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Chapter no 38

Queen of Shadows (Throne of Glass, 4)

Aelin didn’t dare to go back to the sewers—not until she was certain Lorcan was out of the area and the Valg weren’t lurking about.

The next night, they were all eating a dinner Aedion had scraped together from whatever was lying around the kitchen when the front door opened and Lysandra breezed in with a chirped hello that had them all releasing the weapons they’d grabbed.

“How do you do that?” Aedion demanded as she paraded into the kitchen.

“What a miserable-looking meal,” was all Lysandra said, peering over Aedion’s shoulder at the spread of bread, pickled vegetables, cold eggs, fruit, dried meat, and leftover breakfast pastries. “Can’t any of you cook?”

Aelin, who’d been swiping grapes off Rowan’s plate, snorted. “Breakfast, it seems, is the only meal any of us are decent at. And this one”—she jabbed a thumb in Rowan’s direction—“only knows how to cook meat on a stick over a fire.”

Lysandra nudged Aelin down the bench and squeezed onto the end, her blue dress like liquid silk as she reached for some bread. “Pathetic— utterly pathetic for such esteemed and mighty leaders.”

Aedion braced his arms on the table. “Make yourself at home, why don’t you.”

Lysandra kissed the air between them. “Hello, General. Good to see you’re looking well.”

Aelin would have been content to sit back and watch—until Lysandra turned those uptilted green eyes toward Rowan. “I don’t think we were introduced the other day. Her Queenliness had something rather urgent to tell me.”

A sly cat’s glance in Aelin’s direction.

Rowan, seated on Aedion’s right, cocked his head to the side. “Do you need an introduction?”

Lysandra’s smile grew. “I like your fangs,” she said sweetly. Aelin choked on her grape. Of course Lysandra did.

Rowan gave a little grin that usually sent Aelin running. “Are you studying them so you can replicate them when you take my form, shape-shifter?”

Aelin’s fork froze in midair. “Bullshit,” Aedion said.

All amusement had vanished from the courtesan’s face. Shape-shifter.

Holy gods. What was fire magic, or wind and ice, compared to shape-shifting? Shifters: spies and thieves and assassins able to demand any price for their services; the bane of courts across the world, so feared that they’d been hunted nearly to extinction even before Adarlan had banned magic.

Lysandra plucked up a grape, examined it, and then flicked her eyes to Rowan. “Perhaps I’m just studying you to know where to sink my fangs if I ever get my gifts back.”

Rowan laughed.

It explained so much. You and I are nothing but beasts wearing human skins.

Lysandra turned her attention to Aelin. “No one knows this. Not even Arobynn.” Her face was hard. A challenge and a question lay in those eyes.

Secrets—Nehemia had kept secrets from her, too. Aelin didn’t say anything.

Lysandra’s mouth tightened as she turned to Rowan. “How’d you know?”

A shrug, even as Aelin felt his attention on her and knew he could read the emotions biting at her. “I met a few shifters, centuries ago. Your scents are the same.”

Lysandra sniffed at herself, but Aedion murmured, “So that’s what it is.”

Lysandra looked at Aelin again. “Say something.”

Aelin held up a hand. “Just—just give me a moment.” A moment to sort out one friend from another—the friend she had loved and who had lied to her at every chance, and the friend she had hated and who she had kept secrets from herself … hated, until love and hate had met in the middle, fused by loss.

Aedion asked, “How old were you when you found out?” “Young—five or six. I knew even then to hide it from everyone. It

wasn’t my mother, so my father must have had the gift. She never mentioned him. Or seemed to miss him.”

Gift—interesting choice of words. Rowan said, “What happened to her?”

Lysandra shrugged. “I don’t know. I was seven when she beat me, then threw me out of the house. Because we lived here—in this city—and that morning, for the first time, I’d made the mistake of shifting in her presence. I don’t remember why, but I remember being startled enough that I changed into a hissing tabby right in front of her.”

“Shit,” Aedion said.

“So you’re a full-powered shifter,” Rowan said.

