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Page 94

Kingdom of Ash (Throne of Glass, 7)

Manon, at least, had refused finery. She wore her witch leathers—though her crown of stars lay upon her brow, casting its light upon Petrah Blueblood and Bronwen Crochan, seated on her either side.

Aedion’s swallow was audible, and Rowan glanced to the open doors. Then to where Lord Darrow stood beside the empty throne.

Not an official throne—just a larger, finer chair that had been selected from the sad lot of candidates.

Darrow, too, stared toward the open doors, face impassive. Yet his eyes glowed.

The trumpets rang out.

A four-note summons. Repeated three times.

Pews groaned as everyone twisted to the doors.

Behind the dais, hidden beyond a painted wooden screen, a small group of musicians began playing a processional. Not the grand, sprawling orchestra that might accompany an event of this magnitude, but better than nothing.

It didn’t matter anyway.

Not as Elide appeared in a lilac gown, a garland of ribbons atop her braided black hair. Every step limped, and Rowan knew it was because she had asked Lorcan not to brace her foot. She’d wanted to make this walk down the long aisle on her own two feet.

Poised and graceful, the Lady of Perranth kept her shoulders thrown back as she clutched the bouquet of holly before her and walked to the dais. Lady of Perranth—and one of Aelin’s handmaidens. For today.

For Aelin’s coronation.

Elide was halfway down the aisle when Lysandra appeared, clad in green velvet. People murmured. Not just at the remarkable beauty, but what she was.

The shape-shifter who had defended their kingdom. Had helped take down Erawan.

Lysandra’s chin remained high as she glided down the aisle, and Aedion’s own head lifted at the sight of her. The Lady of Caraverre.

Then came Evangeline, green ribbons in her red-gold hair, beaming, those scars stretched wide in utter joy. The young Lady of Arran. Darrow’s ward. Who had somehow melted the lord’s heart enough for him to convince the other lords to agree to this.

To Aelin’s right to the throne.

They had delivered the documents two days ago. Signed by all of them.

Elide took up a spot on the right side of the throne. Then Lysandra. Then Evangeline.

Rowan’s heart began thundering as everyone gazed down the now-empty aisle. As the music rose and rose, the Song of Terrasen ringing out.

And when the music hit its peak, when the world exploded with sound, regal and unbending, she appeared.

Rowan’s knees buckled as everyone rose to their feet.

Clad in flowing, gauzy green and silver, her golden hair unbound, Aelin paused on the threshold of the throne room.

He had never seen anyone so beautiful.

Aelin gazed down the long aisle. As if weighing every step she would take to the dais.

To her throne.

The entire world seemed to pause with her, lingering on that threshold.

Shining brighter than the snow outside, Aelin lifted her chin and began her final walk home.

 

Every step, every path she had taken, had led here.

The faces of her friends, her allies, blurred as she passed by.

To the throne that waited. To the crown Darrow would place upon her head.

Each of her footfalls seemed to echo through the earth. Aelin let some of her embers stream by, bobbing in the wake of her gown’s train as it flowed behind her.

Her hands shook, yet she clutched the bouquet of evergreen tighter. Evergreen—for the eternal sovereignty of Terrasen.

Each step toward that throne loomed and yet beckoned.

Rowan stood to the right of the throne, teeth bared in a fierce grin that even his training could not contain.

And there was Aedion at the throne’s left. Head high and tears running down his face, the Sword of Orynth hanging at his side.

It was for him that she then smiled. For the children they had been, for what they had lost.

What they now gained.

Aelin passed Dorian and Chaol, and threw a nod their way. Winked at Ansel of Briarcliff, dabbing her eyes on her jacket sleeve.

And then Aelin was at the three steps of the dais, and Darrow strode to their edge.

As he had instructed her last night, as she had practiced over and over in a dusty stairwell for hours, Aelin ascended the three steps and knelt upon the top one.

The only time in her reign that she would ever bow.

The only thing she would ever kneel before.

Her crown. Her throne. Her kingdom.

The hall remained standing, even as Darrow motioned them to sit.

And then came the words, uttered in the Old Language. Sacred and ancient, spoken flawlessly by Darrow, who had crowned Orlon himself all those decades ago.

Do you offer your life, your body, your soul to the service of Terrasen?

She answered in the Old Language, as she had also practiced with Rowan last night until her tongue turned leaden. I offer all that I am and all that I have to Terrasen.

Then speak your vows.

