The world began and ended in fire.
A sea of fire with no room for air, for sound beyond the cascading molten earth. The true heart of fire—the tool of creation and destruction. And she was drowning in it.
Its weight smothered her as she thrashed, seeking a surface or a bottom to push off from. Neither existed.
As it flooded her throat, surging into her body and melting her apart, she began screaming noiselessly, begging it to halt—
The name, roared into the core of flame at the heart of the world, was a beacon, a summons. She’d been born waiting to hear that voice, had blindly sought it her whole life, would follow it unto the ending of all things—
Aelin bowed off the bed, flame in her mouth, her throat, her eyes. Real flame.
Golds and blues wove among simmering swaths of reds. Real flame, erupting from her, the sheets scorched, the room and the rest of the bed spared from incineration, the ship in the middle of the sea spared from incineration, by an uncompromising, unbreakable wall of air.
Hands wrapped in ice squeezed her shoulders, and through the flame, Rowan’s snarling face appeared, commanding her to breathe—
She took a breath. More flame rushed down her throat.
There was no tether, no leash to bring her magic to heel. Oh, gods—oh, gods, she couldn’t even feel a burnout threatening nearby. There was nothing but this flame—
Rowan gripped her face in his hands, steam rippling where his ice and wind met her fire. “You are its master; you control it. Your fear grants it the
right to take over.”
Her body arced off the mattress again, utterly naked. She must have burned her clothes—Rowan’s favorite shirt. Her flames burned wilder.
He gripped her hard, forcing her to meet his eyes as he snarled, “I see you. I see every part of you. And I am not afraid.”
I will not be afraid.
A line in the burning brightness.
My name is Aelin Ashryver Galathynius … And I will not be afraid.
As surely as if she grabbed it in her hand, the leash appeared.
Darkness flowed in, blessed and calm where that burning pit of flame had raged.
She swallowed once, twice. “Rowan.”
His eyes gleamed with near-animal brightness, scanning every inch of
His heartbeat was rampant, thundering—panicked. “Rowan,” she
Still he did not move, did not stop staring at her, searching for signs of harm. Something in her own chest shifted at his panic.
Aelin grasped his shoulder, digging in her nails at the violence rampant on every line of his body, as if he’d loosed whatever leashes he kept on himself in anticipation of fighting to keep her in this body and not some goddess or worse. “Calm down. Now.”
He did no such thing. Rolling her eyes, she tugged his hands from her face to lean over and throw the sheets off them. “I am fine,” she said, enunciating each word. “You saw to that. Now, get me some water. I’m thirsty.”
A basic, easy command. To serve, in the way he’d explained that Fae males liked to be needed, to fulfill some part of them that wanted to fuss and dote. To drag him back up to that level of civilization and reason.
Rowan’s face was still harsh with feral wrath—and the insidious terror running beneath it.
So Aelin leaned in, nipped his jaw, making sure her canines scratched, and said onto his skin, “If you don’t start acting like a prince, you can sleep on the floor.”
Rowan pulled back, his savage face not wholly of this world, but slowly, as if the words sank in, his features softened. He was still looking pissy, but not so near killing that invisible threat against her, as he leaned in, nipping her jaw in return, and said into her ear, “I’m going to make you regret using such threats, Princess.”
Oh, gods. Her toes curled, but she gave him a simpering smile as he rose to his feet, every muscle in his naked body rippling with the movement, and watched him pad with feline grace to the washstand and ewer atop it.
The bastard had the nerve to look her over as he lifted the jug. And then give her a satisfied, male smile as he poured a glass right to the brim, halting with expert precision.
She debated sending a lick of flame to burn his bare ass as he set down the jug with emphasized care and calm. And then stalked back to the bed, eyes on her every step of the way, and set the water on the small table beside it.
Aelin rose on surprisingly steady knees and faced him.
Only the creaking of the ship and hissing of the waves against it filled the room.
“What was that?” she asked quietly.
His eyes shuttered. “It was … me losing control.” “Why?”
He glanced at the porthole and moon-kissed sea beyond. So rare for him to avoid her stare.
“Why?” she pushed.
