Rowan didn’t know whether to be amused, thrilled, or slightly terrified that he’d been blessed with a queen and lover who had so little care for public decency. He’d taken her three times on that beach—twice in the sand, then a third out in the warm waters. And yet his very blood was still electrified. And yet he still wanted more.
They’d swum into the shallows to wash off the sand crusted on them, but Aelin had wrapped her legs around his waist, kissed his neck, then licked his ear the way he’d nibbled hers, and he was buried in her again. She knew why he needed the contact, why he’d needed to taste her on his tongue, and then with the rest of his body. She’d needed the same.
He still needed it. When they’d finished after that first time, he’d been left reeling, to pull his sanity back together after the joining that had … unleashed him. Broken and remade him. His magic had been a song, and she had been…
He’d never had anything like her. Everything he’d given her, she’d given right back to him. And when she had bit him during that second coupling in the sand … His magic had left six nearby palm trees in splinters as he’d climaxed hard enough that he thought his body would shatter.
But once they were finished, when she’d actually made to walk back to Skull’s Bay in nothing but her flames, he’d given her his shirt and belt. Which did little to cover her up, especially those beautiful legs, but at least it was less likely to start a riot.
Barely, though. And it’d be obvious what they’d done on that beach the moment they stepped within scenting range of anyone with a preternatural sense of smell.
He’d marked her—richer than the scent that had clung to her before. Marked her deep and true, and there was no undoing it, no washing it away.
She’d claimed him, and he’d claimed her, and he knew she was well aware of what that claiming meant—just as he knew … He knew it had been a choice on her part. A final decision regarding the matter of who would be in her royal bed.
He would try to live up to that honor—try to find some way to prove he deserved it. That she hadn’t bet on the wrong horse. Somehow. He’d earn it. Even with so little to offer beyond his own magic and heart.
But he also knew his queen. And knew that despite the enormity of what they’d done, Aelin had also kept him on that beach to avoid the others. Avoid answering their questions and demands. But he made it one foot inside the Ocean Rose, saw the light in Aedion’s room, and knew their friends would not be so easily deterred.
Indeed, Aelin was scowling up at the light—though worry quickly replaced it as she remembered the shifter who had been so thoroughly unconscious. Her bare feet were silent on the stairs and hallway as she hurried for the room, not bothering to knock before flinging open the door.
Rowan loosed a sharp breath, trying to draw up his magic to cool the fire still in his blood. To calm the instincts roaring and raging at him. Not to take her—but to eliminate any other threat.
A dangerous time, for any Fae male, when they first took a lover.
Worse, when it meant something more.
Dorian and Aedion sat in the two armchairs before the darkened fireplace, arms crossed.
And her cousin’s face went pale with what might have been terror as he scented Aelin—the markings both seen and invisible on them.
Lysandra sat in bed, face drawn but eyes narrowed at the queen. It was the shifter who purred, “Enjoy your ride?”
Aedion didn’t dare move and was giving Dorian a warning look to do the same. Rowan bit down against the rage at the sight of other males near his queen, reminding himself that they were his friends, but—
That primal rage stumbled as he felt Aelin’s shuddering relief upon finding the shifter mostly healed and lucid. But his queen only shrugged. “Isn’t that all these Fae males are good for?”
Rowan raised his brows, chuckling as he debated reminding her how she’d begged him throughout, how she’d said words like please, and oh,
gods, and then a few extra pleases thrown in for good measure. He’d enjoy wringing those rarely seen manners from her again.
Aelin shot him a glare, daring him to say it. And despite just having her, despite the fact that he could still taste her, Rowan knew that whenever they found their bed again, she would not get the rest she wanted. Color stained Aelin’s cheeks, as if she saw his plans unfold, but she lifted the amulet from around her neck, dropped it onto the low-lying table between Aedion and Dorian, and said, “I learned that this was the third Wyrdkey when I was still in Wendlyn.”