Aelin’s heart raced, and she knew Rowan could hear it, but she bowed her head and said, I, Aelin Ashryver Whitethorn Galathynius, swear upon my immortal soul to guard, to nurture, and to honor Terrasen from this day until my very last.

Then so it shall be, Darrow responded, and reached out a hand.

Not to her, but to Evangeline, who stepped forward with a green velvet pillow.

The crown atop it.

Adarlan had destroyed her antler throne. Had melted her crown.

So they had made a new one. In the ten days since it had been decided she was to be crowned here, before the world, they had found a master goldsmith to forge one from the remaining gold they’d stolen from the barrow in Wendlyn.

Twining bands of it, like woven antlers, rose to uphold the gem in its center.

Not a true gem, but one infinitely more precious. Darrow had given it to her himself.

The cut bit of crystal that contained the sole bloom of kingsflame from Orlon’s reign.

Even amid the shining metals of the crown, the red-and-orange blossom glowed like a ruby, dazzling in the light of the morning sun as Darrow lifted the crown from the pillow.

He raised it toward the shaft of light pouring through the bank of windows behind the dais. The ceremony chosen for this time, this ray of sun. This blessing, from Mala herself.

And though the Lady of Light was forever gone, Aelin could have sworn she felt a warm hand on her shoulder as Darrow held up the crown to the sun.

Could have sworn she felt them all standing there with her, those whom she had loved with her heart of wildfire. Whose stories were again inked upon her skin.

And as the crown came down, as she braced her head, her neck, her heart, Aelin let her power shine. For those who had not made it, for those who had fought, for the world watching.

Darrow set the crown upon her head, its weight heavier than she’d thought.

Aelin closed her eyes, letting that weight, that burden and gift, settle into her.

“Rise,” Darrow said, “Aelin Ashryver Whitethorn Galathynius, Queen of Terrasen.”

She swallowed a sob. And slowly, her breathing steady despite the heartbeat that threatened to leap out of her chest, Aelin rose.

Darrow’s gray eyes were bright. “Long may she reign.”

And as Aelin turned, the call went up through the hall, echoing off the ancient stones and into the gathered city beyond the castle. “Hail, Aelin! Queen of Terrasen! ”

The sound of it from Rowan’s lips, from Aedion’s, threatened to send her to her knees, but Aelin smiled. Kept her chin high and smiled.

Darrow gestured to the awaiting throne, to those last two steps.

She would sit, and the ceremony would be done.

But not yet.

Aelin turned to the left. Toward Aedion. And said quietly, but not weakly, “This has been yours from the day you were born, Prince Aedion.”

Aedion went still as Aelin pushed back the gauzy sleeve of her gown, exposing her forearm.

Aedion’s shoulders shook with the force of his tears.

Aelin didn’t fight hers as she asked, lips wobbling, “Will you swear the blood oath to me?”

Aedion just fell to his knees before her.

Rowan silently handed her a dagger, but Aelin paused as she held it over her arm. “You fought for Terrasen when no one else would. Against all odds, beyond all hope, you fought for this kingdom. For me. For these people. Will you swear to continue to do so, for as long as you draw breath?”

Aedion’s head bowed as he breathed, “Yes. In this life, and in all others, I will serve you. And Terrasen.”

Aelin smiled at Aedion, at the other side to her fair coin, and sliced open her forearm before extending it to him. “Then drink, Prince. And be welcome.”

Gently, Aedion took her arm and set his mouth to her wound.

And when he withdrew, her blood on his lips, Aelin smiled down at him. “You said you wanted to swear it before the entire world,” she said so only he could hear. “Well, here you go.”

Aedion choked out a laugh and rose, throwing his arms around her and squeezing tightly before he backed to his place on the other side of the throne.

Aelin looked to Darrow, still waiting. “Where were we?”

The old lord smiled slightly and gestured to the throne. “The last piece of this ceremony.”

“Then lunch,” Fenrys muttered, sighing.

Aelin suppressed her smile, and took the two steps to the throne.

She halted again as she turned to sit.

Halted at the small figures who poked their heads around the throne room doors. A small gasp escaped her, enough that everyone turned to look.

“The Little Folk,” people murmured, some backing away as small figures darted through the shadows down the aisle, wings rustling and scales gleaming.

One of them approached the dais, and with spindly greenish hands, laid their offering at her feet.

A second crown. Mab’s crown.

Taken from her saddlebags—wherever they had wound up after the battle. With them, it seemed. As if they would not let it be lost once more. Would not let her forget.

