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Page 8

Kingdom of Ash (Throne of Glass, 7)

They blurred and bled, until even this moment, staring at the white wolf lying against the wall across from the altar, might be a fragment of an illusion.

Aelin’s finger scratched along the curved edge of the altar again.

The wolf blinked at her—thrice. In the early days, months, years of this, they had crafted a silent code between them. Using the few moments she’d been able to dredge up speech, whispering through the near-invisible holes in the iron coffin.

One blink for yes. Two for no. Three for Are you all right? Four for I am here, I am with you. Five for This is real, you are awake.

Fenrys again blinked three times. Are you all right?

Aelin swallowed against the thickness in her throat, her tongue peeling off the roof of her mouth. She blinked once. Yes.

She counted his blinks.

Six.

He’d made that one up. Liar, or something like it. She refused to acknowledge that particular code.

She blinked once again. Yes.

Dark eyes scanned her. He’d seen everything. Every moment of it. If he were permitted to shift, he could tell her what was fabricated and what was real. If any of it had been real.

No injuries ever remained when she awoke. No pain. Only the memory of it, of Cairn’s smiling face as he carved her up over and over.

He must have left her on the altar because he meant to return soon.

Aelin shifted enough to tug on the chains, the mask’s lock digging into the back of her head. The wind had not brushed her cheeks, or most of her skin, in … she did not know.

What wasn’t covered in iron was clad in a sleeveless white shift that fell to midthigh. Leaving her legs and arms bare for Cairn’s ministrations.

There were days, memories, of even that shift being gone, of knives scraping over her abdomen. But whenever she awoke, the shift remained intact. Untouched. Unstained.

Fenrys’s ears perked, twitching. All the alert Aelin needed.

She hated the trembling that began to coil around her bones as strolling footsteps scuffed beyond the square room and the iron door into it. The only way in. No windows. The stone hall she sometimes glimpsed beyond was equally sealed. Only the sound of water entered this place.

It surged louder as the iron door unlocked and groaned open.

She willed herself not to shake as the brown-haired male approached.

“Awake so soon? I must not have worked you hard enough.”

That voice. She hated that voice above all others. Crooning and cold.

He wore a warrior’s garb, but no warrior’s weapons hung from the belt at his slim waist.

Cairn noted where her eyes fell and patted the heavy hammer dangling from his hip. “So eager for more.”

There was no flame to rally to her. Not an ember.

He stalked to the small pile of logs by one brazier and fed a few to the dying fire. It swirled and crackled, leaping upon the wood with hungry fingers.

Her magic didn’t so much as flicker in answer. Everything she ate and drank through the small slot in the mask’s mouth was laced with iron.

She’d refused it at first. Had tasted the iron and spat it out.

She’d gone to the brink of dying from lack of water when they forced it down her throat. Then they’d let her starve—starve until she broke and devoured whatever they put in front of her, iron or no.

She did not often think about that time. That weakness. How excited Cairn had grown to see her eating, and how much he raged when it still did not yield what he wanted.

Cairn loaded the other brazier before snapping his fingers at Fenrys. “You may see to your needs in the hall and return here immediately.”

As if a ghost hoisted him up, the enormous wolf padded out.

Maeve had considered even that, granting Cairn power to order when Fenrys ate and drank, when he pissed. She knew Cairn deliberately forgot sometimes. The canine whines of pain had reached her, even in the box.

Real. That had been real.

The male before her, a trained warrior in everything but honor and spirit, surveyed her body. “How shall we play tonight, Aelin?”

She hated the sound of her name on his tongue.

Her lip curled back from her teeth.

Fast as an asp, Cairn gripped her throat hard enough to bruise. “Such rage, even now.”

She would never let go of it—the rage. Even when she sank into that burning sea within her, even when she sang to the darkness and flame, the rage guided her.

Cairn’s fingers dug into her throat, and she couldn’t stop the choking noise that gasped from her. “This can all be over with a few little words, Princess,” he purred, dropping low enough that his breath brushed her mouth. “A few little words, and you and I will part ways forever.”

She’d never say them. Never swear the blood oath to Maeve.

Swear it, and hand over everything she knew, everything she was. Become slave eternal. And usher in the doom of the world.

Cairn’s grip on her neck loosened, and she inhaled deeply. But his fingers lingered at the right side of her throat.

She knew precisely what spot, what scar, he brushed his fingers over. The twin small markings in the space between her neck and shoulder.

“Interesting,” Cairn murmured.

Aelin jerked her head away, baring her teeth again.

Cairn struck her.

Not her face, clad in iron that would rip open his knuckles. But her unprotected stomach.

The breath slammed from her, and iron clanked as she tried and failed to curl onto her side.

On silent paws, Fenrys loped back in and took up his place against the wall. Concern and fury flared in the wolf’s dark eyes as she gasped for air, as her chained limbs still attempted to curl around her abdomen. But Fenrys could only lower himself onto the floor once more.

Four blinks. I am here, I am with you.

Cairn didn’t see it. Didn’t remark on her one blink in reply as he smirked at the tiny bites on her neck, sealed with the salt from the warm waters of Skull’s Bay.

Rowan’s marking. A mate’s marking.

She didn’t let herself think of him too long. Not as Cairn thumbed free that heavy-headed hammer and weighed it in his broad hands.

“If it wasn’t for Maeve’s gag order,” the male mused, surveying her body like a painter assessing an empty canvas, “I’d put my own teeth in you. See if Whitethorn’s marking holds up then.”

Dread coiled in her gut. She’d seen the evidence of what their long hours here summoned from him. Her fingers curled, scraping the stone as if it were Cairn’s face.

Cairn shifted the hammer to one hand. “This will have to do, I suppose.” He ran his other hand down the length of her torso, and she jerked against the chains at the proprietary touch. He smiled. “So responsive.” He gripped her bare knee, squeezing gently. “We started at the feet earlier. Let’s go higher this time.”

Aelin braced herself. Took plunging breaths that would bring her far away from here. From her body.

She’d never let them break her. Never swear that blood oath.

For Terrasen, for her people, whom she had left to endure their own torment for ten long years. She owed them this much.

Deep, deep, deep she went, as if she could outrun what was to come, as if she could hide from it.

The hammer glinted in the firelight as it rose over her knee, Cairn’s breath sucking in, anticipation and delight mingling on his face.

Fenrys blinked, over and over and over. I am here, I am with you.

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