“I’d known what I was for a long time. From even before that moment, I knew that I could change into any creature. But magic was outlawed here. And everyone, in every kingdom, was distrustful of shape-shifters. How could they not be?” A low laugh. “After she kicked me out, I was left on the streets. We were poor enough that it was hardly different, but—I spent the first two days crying on the doorstep. She threatened to turn me in to the authorities, so I ran, and I never saw her again. I even went back to the house months later, but she was gone— moved away.”

“She sounds like a wonderful person,” Aedion said.

Lysandra hadn’t lied to her. Nehemia had lied outright, kept things that were vital. What Lysandra was … They were even: after all, she hadn’t told Lysandra she was queen.

“How’d you survive?” Aelin asked at last, her shoulders relaxing. “A seven-year-old on the streets of Rifthold doesn’t often meet a happy end.”

Something sparked in Lysandra’s eyes, and Aelin wondered if she had been waiting for the blow to fall, waiting for the order to get out. “I used my abilities. Sometimes I was human; sometimes I wore the skins of other street children with high standing in their packs; sometimes I became an alley cat or a rat or a gull. And then I learned that if I made myself prettier—if I made myself beautiful—when I begged for money, it came far faster. I was wearing one of those beautiful faces the day magic fell. And I’ve been stuck in it ever since.”

“So this face,” Aelin said, “isn’t your real face? Your real body?”

“No. And what kills me is that I can’t remember what my real face was. That was the danger of shifting—that you would forget your real form, because it’s the memory of it that guides the shifting. I remember being plain as a dormouse, but … I don’t remember if my eyes were blue or gray or green; I can’t remember the shape of my nose or my chin. And

it was a child’s body, too. I don’t know what I would look like now, as a woman.”

Aelin said, “And this was the form that Arobynn spotted you in a few years later.”

Lysandra nodded and picked at an invisible fleck of lint on her dress. “If magic is free again—would you be wary of a shape-shifter?”

So carefully phrased, so casually asked, as if it weren’t the most important question of all.

Aelin shrugged and gave her the truth. “I’d be jealous of a shape-shifter. Shifting into any form I please would come in rather handy.” She considered it. “A shape-shifter would make a powerful ally. And an even more entertaining friend.”

Aedion mused, “It would make a difference on a battlefield, once magic is freed.”

Rowan just asked, “Did you have a favorite form?”

Lysandra’s grin was nothing short of wicked. “I liked anything with claws and big, big fangs.”

Aelin swallowed her laugh. “Is there a reason behind this visit, Lysandra, or are you here just to make my friends squirm?”

All amusement faded as Lysandra held up a velvet sack that sagged with what looked to be a large box. “What you requested.” The box thumped as she set the sack onto the worn wooden table.

Aelin slid the sack toward herself, even as the males raised their brows and subtly sniffed at the box within. “Thank you.”

Lysandra said, “Arobynn is going to call in your favor tomorrow, to be delivered the following night. Be ready.”

“Good.” It was an effort to keep her face blank.

Aedion leaned forward, glancing between them. “Does he expect only Aelin to deliver it?”

“No—all of you, I think.” Rowan said, “Is it a trap?”

“Probably, in some way or another,” Lysandra said. “He wants you to deliver it and then join him for dinner.”

“Demons and dining,” Aelin said. “A delightful combination.” Only Lysandra smiled.

“Will he poison us?” Aedion asked.

Aelin scratched at a piece of dirt on the table. “Poison isn’t Arobynn’s style. If he were to do anything to the food, it would be to add some drug that would incapacitate us while he had us moved wherever he wanted. It’s the control that he loves,” she added, still staring at the table, not

quite feeling like seeing what was written on Rowan’s or Aedion’s face. “The pain and fear, yes—but the power is what he really thrives on.” Lysandra’s face had lost its softness, her eyes cold and sharp—a reflection of Aelin’s own, no doubt. The only person who could understand, who had also learned firsthand exactly how far that lust for control went. Aelin rose from her seat. “I’ll walk you to your carriage.”

 

 

She and Lysandra paused among the stacks of crates in the warehouse. “Are you ready?” Lysandra asked, crossing her arms.