Aelin picked up the crown they had laid at her feet, gaping toward the small gathering who clustered in the shadows beyond the pews, their dark, wide eyes blinking.

“The Faerie Queen of the West,” Elide said softly, though all heard.

Aelin’s fingers trembled, her heart filling to the point of pain, as she surveyed the ancient, glimmering crown. Then looked to the Little Folk. “Yes,” she said to them. “I will serve you, too. Until the end of my days.”

And Aelin bowed to them then. The near-invisible people who had saved her so many times, and asked for nothing. The Lord of the North, who had survived, as she had, against all odds. Who had never forgotten her. She would serve them, as she would serve any citizen of Terrasen.

Everyone on the dais bowed, too. Then everyone in the throne room.

But the Little Folk were already gone.

So she placed Mab’s crown atop the one of gold and crystal and silver, the ancient crown settling perfectly behind it.

And then finally, Aelin sat upon her throne.

It weighed on her, nestled against her bones, that new burden. No longer an assassin. No longer a rogue princess.

And when Aelin lifted her head to survey the cheering crowd, when she smiled, Queen of Terrasen and the Faerie Queen of the West, she burned bright as a star.

 

The ritual was not over. Not yet.

As the bells rang out over the city, declaring her coronation, the gathered city beyond cheered.

Aelin went to greet them.

Down to the castle gates, her court, her friends, following her, the crowd from the throne room behind. And when she stopped at the sealed gates, the ancient, carved metal looming, the city and world awaiting beyond it, Aelin turned toward them.

Toward all those who had come with her, who had gotten them to this day, this joyous ringing of the bells.

She beckoned her court forward.

Then smiled at Dorian and Chaol, at Yrene and Nesryn and Sartaq and their companions. And beckoned them forward, too.

Brows rising, they approached.

But Aelin, crowned and glowing, only said, “Walk with me.” She gestured to the gates behind her. “All of you.”

This day did not belong to her alone. Not at all.

And when they all balked, Aelin walked forward. Took Yrene Westfall by the hand to guide her to the front. Then Manon Blackbeak. Elide Lochan. Lysandra. Evangeline. Nesryn Faliq. Borte and Hasar and Ansel of Briarcliff.

All the women who had fought by her side, or from afar. Who had bled and sacrificed and never given up hope that this day might come.

“Walk with me,” Aelin said to them, the men and males falling into step behind. “My friends.”

The bells still ringing, Aelin nodded to the guards at the castle gates.

They opened at last, and the roar from the gathered crowds was loud enough to rattle the stars.

As one, they walked out. Into the cheering city.

Into the streets, where people danced and sang, where they wept and clasped their hands to their hearts at the sight of the parade of waving, smiling rulers and warriors and heroes who had saved their kingdom, their lands. At the sight of the newly crowned queen, joy lighting her eyes.

A new world.

A better world.

 

 

CHAPTER 120

Two days later, Nesryn Faliq was still recovering from the ball that had lasted until dawn.

But what a celebration it had been.

Nothing as majestic as anything in the southern continent, but the sheer joy and laughter in the Great Hall, the feasting and dancing … She would never forget it, as long as she lived.

Even if it might take her until her dying day to feel rested again.

Her feet still ached from dancing and dancing and dancing, and she’d spotted both Aelin and Lysandra grousing about it at the breakfast table just an hour ago.

The queen had danced, though—a sight Nesryn would never forget, either.

The first dance had been Aelin’s to lead, and she had selected her mate to join her. Both queen and consort had changed for the party, Aelin into a gown of black threaded with gold, Rowan into black embroidered with silver. And what a pair they had been, alone on the dance floor.

The queen had seemed shocked—delighted—as the Fae Prince had led her into a waltz and had not faltered a step. So delighted that she’d crowned them both with flames.

That had been the start of it.

The dance had been … Nesryn had no words for the swiftness and grace of their dance. Their first as queen and consort. Their movements had been a question and answer to each other, and when the music had sped up, Rowan had spun and dipped and twirled her, the skirts of her black gown revealing Aelin’s feet, clad in golden slippers.

Feet that moved so quickly over the floor that embers sparked at her heels. Trailed in the wake of her sweeping dress.

Faster and faster, Aelin and Rowan had danced, spinning, spinning, spinning, the queen glowing like she’d been freshly forged as the music gathered into a clashing close.