Rowan at last met her gaze. “I didn’t know if she’d taken you again.” No matter that the Wyrdkey now lay beside the bed and not around her neck. “Even when I realized you were just in the magic’s thrall, I still … The magic took you away. It’s been a long time since I wasn’t certain … since I didn’t know how to get you back.” He bared his teeth, loosing a jagged breath, the wrath now directed inward. “Before you call me a territorial Fae bastard, allow me to apologize and explain that it is very difficult—”
“Rowan.” He stilled. She crossed the small lingering distance between them, every step like the answer to some question she’d asked from the
moment her soul had sparked into existence. “You are not human. I do not expect you to be.”
He almost seemed to recoil. But she put a hand on his bare chest, over his heart. It still thundered beneath her palm.
She said softly, feeling that heart beneath her hand, “I do not care if you are Fae, or human, if you are Valg or a gods-damned skinwalker. You are what you are. And what I want … what I need, Rowan, is someone who does not apologize for it. For who they are. You have never once done so.” She leaned forward to kiss the bare skin where her hand had been. “Please don’t start doing it now. Yes, sometimes you piss me the hell off with that Fae territorial nonsense, but … I heard your voice. It woke me up. It led me out of that … place.”
He bowed his head until his brow leaned against hers. “I wish I had more to offer you—during this war, and beyond it.”
She slid her arms around his bare waist. “You offer me more than I ever hoped for.” He seemed to object, but she said, “And I figured since both Darrow and Rolfe informed me I needed to sell my hand in marriage for the sake of this war, I should do the opposite.”
A snort. “Typical. But if Terrasen needs—”
“Here is the way I see it,” she said, pulling back to examine his harsh face. “We do not have the luxury of time. And a marriage to a foreign kingdom, with its contracts and distances, plus the months it takes to raise and send an army … we do not have that time. We only have now. And what I don’t need is a husband who will try to get into a pissing contest with me, or who I’ll have to cloister somewhere for his own safety, or who will hide in a corner when I wake up with flames all around me.” She kissed his tattooed chest again, right over that mighty, thundering heart. “This, Rowan
—this is all I need. Just this.”
The reverberations of his deep, rattling breath echoed into her cheek, and he stroked a hand over her hair, along her bare back. Lower. “A court that can change the world.”
She kissed the corner of his mouth. “We’ll find a way—together.” The words he’d given her once, the words that had begun the healing of her shattered heart. And his own. “Did I hurt—” Her words were a rasp.
“No.” He brushed a thumb over her cheekbone. “No, you didn’t hurt me. Or anything else.”
Something in her chest caved in, and Rowan gathered her in his arms as she buried her face in his neck. His calloused hands caressed her back, over each and every scar and the tattoos he’d inked on her.
“If we survive this war,” she murmured after a while onto his bare chest, “you and I are going to have to learn how to relax. To sleep through the night.”
“If we survive this war, Princess,” he said, running a finger down the groove of her spine, “I’ll be happy to do anything you want. Even learn how to relax.”
“And if we never have a moment’s peace, even after we get the Lock, the keys, and send Erawan back to his hellhole realm?”
The amusement faded, replaced by something more intent as his fingers stilled on her back. “Even if we have threats of war every other day, even if we have to host fussy emissaries, even if we have to visit god-awful kingdoms and play nice, I’ll be happy to do it, if you’re at my side.”
Her lips trembled. “Och, you. Since when did you learn to make such pretty speeches?”
“I just needed the right excuse to learn,” he said, kissing her cheek.
Her body went taut and molten in all the right places as his mouth moved lower, pressing gentle, biting kisses to her jaw, her ear, her neck. She dug her fingers into his back, baring her throat as his canines scratched lightly.
“I love you,” Rowan breathed onto her skin, and flicked his tongue over the spot where his canines had scratched. “I’d walk into the burning heart of hell itself to find you.”
He almost had mere minutes ago, she wanted to say. But Aelin only arched her back a bit more, a small, needy noise coming out of her. This— him … Would it ever stop—the wanting? The need to not only be near him, but to have him so deep in her she felt their souls twining, their magic dancing … The tether that had led her out of that burning core of madness and destruction.
“Please,” she breathed, nails digging into his lower back in emphasis.
Rowan’s low groan was his only answer as he hoisted her up. She wrapped her legs around his waist, letting him carry her not to the bed, but to the wall, and the sensation of the cool wood against her back, compared to the heat and hardness of him pushing into her front—
Aelin panted through her gritted teeth as he again dragged his tongue over that spot on her neck. “Please.”
She felt his smile against her skin as Rowan thrust into her in a long, powerful stroke—and bit down on her neck.