Then, as if she hadn’t shattered any sense of safety they still possessed, Aelin withdrew the mangled Eye of Elena from her pack, chucked it once in the air, and jerked her chin at the King of Adarlan. “I think it’s time you met your ancestor.”
Dorian listened to Aelin’s story.
About the Wyrdkey she’d secretly carried, about what had happened today in the bay, about how she’d tricked Lorcan and how it would eventually lead the warrior back to them—hopefully with the other two keys in his hands. And, if they were lucky, they would have already found this Lock she had been ordered twice now to retrieve from the Stone Marshes—the only thing capable of binding the Wyrdkeys back into the gate from which they’d been hewn and ending the threat of Erawan forever. No number of allies would make a difference if they could not stop Erawan from using those keys to unleash the Valg hordes from his own realm upon Erilea. His possession of two keys had already led to such darkness. If he gained the third, gained mastery over the Wyrdgate and could open it to any world at will, use it to summon any conquering army
… They had to find that Lock to nullify those keys.
When the queen was done, Aedion was silently fuming, Lysandra was frowning, and Aelin was now snuffing out the candles in the room with hardly a wave of her hand. Two ancient tomes, withdrawn from Aedion’s crammed saddlebags, lay open on the table. He knew those books—he had
no idea she’d taken them from Rifthold. The warped metal of the Eye of Elena amulet sat atop one of them as Aelin double-checked the markings on an age-spotted page.
Darkness fell as she used her own blood to etch those markings on the wooden floor.
“Looks like our bill of damages to this city is going to rise,” Lysandra muttered.
Aelin snorted. “We’ll just move the rug to cover it.” She finished making a mark—a Wyrdmark, Dorian realized with a chill, and stepped back, plucking up the Eye in her fist.
“Now what?” Aedion said.
“Now we keep our mouths shut,” Aelin said sweetly.
The moonlight spread on the floor, devoured by the dark lines she’d etched. Aelin drifted over to where Rowan sat on the edge of the bed, still shirtless thanks to the queen currently wearing his shirt, and took up a spot beside him, a hand on his knee.
Lysandra was the first to notice.
She sat up in the bed, green eyes glowing with animal brightness as the moonlight on the blood-marks seemed to shimmer. Aelin and Rowan jerked to their feet. Dorian just stared at the marks, at the moonlight, at the beam of it shining through the open balcony doors.
As if the light itself were a doorway, the shaft of moonlight turned into a humanoid figure.
It flickered, its form barely there. Like a figment of a dream.
The hair on Dorian’s arms rose. And he had the good sense to slide out of his chair and onto a knee as he bowed his head.
He was the only one who did so. The only one, he realized, who had spoken to Elena’s mate, Gavin. Long ago—another lifetime ago. He tried not to consider what it meant that he now carried Gavin’s sword, Damaris. Aelin had not asked for it back—did not seem inclined to do so.
A muffled female voice, as if it were calling from far away, flickered in and out with the image. “Too—far,” a light, young voice said.
Aelin stepped forward and shut those ancient spellbooks before stacking them with a thump. “Well, Rifthold isn’t exactly available, and your tomb is trashed, so tough luck.”
Dorian’s head lifted as he glanced between the flickering figure of moonlight and the young queen of flesh and blood.
Elena’s roughly formed body vanished, then reappeared, as if the wind itself disturbed her. “Can’t—hold—”
“Then I’ll make it quick.” Aelin’s voice was sharp as a blade. “No more games. No more half-truths. Why did Deanna arrive today? I get it: finding the Lock is important. But what is it? And tell me what she meant by calling me the Queen Who Was Promised.”
As if the words jolted the dead queen like lightning, his ancestor appeared, fully corporeal.
She was exquisite: her face young and grave, her hair long and silvery-white—like Manon’s—and her eyes … Startling, dazzling blue. They now fixed on him, the pale gown she wore fluttering on a phantom breeze. “Rise, young king.”
Aelin snorted. “Can we not play the holier-than-thou-ancient-spirit game?”
But Elena surveyed Rowan, Aedion. Her slender, fair neck bobbed.