And when the waltz slammed into its triumphant, final note, they halted—a perfect, sudden stop. Right before the queen threw her arms around Rowan and kissed him.

Nesryn was still smiling about it, sore feet and all, as she stood in the dusty chamber that had become the headquarters for the khaganate royals, and listened to them talk.

“The Healer on High says it will be another five days until the last of our soldiers are ready,” Prince Kashin was saying to his siblings. To Dorian, who had been asked into this meeting today.

“And you will depart then?” Dorian asked, smiling a bit sadly.

“Most of us,” Sartaq said, smiling with equal sadness.

For it was friendship that had grown here, even in war. True friendship, to last beyond the oceans that would separate them once more.

Sartaq said to Dorian, “We asked you here today because we have a rather unusual request.”

Dorian lifted a brow.

Sartaq winced. “When we visited the Ferian Gap, some of our rukhin found wyvern eggs. Untended and abandoned. Some of them now wish to stay here. To look after them. To train them.”

Nesryn blinked, right along with Dorian. No one had mentioned this to her. “I—I thought the rukhin never left their aeries,” Nesryn blurted.

“These are young riders,” Sartaq said with a smile. “Only two dozen.” He turned to Dorian. “But they begged me to ask you if it would be permissible for them to stay when we leave.”

Dorian considered. “I don’t see why they couldn’t.” Something sparked in his eyes, an idea formed and then set aside. “I would be honored, actually.”

“Just don’t let them bring the wyverns home,” Hasar groused. “I never want to see another wyvern for as long as I live.”

Kashin patted her on the head. Hasar snapped her teeth at him.

Nesryn chuckled, but her smile faded as she found Dorian smiling sadly at her, too.

“I think I’m about to lose another Captain of the Guard,” the King of Adarlan said.

Nesryn bowed her head. “I …” She hadn’t anticipated having this conversation. Not right now, at least.

“But I will be glad,” Dorian went on, “to gain another queen whom I can call friend.”

Nesryn blushed. It deepened as Sartaq smirked and said, “Not queen. Empress.”

Nesryn cringed, and Sartaq laughed, Dorian with him.

Then the king embraced her tightly. “Thank you, Nesryn Faliq. For all you have done.”

Nesryn’s throat was too tight to speak, so she hugged Dorian back.

And when the king left, when Kashin and Hasar went to find an early lunch, Nesryn turned to Sartaq and cringed again. “Empress? Really?”

Sartaq’s dark eyes glittered. “We won the war, Nesryn Faliq.” He tugged her close. “And now we shall go home.”

She’d never heard such beautiful words.

 

Chaol stared at the letter in his hands.

It had arrived an hour ago, and he still hadn’t opened it. No, he’d just taken it from the messenger—one of the fleet of children commanded by Evangeline—and brought it back to his bedroom.

Seated on his bed, the candlelight flickering through the worn chamber, he still couldn’t bring himself to crack the red wax seal.

The doorknob twisted, and Yrene slipped in, tired but bright-eyed. “You should be sleeping.”

“So should you,” he said with a pointed look to her abdomen.

She waved him off, as easily as she’d waved off the titles of Savior, and Hero of Erilea. As easily as she waved off the awed stares, the tears, when she strode by.

So Chaol would be proud for both of them. Would tell their child of her bravery, her brilliance.

“What’s that letter?” she asked, washing her hands, then her face, in the ewer by the window. Beyond the glass, the city was silent—sleeping, after a long day of rebuilding. The wild men of the Fangs had even remained to help, an act of kindness that Chaol would ensure did not go unrewarded. Already, he had looked into where he might expand their territory—and the peace between them and Anielle.

Chaol swallowed. “It’s from my mother.”

Yrene paused, her face still dripping. “Your … Why haven’t you opened it?”

He shrugged. “Not all of us are courageous enough to take on Dark Lords, you know.”

Yrene rolled her eyes, dried her face, and plopped down on the bed beside him. “Do you want me to read it first?”

He did. Damn him, but he did. Wordlessly, Chaol handed it to her.

Yrene said nothing as she opened the sealed parchment, her golden eyes darting over the inked words. Chaol tapped a finger on his knee. After a long day of healing, he knew better than to try to pace. Had barely made it back here with the cane before he’d sunk to the bed.

Yrene put a hand to her throat as she turned the page, read the back.

When she lifted her head again, tears slid down her cheeks. She handed him the letter. “You should read it yourself.”

“Just tell me.” He’d read it later. “Just—tell me what it says.”