A claiming, mighty and true, that she understood he so desperately needed. That she needed, and with his teeth in her, his body in her … She was going to combust, she was going to splinter apart from the overwhelming need—
Rowan’s hips began to move, setting a lazy, smooth pace as he kept his canines buried in her neck. As his tongue slid along the twin points of pleasure edged with finest pain, and he tasted her very essence as if it were wine.
He laughed, low and wicked, as release had her biting down on his shoulder to keep from screaming loud enough to wake the creatures sleeping on the bottom of the sea.
When Rowan finally drew his mouth away from her neck, his magic healing the small holes he’d left, his hands tightened on her thighs, pinning her to the wall as he moved deeper, harder.
Aelin only dragged her fingers through his hair as she gave him a savage kiss, and tasted her own blood on his tongue.
She whispered onto his mouth, “I’ll always find a way back to you.” This time, when Aelin went over the edge, Rowan plummeted with her.
Manon Blackbeak awoke.
There had been no sound, no smell, no hint of why she’d awoken, but those predatory instincts had sensed something amiss and sent her tumbling from sleep.
She blinked as she sat up, her wound now a dull ache—and found her head clear of whatever that haze had been.
The room was near-black, save for the moonlight that trickled through the porthole to illuminate her cramped cabin. How long had she been lost to sleep and hideous melancholy?
She listened carefully to the creaking of the ship. A faint grumbling sounded from above—Abraxos. Still alive. Still—sleeping, if she knew that drowsy, wheezing grumble.
She tested the manacles on her wrists, lifting them to peer at the lock. A clever sort of contraption, the chains thick and anchored soundly into the wall. Her ankles were no better.
She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been in chains. How had Elide endured it for a decade?
Maybe she’d find the girl once she got out of here. She doubted the Havilliard king had any news of the Thirteen anyway. She’d sneak onto Abraxos’s back, fly for the coast, and find Elide before tracking down her coven. And then … she didn’t know what she’d do. But it was better than lying here like a worm in the sun, letting whatever despair had seized control these days or weeks wreak havoc on her.
But as if she’d summoned him, the door opened. Dorian stood there, a candle in his—
Not a candle. Pure flame wreathed his fingers. It set his sapphire eyes glowing bright as he found her lucid. “Was it you—who sent that ripple of power?”
“No.” Though it didn’t take much guessing to suspect who it’d been, then. “Witches don’t have magic like that.”
He angled his head, his blue-black hair stained gold by his flames. “But you’re long-lived.”
She nodded, and he took that as an invitation to slide into his usual chair. “It’s called the Yielding,” she said, a chill brushing down her spine. “The bit of magic we have. We usually cannot summon or wield, but for one moment in a witch’s life, she can summon great power to unleash upon her enemies. The cost is that she is incinerated in the blast, her body yielded to the Darkness. In the witch wars, witches on both sides made Yieldings during every battle and skirmish.”
“It’s suicide—to blow yourself into smithereens … and take enemies with you.”
“It is, and it’s not pretty. As the Ironteeth witch yields life to the Darkness, its power fills her, and unleashes from her in an ebony wave. A manifestation of what lies in our souls.”
“Have you seen it done?”
“Once. By a scared young witch who knew she wouldn’t win glory any other way. Only, she took out half our Ironteeth force as well as the Crochans.”
Her mind snagged on the word. Crochans. Her people—
Not her people. She was a gods-damned Blackbeak— “Will the Ironteeth use it on us?”
“If you’re facing lower-level covens, yes. Older covens are too arrogant, too skilled to choose the Yielding instead of fighting their way out. But younger, weaker covens get spooked, or wish to win valor through sacrifice.”
“It’s war. War is sanctioned murder, no matter what side you’re on.” Ire flickered on his face, and she asked, “Have you ever killed a man?”
He opened his mouth to say no, but the light in his hand died.
He had. When he’d been collared, she guessed. The Valg inside him had done it. Multiple times. And not cleanly.
“Remember what they made you do,” Manon said, “when you face them again.”
“I doubt I’ll ever forget it, witchling.” He stood, heading for the door.
Manon said, “These chains are rubbing my skin raw. Surely you’ve some sympathy for chained things.” Dorian paused. She lifted her hands, displaying the chains. “I’ll give my word not to do any harm.”