And Aelin, gods above, snapped her fingers at the queen—once, twice
—drawing her attention back to her. “Hello, Elena,” she drawled, “so nice to see you. It’s been a while. Care to answer some questions?”
Irritation flickered in the dead queen’s eyes. But Elena’s chin remained high, her slender shoulders back. “I do not have much time. The connection is too hard to maintain so far from Rifthold.”
“What a surprise.”
The two queens stared each other down.
Elena, Wyrd damn him, broke first. “Deanna is a god. She does not have rules and morals and codes the way we do. Time does not exist for her the way it does for us. You let your magic touch the key, the key opened a door, and Deanna happened to be watching at that exact moment. That she spoke to you at all is a gift. That you managed to shove her out before she was ready … She will not soon forget that insult, Majesty.”
“She can get in line,” Aelin said.
Elena shook her head. “There is … there is so much I did not get to tell you.”
“Like the fact that you and Gavin never killed Erawan, lied to everyone about it, and then left him for us to deal with?”
Dorian risked a glance at Aedion, but his face was hard, calculating, ever the general—fixed on the dead queen now standing in this room with them. Lysandra—Lysandra was gone.
No, in ghost leopard form, slinking through the shadows. Rowan’s hand was resting casually on his sword, though Dorian’s own magic swept the room and realized the weapon was to be the physical distraction from the magical blow he’d deal Elena if she so much as looked funny at Aelin. Indeed, a hard shield of air now lay between the two queens—and sealed this room, too.
Elena shook her head, her silver hair flowing. “You were meant to retrieve the Wyrdkeys before Erawan could get this far.”
“Well, I didn’t,” Aelin snapped. “Forgive me if you weren’t entirely
clear on your directions.”
Elena said, “I do not have time to explain, but know it was the only choice. To save us, to save Erilea, it was the only choice I could make.” And for all their snapping at each other, the queen exposed her palms to Aelin. “Deanna and my father spoke true. I’d thought … I’d thought it was broken, but if they told you to find the Lock … ” She bit her lip.
Aelin said, “Brannon said to go to the Stone Marshes of Eyllwe to find the Lock. Where, precisely, in the marshes?”
“There was once a great city in the heart of the marshes,” Elena breathed. “It is now half drowned on the plain. In a temple at its center, we laid the remnants of the Lock. I didn’t … My father attained the Lock at terrible cost. The cost … of my mother’s body, her mortal life. A Lock for the Wyrdkeys—to seal shut the gate, and bind the keys inside them forever. I did not understand what it had been intended for; my father never told me about any of it until it was too late. All I knew was that the Lock was only able to be used once—its power capable of sealing anything we wished. So I stole it. I used it for myself, for my people. I have been paying for that crime since.”
“You used it to seal Erawan in his tomb,” Aelin said quietly.
The pleading faded from Elena’s face. “My friends died in the valley of the Black Mountains that day so I might have the chance to stop him. I heard their screaming, even in the heart of Erawan’s camp. I will not apologize for trying to end the slaughter so that the survivors could have a future. So you could have a future.”
“So you used the Lock, then chucked it into a ruin?”
“We placed it inside the holy city on the plain—to be a commemoration of the lives lost. But a great cataclysm rocked the land decades later … and the city sank, the marsh water flowed in, and the Lock was forgotten. No one ever retrieved it. Its power had already been used. It was just a bit of metal and glass.”
“And now it’s not?”
“If both my father and Deanna mentioned it, it must be vital in stopping Erawan.”
“Forgive me if I do not trust the word of a goddess who tried to use me like a puppet to blow this town into smithereens.”
“Her methods are roundabout, but she likely meant you no harm—” “Bullshit.”
Elena flickered again. “Get to the Stone Marshes. Find the Lock.”
“I told Brannon, and I’ll tell you: we have more pressing matters at hand—”
“My mother died to forge that Lock,” Elena snapped, eyes blazing bright. “She let go of her mortal body so that she could forge the Lock for my father. I was the one who broke the promise for how it was to be used.”