Yrene wiped at her face. Her mouth trembled, but there was joy in her eyes. Pure joy. “It says that she loves you. It says that she has missed you. It says that if you and I are amenable to it, she would like to come live with us. Your brother Terrin, too.”

Chaol reached for the letter, scanning the text. Still not believing it. Not until he read,

I have loved you from the moment I knew you were growing in my womb.

He didn’t stop his own tears from falling.

Your father informed me of what he did with my letters to you. I informed him I shall not be returning to Anielle.

Yrene leaned her head against his shoulder while he read and read.

The years have been long, and the space between us distant, his mother had written. But when you are settled with your new wife, your babe, I would like to visit. To stay for longer than that, Terrin with me. If that would be all right with you.

Tentative, nervous words. As if his mother, too, did not quite believe that he’d agree.

Chaol read the rest, swallowing hard as he reached the final lines.

I am so very proud of you. I have always been, and always will be. And I hope to see you very soon.

Chaol set down the letter, wiped at his cheeks, and smiled at his wife. “We’re going to have to build a bigger house,” he said.

Yrene’s answering grin was all he’d hoped for.

 

The next day, Dorian found Chaol and Yrene in the sick bay that had been moved to the lower levels, the former in his wheeled chair, helping his wife tend to a wounded Crochan, and beckoned them to follow.

They did, not asking him questions, until he found Manon atop the aerie. Saddling Abraxos for his morning ride. Where she’d been each day, falling into a routine that Dorian knew was as much to keep the grief at bay as it was to maintain order.

Manon stilled as she beheld them, brows narrowing. She’d met Chaol and Yrene days ago, their reunion quiet but not chilly, despite how poorly Chaol’s first encounter with the witch had gone. Yrene had only embraced the witch, Manon holding her stiffly, and when they’d pulled apart, Dorian could have sworn some of the paleness, the gauntness, had vanished from Manon’s face.

Dorian asked the Witch-Queen, “Where do you go, when everyone leaves?”

Manon’s golden eyes didn’t leave his face.

He hadn’t dared ask her. They hadn’t dared speak of it. Just as he had not yet spoken of his father, his name. Not yet.

“To the Wastes,” she said at last. “To see what might be done.”

Dorian swallowed. He’d heard the witches, both Ironteeth and Crochans, talking about it. Had felt their growing nerves—and excitement. “And after?”

“There will be no after.”

He smiled slightly at her, a secret, knowing smile. “Won’t there be?”

Manon asked, “What is it that you want?”

You, he almost said. All of you.

But Dorian said, “A small faction of the rukhin are remaining in Adarlan to train the wyvern hatchlings. I want them to be my new aerial legion. And I would like you, and the other Ironteeth, to help them.”

Chaol coughed, and gave him a look as if to say, You were going to tell me this when?

Dorian winked at his friend and turned back to Manon. “Go to the Wastes. Rebuild. But consider it—coming back. If not to be my crowned rider, then to train them.” He added a bit softly, “And to say hello every now and then.”

Manon stared at him.

He tried not to look like he was holding his breath, like this idea he’d had mere minutes ago in the khaganate royals’ chamber wasn’t coursing through him, bright and fresh.

Then Manon said, “It is only a few days by wyvern from the Wastes to Rifthold.” Her eyes were wary, and yet—yet that was a slight smile. “I think Bronwen and Petrah will be able to lead if I occasionally slip away. To help the rukhin.”

He saw the promise in her eyes, in that hint of a smile. Both of them still grieving, still broken in places, but in this new world of theirs … perhaps they might heal. Together.

“You could just marry each other,” Yrene said, and Dorian whipped his head to her, incredulous. “It’d make it easier for you both, so you don’t need to pretend.”

Chaol gaped at his wife.

Yrene shrugged. “And be a strong alliance for our two kingdoms.”

Dorian knew his face was red when he turned to Manon, apologies and denials on his lips.

But Manon smirked at Yrene, her silver-white hair lifting in the breeze, as if reaching for the united people who would soon soar westward. That smirk softened as she mounted Abraxos and gathered up the reins. “We’ll see,” was all Manon Blackbeak, High Queen of the Crochans and Ironteeth, said before she and her wyvern leaped into the skies.

Chaol and Yrene began bickering, laughing as they did, but Dorian strode to the edge of the aerie. Watched that white-haired rider and the wyvern with silver wings become distant as they sailed toward the horizon.

