. You saw me. It was the first time I’d felt … seen. Felt awake, in a long time.”
She kissed his chest, right over his heart. “How could I resist these muscles?”
His laugh rumbled into her mouth, her bones. “The consummate professional.”
Yrene smiled onto his skin. “The healers will never let me hear the end of this. Hafiza is already beside herself with glee.”
But she stiffened, considering the road ahead. The choices.
Chaol said after a moment, “When Nesryn returns, I plan to make it clear. Though I think she knew before I did.”
Yrene nodded, trying to fight off the shakiness that crept over her.
“And beyond that … The choice is yours, Yrene. When you leave. How you leave. If you truly want to leave at all.”
She braced herself.
“But if you’ll have me … there will be a place for you on my ship. At my side.”
She let out a dainty hum and traced a circle around his nipple. “What sort of place?”
Chaol stretched out like a cat, tucking his arms behind his head as he drawled, “The usual options: scullery maid, cook, dishwasher—”
She poked his ribs, and he laughed. It was a beautiful sound, rich and deep.
But his brown eyes softened as he cupped her face. “What place would you like, Yrene?”
Her heart thundered at the question, the timbre of his voice. But she smirked and said, “Whichever one gives me the right to yell at you if you push yourself too hard.” She drew her hand along his legs, his back. Careful
—he’d have to be so, so careful for a while.
A corner of Chaol’s mouth kicked up, and he hauled her over him. “I think I know of just the position.”