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Chapter no 34

Queen of Shadows (Throne of Glass, 4)

Aelin knew she had things to do—vital things, terrible things—but she could sacrifice one day.

Keeping to the shadows whenever possible, she spent the afternoon showing Rowan the city, from the elegant residential districts to the markets crammed with vendors selling goods for the summer solstice in two weeks.

There was no sign or scent of Lorcan, thank the gods. But the king’s men were posted at a few busy intersections, giving Aelin an opportunity to point them out to Rowan. He studied them with trained efficiency, his keen sense of smell enabling him to pick out which ones were still human and which were inhabited by lesser Valg demons. From the look on his face, she honestly felt a little bad for any guard that came across him, demon or human. A little, but not much. Especially given that their presence alone somewhat ruined her plans for a peaceful, quiet day.

She wanted to show Rowan the good parts of the city before dragging him into its underbelly.

So she took him to one of Nesryn’s family’s bakeries, where she went so far as to buy a few of those pear tarts. At the docks, Rowan even convinced her to try some pan-fried trout. She’d once sworn never to eat fish, and had cringed as the fork had neared her mouth, but—the damned thing was delicious. She ate her entire fish, then snuck bites of Rowan’s, to his snarling dismay.

Here—Rowan was here with her, in Rifthold. And there was so much more she wanted him to see, to learn about what her life had been like. She’d never wanted to share any of it before.

Even when she’d heard the crack of a whip after lunch as they cooled themselves by the water, she’d wanted him with her to witness it. He’d silently stood with a hand on her shoulder as they watched the cluster of chained slaves hauling cargo onto one of the ships. Watched—and could do nothing.

Soon, she promised herself. Putting an end to that was a high priority. They meandered back through the market stalls, one after another,

until the smell of roses and lilies wafted by, the river breeze sweeping

petals of every shape and color past their feet as the flower girls shouted about their wares.

She turned to him. “If you were a gentleman, you’d buy me—”

Rowan’s face had gone blank, his eyes hollow as he stared at one of the flower girls in the center of the square, a basket of hothouse peonies on her thin arm. Young, pretty, dark-haired, and— Oh, gods.

She shouldn’t have brought him here. Lyria had sold flowers in the market; she’d been a poor flower girl before Prince Rowan had spotted her and instantly known she was his mate. A faerie tale—until she’d been slaughtered by enemy forces. Pregnant with Rowan’s child.

Aelin clenched and unclenched her fingers, any words lodged in her throat. Rowan was still staring at the girl, who smiled at a passing woman, aglow with some inner light.

“I didn’t deserve her,” Rowan said quietly.

Aelin swallowed hard. There were wounds in both of them that had yet to heal, but this one … Truth. As always, she could offer him one truth in exchange for another. “I didn’t deserve Sam.”

He looked at her at last.

She’d do anything to get rid of the agony in his eyes. Anything. His gloved fingers brushed her own, then dropped back to his side.

She clenched her hand into a fist again. “Come. I want to show you something.”

 

 

Aelin scrounged up some dessert from the street vendors while Rowan waited in a shadowed alley. Now, sitting on one of the wooden rafters in the gilded dome of the darkened Royal Theater, Aelin munched on a lemon cookie and swung her legs in the open air below. The space was the same as she remembered it, but the silence, the darkness …

“This used to be my favorite place in the entire world,” she said, her words too loud in the emptiness. Sunlight poured in from the roof door they’d broken into, illuminating the rafters and the golden dome, gleaming faintly off the polished brass banisters and the bloodred curtains of the stage below. “Arobynn owns a private box, so I went any chance I could. The nights I didn’t feel like dressing up or being seen, or maybe the nights I had a job and only an hour free, I’d creep in here through that door and listen.”

Rowan finished his cookie and gazed at the dark space below. He’d been so quiet for the past thirty minutes—as if he’d pulled back into a place where she couldn’t reach him.

She nearly sighed with relief as he said, “I’ve never seen an orchestra

—or a theater like this, crafted around sound and luxury. Even in Doranelle, the theaters and amphitheaters are ancient, with benches or just steps.”

“There’s no place like this anywhere, perhaps. Even in Terrasen.” “Then you’ll have to build one.”

“With what money? You think people are going to be happy to starve while I build a theater for my own pleasure?”

“Perhaps not right away, but if you believe one would benefit the city, the country, then do it. Artists are essential.”

Florine had said as much. Aelin sighed. “This place has been shut down for months, and yet I swear I can still hear the music floating in the air.”

Rowan angled his head, studying the dark with those immortal senses. “Perhaps the music does live on, in some form.”

The thought made her eyes sting. “I wish you could have heard it—I wish you had been there to hear Pytor conduct the Stygian Suite. Sometimes, I feel like I’m still sitting down in that box, thirteen years old and weeping from the sheer glory of it.”

“You cried?” She could almost see the memories of their training this spring flash in his eyes: all those times music had calmed or unleashed her magic. It was a part of her soul—as much as he was.