Dorian smiled. And found himself, for the first time in a while, looking forward to tomorrow.

 

 

CHAPTER 121

Rowan knew this day would be hard for her.

For all of them, who had become so close these weeks and months.

Yet a week after Aelin’s coronation, they gathered again. This time not to celebrate, but to say farewell.

The day had dawned, clear and sunny, yet still brutally cold. As it would be for a time.

Aelin had asked them all to stay last night. To wait out the winter months and depart in the spring. Rowan knew she’d been aware her request was unlikely to be granted.

Some had seemed inclined to think it over, but in the end, all but Rolfe had decided to go.

Today—as one. Scattering to the four winds. The Ironteeth and Crochans had left before first light, vanishing swiftly and quietly. Heading westward toward their ancient home.

Rowan stood beside Aelin in the castle courtyard, and he could feel the sorrow and love and gratitude that flowed through her as she took them in. The khaganate royals and rukhin had already said their good-byes, Borte the most reluctant to say farewell, and Aelin’s embrace with Nesryn Faliq had been long. They had whispered together, and he’d known what Aelin offered: companionship, even from thousands of miles away. Two young queens, with mighty kingdoms to rule.

The healers had gone with them, some on horseback with the Darghan, some in wagons, some with the rukhin. Yrene Westfall had sobbed as she had embraced the healers, the Healer on High, one last time. And then sobbed into her husband’s arms for a good while after that.

Then Ansel of Briarcliff, with what remained of her men. She and Aelin had traded taunts, then laughed, and then cried, holding each other. Another bond that would not be so easily broken despite the distance.

The Silent Assassins left next, Ilias smiling at Aelin as he rode off.

Then Prince Galan, whose ships remained under the watch of Ravi and Sol in Suria and who would ride there before departing to Wendlyn. He had embraced Aedion, then clasped Rowan’s hand before turning to Aelin.

His wife, his mate, his queen had said to the prince, “You came when I asked. You came without knowing any of us. I know I’ve already said it, but I will be forever grateful.”

Galan had grinned. “It was a debt long owed, cousin. And one gladly paid.”

Then he, too, rode off, his people with him. Of all the allies they’d cobbled together, only Rolfe would remain for the winter, as he was now Lord of Ilium. And Falkan Ennar, Lysandra’s uncle, who wished to learn what his niece knew of shape-shifting. Perhaps build his own merchant empire here—and assist with those foreign trade agreements they’d need to quickly make.

More and more departed under the winter sun until only Dorian, Chaol, and Yrene remained.

Yrene embraced Elide, the two women swearing to write frequently. Yrene, wisely, just nodded to Lorcan, then smiled at Lysandra, Aedion, Ren, and Fenrys before she approached Rowan and Aelin.

Yrene remained smiling as she looked between them. “When your first child is near, send for me and I will come. To help with the birth.”

Rowan didn’t have words for the gratitude that threatened to bow his shoulders. Fae births … He didn’t let himself think of it. Not as he hugged the healer.

For a moment, Aelin and Yrene just stared at each other.

“We’re a long way from Innish,” Yrene whispered.

“But lost no longer,” Aelin whispered back, voice breaking as they embraced. The two women who had held the fate of their world between them. Who had saved it.

Behind them, Chaol wiped at his face. Rowan, ducking his head, did the same.

His good-bye to Chaol was quick, their embrace firm. Dorian lingered longer, graceful and steady, even as Rowan found himself struggling to speak past the tightness in his throat.

And then Aelin stood before Dorian and Chaol, and Rowan stepped back, falling into line beside Aedion, Fenrys, Lorcan, Elide, Ren, and Lysandra. Their fledgling court—the court that would change this world. Rebuild it.

Giving their queen space for this last, hardest good-bye.

 

She felt as if she had been crying without end for minutes now.

Yet this parting, this final farewell …

Aelin looked at Chaol and Dorian and sobbed. Opened her arms to them, and wept as they held each other.

“I love you both,” she whispered. “And no matter what may happen, no matter how far we may be, that will never change.”

“We will see you again,” Chaol said, but even his voice was thick with tears.

“Together,” Dorian breathed, shaking. “We’ll rebuild this world together.”

She couldn’t stand it, this ache in her chest. But she made herself pull away and smile at their tear-streaked faces, a hand on her heart. “Thank you for all you have done for me.”

Dorian bowed his head. “Those are words I’d never thought I’d hear from you.”

She barked a rasping laugh, and gave him a shove. “You’re a king now. Such insults are beneath you.”