Aelin blinked, and Dorian wondered if he should indeed be worried when even she was speechless. But Aelin only whispered, “Who was your mother?”
Dorian ransacked his memory, all his history lessons on his royal house, but couldn’t recall.
Elena made a sound that might have been a sob, her image fading into cobwebs and moonlight. “She who loved my father best. She who blessed him with such mighty gifts, and then bound herself in a mortal body and offered him the gift of her heart.”
Aelin’s arms slackened at her sides. Aedion blurted, “Shit.”
Elena laughed humorlessly as she said to Aelin, “Why do you think you burn so brightly? It is not just Brannon’s blood that is in your veins. But Mala’s.”
Aelin breathed, “Mala Fire-Bringer was your mother.” Elena was already gone.
Aedion said, “Honestly, it’s a miracle you two didn’t kill each other.”
Dorian didn’t bother to correct him that it was technically impossible, given that one of them was already dead. Rather, he weighed all that the queen had said and demanded. Rowan, remaining silent, seemed to be doing the same. Lysandra sniffed around the blood-marks, as if testing for whatever remnants of the ancient queen might be around.
Aelin stared out the open balcony doors, eyes hooded and mouth a tight line. She unfurled her fist and examined the Eye of Elena, still held in her palm.
The clock struck one in the morning. Slowly, Aelin turned to them. To him.
“Mala’s blood flows in our veins,” she said hoarsely, fingers closing around the Eye before she slipped it into the shirt’s pocket.
He blinked, realizing that it indeed did. That perhaps both of them had been so considerably gifted because of it. Dorian said to Rowan, if only because he might have heard or witnessed something in all his travels, “Is it truly possible—for a god to become mortal like that?”
Rowan, who had been watching Aelin a bit warily, twisted to him. “I’ve never heard of such a thing. But … Fae have given up their immortality to bind their lives to that of their mortal mates.” Dorian had the distinct feeling Aelin was deliberately examining a spot on her shirt. “It’s certainly possible Mala found a way to do it.”
“It’s not just possible,” Aelin murmured. “She did it. That … pit of power I uncovered today … That was from Mala herself. Elena might be many things, but she wasn’t lying about that.”
Lysandra shifted back into her human form, swaying enough that she set herself down on the bed before Aedion could move to steady her. “So what do we do now?” she asked, her voice gravelly. “Erawan’s fleet squats in the Gulf of Oro; Maeve sails for Eyllwe. But neither knows that we possess this Wyrdkey—or that this Lock exists … and lies directly between their forces.”
For a heartbeat, Dorian felt like a useless fool as they all, including him, looked to Aelin. He was King of Adarlan, he reminded himself. Equal to her. Even if his lands and people had been stolen, his capital captured.
But Aelin rubbed her eyes with her thumb and forefinger, loosing a long breath. “I really, really hate that old windbag.” She lifted her head,
surveying them all, and said simply, “We sail for the Stone Marshes in the morning to hunt down that Lock.”
“Rolfe and the Mycenians?” Aedion asked.
“He takes half his fleet to find the rest of the Mycenians, wherever they’re hiding. Then they all sail north to Terrasen.”
“Rifthold lies between here and there, with wyverns patrolling it,” Aedion countered. “And this plan depends on if we can trust Rolfe to actually follow through on his promise.”
“Rolfe knows how to stay out of range,” Rowan said. “We have little choice but to trust him. And he honored the promise he made to Aelin regarding the slaves two and a half years ago.” No doubt why Aelin had made him confirm it so thoroughly.
“And the other half of Rolfe’s fleet?” Aedion pushed.
“Some remain to hold the archipelago,” Aelin said. “And some come with us to Eyllwe.”
“You can’t fight Maeve’s armada with a fraction of Rolfe’s fleet,” Aedion said, crossing his arms. Dorian bit back his own agreement, leaving the general to it. “Let alone Morath’s forces.”
“I’m not going there to pick a fight,” was all Aelin said. And that was that.