“The final movement—every damn time. I would go back to the Keep and have the music in my mind for days, even as I trained or killed or slept. It was a kind of madness, loving that music. It was why I started playing the pianoforte—so I could come home at night and make my poor attempt at replicating it.”

She’d never told anyone that—never taken anyone here, either. Rowan said, “Is there a pianoforte in here?”

 

 

“I haven’t played in months and months. And this is a horrible idea for about a dozen different reasons,” she said for the tenth time as she finished rolling back the curtains on the stage.

She’d stood here before, when Arobynn’s patronage had earned them invitations to galas held on the stage for the sheer thrill of walking on sacred space. But now, amid the gloom of the dead theater, lit with the single candle Rowan had found, it felt like standing in a tomb.

The chairs of the orchestra were still arranged as they probably had been the night the musicians had walked out to protest the massacres in

Endovier and Calaculla. They were all still unaccounted for—and considering the array of miseries the king now heaped upon the world, death would have been the kindest option.

Clenching her jaw, Aelin leashed the familiar, writhing anger.

Rowan was standing beside the pianoforte near the front right of the stage, running a hand over the smooth surface as if it were a prize horse.

She hesitated before the magnificent instrument. “It seems like sacrilege to play that thing,” she said, the word echoing loudly in the space.

“Since when are you the religious type, anyway?” Rowan gave her a crooked smile. “Where should I stand to best hear it?”

“You might be in for a lot of pain at first.” “Self-conscious today, too?”

“If Lorcan’s snooping about,” she grumbled, “I’d rather he not report back to Maeve that I’m lousy at playing.” She pointed to a spot on the stage. “There. Stand there, and stop talking, you insufferable bastard.”

He chuckled, and moved to the spot she’d indicated.

She swallowed as she slid onto the smooth bench and folded back the lid, revealing the gleaming white and black keys beneath. She positioned her feet on the pedals, but made no move to touch the keyboard.

“I haven’t played since before Nehemia died,” she admitted, the words too heavy.

“We can come back another day, if you want.” A gentle, steady offer.

His silver hair glimmered in the dim candlelight. “There might not be another day. And—and I would consider my life very sad indeed if I never played again.”

He nodded and crossed his arms. A silent order.

She faced the keys and slowly set her hands on the ivory. It was smooth and cool and waiting—a great beast of sound and joy about to be awakened.

“I need to warm up,” she blurted, and plunged in without another word, playing as softly as she could.

Once she had started seeing the notes in her mind again, when muscle memory had her fingers reaching for those familiar chords, she began.

It was not the sorrowful, lovely piece she had once played for Dorian, and it was not the light, dancing melodies she’d played for sport; it was not the complex and clever pieces she had played for Nehemia and Chaol. This piece was a celebration—a reaffirmation of life, of glory, of the pain and beauty in breathing.

Perhaps that was why she’d gone to hear it performed every year, after so much killing and torture and punishment: as a reminder of what she was, of what she struggled to keep.

Up and up it built, the sound breaking from the pianoforte like the heart-song of a god, until Rowan drifted over to stand beside the instrument, until she whispered to him, “Now,” and the crescendo shattered into the world, note after note after note.

The music crashed around them, roaring through the emptiness of the theater. The hollow silence that had been inside her for so many months now overflowed with sound.

She brought the piece home to its final explosive, triumphant chord.

When she looked up, panting slightly, Rowan’s eyes were lined with silver, his throat bobbing. Somehow, after all this time, her warrior-prince still managed to surprise her.

He seemed to struggle for words, but he finally breathed, “Show me— show me how you did that.”

So she obliged him.

 

 

They spent the better part of an hour seated together on the bench, Aelin teaching him the basics of the pianoforte—explaining the sharps and flats, the pedals, the notes and chords. When Rowan heard someone at last coming to investigate the music, they slipped out. She stopped at the Royal Bank, warning Rowan to wait in the shadows across the street as she again sat in the Master’s office while one of his underlings rushed in and out on her business. She eventually left with another bag of gold— vital, now that there was one more mouth to feed and body to clothe— and found Rowan exactly where she’d left him, pissed off that she’d refused to let him accompany her. But he’d raise too many questions.

“So you’re using your own money to support us?” Rowan asked as they slipped down a side street. A flock of beautifully dressed young women passed by on the sunny avenue beyond the alley and gaped at the hooded, powerfully built male who stormed past—and then all turned to admire the view from behind. Aelin flashed her teeth at them.

“For now,” she said to him.

“And what will you do for money later?”

She glanced sidelong at him. “It’ll be taken care of.” “By whom?”

“Me.”

“Explain.”

“You’ll find out soon enough.” She gave him a little smile that she knew drove him insane.

Rowan made to grab her by the shoulder, but she ducked away from his touch. “Ah, ah. Better not move too swiftly, or someone might notice.” He snarled, the sound definitely not human, and she chuckled. Annoyance was better than guilt and grief. “Just be patient and don’t get your feathers ruffled.”

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