He grinned, wiping at his face.

Aelin smiled at Chaol, at his wife waiting beyond him. “I wish you every happiness,” she said to him. To them both.

Such light shone in Chaol’s bronze eyes—that she had never seen before. “We will see each other again,” he repeated.

Then he and Dorian turned toward their horses, toward the bright day beyond the castle gates. Toward their kingdom to the south. Shattered now, but not forever.

Not forever.

 

Aelin was quiet for a long time afterward, and Rowan stayed with her, following as she strode up to the castle battlements to watch Chaol, Dorian, and Yrene ride down the road that cut through the savaged Plain of Theralis. Until even they had vanished over the horizon.

Rowan kept his arm around her, breathing in her scent as she rested her head against his shoulder.

Rowan ignored the faint ache that lingered there from the tattoos she’d helped him ink the night before. Gavriel’s name, rendered in the Old Language. Exactly how the Lion had once tattooed the names of his fallen warriors on himself.

Fenrys and Lorcan, a tentative peace between them, also now bore the tattoo—had demanded one as soon as they’d caught wind of what Rowan planned to do.

Aedion, however, had asked Rowan for a different design. To add Gavriel’s name to the Terrasen knot already inked over his heart.

Aedion had been quiet while Rowan had worked—quiet enough that Rowan had begun telling him the stories. Story after story about the Lion. The adventures they’d shared, the lands they’d seen, the wars they’d waged. Aedion hadn’t spoken while Rowan had talked and worked, the scent of his grief conveying enough.

It was a scent that would likely linger for many months to come.

Aelin let out a long sigh. “Will you let me cry in bed for the rest of today like a pathetic worm,” she asked at last, “if I promise to get to work on rebuilding tomorrow?”

Rowan arched a brow, joy flowing through him, free and shining as a stream down a mountain. “Would you like me to bring you cakes and chocolate so your wallowing can be complete?”

“If you can find any.”

“You destroyed the Wyrdkeys and slew Maeve. I think I can manage to find you some sweets.”

“As you once said to me, it was a group effort. It might also require one to acquire cakes and chocolate.”

Rowan laughed, and kissed the top of her head. And for a long moment, he just marveled that he could do it. Could stand with her here, in this kingdom, this city, this castle, where they would make their home.

He could see it now: the halls restored to their splendor, the plain and river sparkling beyond, the Staghorns beckoning. He could hear the music she’d bring to this city, and the laughter of the children in the streets. In these halls. In their royal suite.

“What are you thinking about?” she asked, peering up at his face.

Rowan brushed a kiss to her mouth. “That I get to be here. With you.”

“There’s lots of work to be done. Some might say as bad as dealing with Erawan.”

“Nothing will ever be that bad.”

She snorted. “True.”

He tucked her in closer. “I am thinking about how very grateful I am. That we made it. That I found you. And how, even with all that work to be done, I will not mind a moment of it because you are with me.”

She frowned, her eyes dampening. “I’m going to have a terrible headache from all this crying, and you’re not helping.”

Rowan laughed, and kissed her again. “Very queenly.”

She hummed. “I am, if anything, the consummate portrait of royal grace.”

He chuckled against her mouth. “And humility. Let’s not forget that.”

“Oh yes,” she said, winding her arms around his neck. His blood heated, sparking with a power greater than any force a god or Wyrdkey could summon.

But Rowan pulled away, just far enough to rest his brow against hers. “Let’s get you to your chambers, Majesty, so you can commence your royal wallowing.”

She shook with laughter. “I might have something else in mind now.”

Rowan let out a growl, and nipped at her ear, her neck. “Good. I do, too.”

“And tomorrow?” she asked breathlessly, and they both paused to look at each other. To smile. “Will you work to rebuild this kingdom, this world, with me tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow, and every day after that.” For every day of the thousand blessed years they were granted together. And beyond.

Aelin kissed him again and took his hand, guiding him into the castle. Into their home. “To whatever end?” she breathed.

Rowan followed her, as he had his entire life, long before they had ever met, before their souls had sparked into existence. “To whatever end, Fireheart.” He glanced sidelong at her. “Can I give you a suggestion for what we should rebuild first?”

Aelin smiled, and eternity opened before them, shining and glorious and lovely. “Tell me tomorrow.”

 

 

A Better World

Brutal winter gave way to soft spring.