They dispersed then, Aelin and Rowan slipping off to their own room.
Dorian lay awake, even when his companions’ breathing became deep and slow. He mulled over each word Elena had uttered, mulled over that long-ago appearance of Gavin, who had awoken him to stop Aelin from opening that portal. Perhaps Gavin had done it not to spare Aelin from damnation, but to keep those waiting, cold-eyed gods from seizing her as Deanna had today.
He tucked the speculation away to consider when he was less prone to leaping to conclusions. But the threads lay in a lattice across his mind, in hues of red and green and gold and blue, glimmering and thrumming, whispering their secrets in languages not spoken in this world.
An hour past dawn, they departed Skull’s Bay on the swiftest ship Rolfe could spare. Rolfe didn’t bother to say good-bye, already preoccupied with readying his fleet, before they sailed out of the sparkling harbor and into the lush archipelago beyond. He did grant Aelin one parting gift: vague coordinates for the Lock. His map had found it—or rather, the general location. Some sort of wards must be placed around it, the captain warned them, if his tattoo could not pinpoint its resting place. But it was better than nothing, Dorian supposed. Aelin had grumbled as much.
Rowan circled high above in hawk form, scouting behind and ahead. Fenrys and Gavriel were at the oars, helping row them out of the harbor— Aedion doing so as well, at a comfortable distance from his father. Dorian himself stood at the wheel beside the surly, short captain—an older woman who had no interest in speaking to him, king or not. Lysandra swam in the surf below in some form or another, guarding them from any threats beneath the surface.
But Aelin stood alone on the prow, her golden hair unbound and flowing behind her, so still that she might have been the twin to the figurehead mere feet beneath. The rising sun cast her in shimmering gold, no hint of the moonfire that had threatened to destroy them all.
But even as the queen stood undimming before the shadows of the world … a lick of cold traced the contours of Dorian’s heart.
And he wondered if Aelin was somehow watching the archipelago, and the seas, and the skies, as if she might never see them again.
Three days later, they were nearly out of the archipelago’s strangling grasp. Dorian was again at the helm, Aelin at the prow, the others scattered on various rounds of scouting and resting.
His magic felt it before he did. A sense of awareness, of warning and awakening.
He scanned the horizon. The Fae warriors fell silent before the others.
It looked like a cloud at first—a wind-tossed little cloud on the horizon.
Then a large bird.
When the sailors began rushing for their weapons, Dorian’s mind at last spat out a name for the beast that swept toward them on shimmering, wide wings. Wyvern.
There was only one. And only one rider atop it. A rider who did not move, whose white hair was unbound—listing toward the side. As the rider now was.
The wyvern dropped lower, skimming over the water. Lysandra was instantly ready, waiting for the queen’s order to shift into whatever form would fight it—
“No.” The word ripped from Dorian’s lips before he could think. But then it came out, over and over, as the wyvern and rider sailed closer to the ship.
The witch was unconscious, her body leaning to the side because she was not awake, because that was blue blood all over her. Don’t shoot; don’t shoot—
Dorian was roaring the order as he hurtled for where Fenrys had drawn his longbow, a black-tipped arrow aimed at the witch’s exposed neck. His words were swallowed by the shouting of the sailors and their captain. Dorian’s magic swelled as he unsheathed Damaris—
But then Aelin’s voice cut over the fray—Hold your fire!
All of them halted. The wyvern sailed close, then banked, circling the boat.
Blue blood crusted the beast’s scarred sides. So much blood. The witch was barely in the saddle. Her tan face was leeched of color, her lips paler than whale bone.
The wyvern completed its circle, sweeping lower this time, readying to land as near the boat as possible. Not to attack … but for help.
One moment, the wyvern was soaring smoothly over the cobalt waves. Then the witch listed so far that her body seemed to go boneless. As if in that heartbeat, when help was mere feet away, whatever luck had kept her astride at last abandoned her.
Silence fell on the ship as Manon Blackbeak tumbled from her saddle, falling through wind and spindrift, and hit the water.