“It’s not my call. Now that you’re talking again, maybe telling Aelin what she’s been pushing you about will get you on her good side.”
Manon had no idea what the queen had been demanding of her. None. “The longer I stay in here, princeling, the more likely I am to do something stupid when you release me. Let me at least feel the wind on my face.”
“You’ve got a window. Go stand in front of it.”
Part of her sat up straight at the harshness, the maleness in that tone, in the set of those broad shoulders. She purred, “If I had been asleep, would you have lingered to stare at me for a while?”
Icy amusement gleamed there. “Would you have objected?”
And perhaps she was reckless and wild and still a bit stupid from blood loss, but she said, “If you plan to sneak in here in the darkest hours of the night, you should at least have the decency to ensure I get something out of it.”
His lips twitched, though the smile was cold and sensuous in a way that made her wonder what playing with a king blessed with raw magic might be like. If he’d make her beg for the first time in her long life. He looked capable of it—perhaps willing to let a little cruelty into the bedroom. Her blood thrummed. “As tempting as seeing you naked and chained might be
…” A soft lover’s laugh. “I don’t think you’d enjoy the loss of control.”
“And you’ve been with so many women to be able to judge a witch’s wants so easily?”
That smile turned lazy. “A gentleman never tells.”
“How many?” He was only twenty—though he was a prince, now a king. Women had likely been falling over themselves for him since his voice had deepened.
“How many men have you been with?” he countered.
She smirked. “Enough to know how to handle the needs of mortal princelings. To know what will make you beg.” Never mind that she was contemplating the opposite.
He drifted across the room, past the range of her chains, right into her own breathing space. He leaned over her, nearly nose-to-nose, nothing at all amused in his face, in the cut of his cruel, beautiful mouth, as he said, “I don’t think you can handle the sort of things I need, witchling. And I am never begging for anything again in my life.”
And then he left. Manon stared after him, a hiss of rage slipping from her own lips. At the opportunity she hadn’t taken to grab him, hold him hostage, and demand her freedom; at the arrogance in his assumption; at the heat that had gathered in her core and now throbbed insistently enough that she clamped her legs together.
She had never been denied. Men had fallen to pieces, sometimes literally, to crawl into her bed. And she … She didn’t know what she would have done if he had taken up her offer, if she would have decided to learn what the king could do, exactly, with that beautiful mouth and toned body. A distraction—and an excuse to loathe herself even more, she supposed.
She was still seething at the door when it opened again.
Dorian leaned against the aged wood, his eyes still glazed in a way she couldn’t tell was lust or hatred or both. He slid the lock shut without looking at it.
Her heartbeat picked up, her entire immortal focus narrowed to his steady, unhurried breathing, the unreadable face.
His voice was rough as he said, “I won’t waste my breath telling you how stupid it would be to try to take me hostage.”
“I won’t waste mine telling you to take only what I offer you and nothing more.”
Her ears strained to listen, but even his damned heart was a solid beat. Not a whiff of fear. He said, “I need to hear you say yes.” His eyes flicked to the chains.
It took her a moment to comprehend, but she let out a low laugh. “So considerate, princeling. But yes. I do this of my own free will. It can be our little secret.”
She was nothing and no one now anyway. Sharing a bed with her enemy was nothing compared to the Crochan blood that flowed in her veins.
She began to unbutton the white shirt she’d been wearing for gods knew how long, but he growled, “I’ll do it myself.”
Like hell he would. She touched the second button.
Invisible hands wrapped around her wrists, tightly enough that she dropped the shirt.
Dorian prowled to her. “I said that I’d do it.” Manon took in each inch of him as he towered over her, and a shiver of pleasure rippled through her. “I suggest you listen.”
The pure male arrogance in that statement alone— “You’re courting death if you—”
Dorian lowered his mouth to hers.
It was a featherlight graze, barely a whisper of touch. Intent, calculated, and so unexpected she arched into it a bit.
He kissed the corner of her mouth with the same silken gentleness. Then the other corner. She didn’t move, didn’t even breathe—like every part of her body was waiting to see what he’d do next.
But Dorian pulled back, studying her eyes with a cool detachment.
Whatever he beheld there made him step away.
The invisible fingers on her wrists vanished. The door unlatched. And that cocky grin returned as Dorian shrugged with one shoulder and said, “Maybe another night, witchling.”
Manon almost bellowed as he slipped out the door—and didn’t return.