Throughout the endless, snowy months, they had worked. On rebuilding Orynth, on all those trade agreements, on making ties with kingdoms no one had contacted in a hundred years. The lost Fae of Terrasen had returned, many of the wolf-riders with them, and immediately launched into rebuilding. Right alongside the several dozen Fae from Doranelle who had opted to stay, even when Endymion and Sellene had returned to their lands.

All across the continent, Aelin could have sworn the ringing of hammers sounded, so many peoples and lands emerging once more.

And in the South, no land worked harder to rebuild than Eyllwe. Their losses had been steep, yet they had endured—remained unbroken. The letter Aelin had written to Nehemia’s parents had been the most joyous of her life. I hope to meet you soon, she’d written. And repair this world together.

Yes, they had replied. Nehemia would wish it so.

Aelin had kept their letter on her desk for months. Not a scar on her palm, but a promise of tomorrow. A vow to make the future as brilliant as Nehemia had dreamed it could be.

And as spring at last crept over the Staghorns, the world became green and gold and blue, the stained stones of the castle cleaned and gleaming above it all.

Aelin didn’t know why she woke with the dawn. What drove her to slip from under the arm that Rowan had draped over her while they slept. Her mate remained asleep, exhausted as she was—exhausted as they all were, every single evening.

Exhausted, both of them, and their court, but happy. Elide and Lorcan—now Lord Lorcan Lochan, to Aelin’s eternal amusement—had gone back to Perranth only a week ago to begin the rebuilding there, now that the healers had finished their work on the last of the Valg-possessed. They would return in three weeks, though. Along with all the other lords who had journeyed to their estates once winter had lightened its grasp. Everyone would converge on Orynth, then. For Aedion and Lysandra’s wedding

A Prince of Wendlyn no longer, but a true Lord of Terrasen.

Aelin smiled at the thought as she slipped on her dressing robe, shuffling her feet into her shearling-lined slippers. Even with spring fully upon them, the mornings were chill. Indeed, Fleetfoot lay beside the fire on her little cushioned bed, curled up tightly. And as equally exhausted as Rowan, apparently. The hound didn’t bother to crack open an eye.

Aelin threw the blankets back over Rowan’s naked body, smiling down at him when he didn’t so much as stir. He much preferred the physical rebuilding—working for hours on repairing buildings and the city walls—to the courtly bullshit, as he called it. Meaning, anything that required him to put on nice clothing.

Yet he’d promised to dance with her at Lysandra and Aedion’s wedding. Such unexpectedly fine dancing skills, her mate had. Only for special occasions, he’d warned after her coronation.

Sticking out her tongue at him, Aelin turned from their bed and strode for the windows that led onto the broad balcony overlooking the city and plain beyond. Her morning ritual—to climb out of bed, ease through the curtains, and emerge onto the balcony to breathe in the morning air.

To look at her kingdom, their kingdom, and see that it had made it. See the green of spring, and smell the pine and snow of the wind off the Staghorns. Sometimes, Rowan joined her, holding her in silence when all that had happened weighed too heavily upon her. When the loss of her human form lingered like a phantom limb. Other times, on the days when she woke clear-eyed and smiling, he’d shift and sail on those mountain winds, soaring over the city, or Oakwald, or the Staghorns. As he loved to do, as he did when his heart was troubled or full of joy.

She knew it was the latter that sent him flying these days.

She would never stop being grateful for that. For the light, the life in Rowan’s eyes.

The same light she knew shone in her own.

Aelin reached the heavy curtains, feeling for the handle to the balcony door. With a final smile to Rowan, she slipped into the morning sun and chill breeze.

She went still, her hands slackening at her sides, as she beheld what the dawn had revealed.

“Rowan,” she whispered.

From the rustle of sheets, she knew he was instantly awake. Stalking toward her, even as he shoved on his pants.

But Aelin didn’t turn as he rushed onto the balcony. And halted, too.

In silence, they stared. Bells began pealing; people shouted.

Not with fear. But in wonder.

A hand rising to her mouth, Aelin scanned the broad sweep of the world.

The mountain wind brushed away her tears, carrying with it a song, ancient and lovely. From the very heart of Oakwald. The very heart of the earth.

Rowan twined his fingers in hers and whispered, awe in every word, “For you, Fireheart. All of it is for you.”

Aelin wept then. Wept in joy that lit her heart, brighter than any magic could ever be.

For across every mountain, spread beneath the green canopy of Oakwald, carpeting the entire Plain of Theralis, the kingsflame was blooming.

 

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