Aelin nodded. “I’m not sure the debt could ever be paid for what he … what they all did. But it will have to be enough. I’m running out of time.”

Lysandra pursed her lips. “I won’t be able to risk coming here again until afterward.”

“Thank you—for everything.”

“He could still have a few tricks up his sleeve. Be on your guard.” “And you be on yours.”

“You’re not … mad that I didn’t tell you?”

“Your secret could get you killed just as easily as mine, Lysandra. I just felt … I don’t know. If anything, I wondered if I’d done something wrong, something to make you not trust me enough to tell me.”

“I wanted to—I’ve been dying to.”

Aelin believed her. “You risked those Valg guards for me—for Aedion that day we rescued him,” Aelin said. “They’d probably be beside themselves if they learned there was a shifter in this city.” And that night at the Pits, when she’d kept turning away from the Valg and hiding behind Arobynn … It had been to avoid their notice. “You have to be insane.”

“Even before I knew who you were, Aelin, I knew that what you were working toward … It was worth it.”

“What is?” Her throat tightened.

“A world where people like me don’t have to hide.” Lysandra turned away, but Aelin grabbed her by the hand. Lysandra smiled a bit. “Times like these, I wish I had your particular skill set instead.”

“Would you do it if you could? About two nights from now, I mean.”

Lysandra gently let go of her hand. “I’ve thought about it every single day since Wesley died. I would do it, and gladly. But I don’t mind if you do it. You won’t hesitate. I find that comforting, somehow.”

 

 

The invitation arrived by street urchin at ten o’clock the next morning.

Aelin stared at the cream-colored envelope on the table before the fireplace, its red wax seal imprinted with crossed daggers. Aedion and Rowan, peering over her shoulders, studied the box it had come with. Both males sniffed—and frowned.

“It smells like almonds,” Aedion said.

She pulled out the card. A formal invitation for dinner tomorrow at eight—for her and two guests—and a request for the favor owed to him.

His patience was at an end. But in typical Arobynn fashion, dumping the demon at his doorstep wouldn’t be enough. No—she’d deliver it on his terms.

The dinner was late enough in the day to give her time to stew.

There was a note at the end of the invitation, in an elegant yet efficient scrawl.

A gift—and one I hope you’ll wear tomorrow night.

She chucked the card onto the table and waved a hand to Aedion or Rowan to open the box as she walked to the window and looked out toward the castle. It was blindingly bright in the morning sun, glimmering as though it had been crafted from pearl and gold and silver.

The slither of ribbon, the thud of the box lid opening, and— “What the hell is that?”

She glanced over her shoulder. Aedion held a large glass bottle in his hands, full of amber liquid.

She said flatly, “Perfumed skin oil.”

“Why does he want you to wear it?” Aedion asked too quietly.

She looked out the window again. Rowan stalked over and perched on the armchair behind her, a steady force at her back. Aelin said, “It’s just another move in the game we’ve been playing.”

She’d have to rub it into her skin. His scent.

She told herself that she’d expected nothing less, but … “And you’re going to use it?” Aedion spat.

“Tomorrow, our one goal is to get the Amulet of Orynth from him.

Agreeing to wear that oil will put him on unsure footing.” “I don’t follow.”

“The invitation is a threat,” Rowan replied for her. She could feel him inches away, was aware of his movements as much as her own. “Two companions—he knows how many of us are here, knows who you are.”

“And you?” Aedion asked.

The fabric of his shirt sighed against Rowan’s skin as he shrugged. “He’s probably figured out by now that I’m Fae.”

The thought of Rowan facing Arobynn, and what Arobynn might try to do—

“And what about the demon?” Aedion demanded. “He expects us to bring it over in all our finery?”

“Another test. And yes.”

“So when do we go catch ourselves a Valg commander?”

Aelin and Rowan glanced at each other. “You’re staying here,” she said to Aedion.

“Like hell I am.”

She pointed to his side. “If you hadn’t been a hotheaded pain in my ass and torn your stitches when you sparred with Rowan, you could have come. But you’re still on the mend, and I’m not going to risk exposing your wounds to the filth in the sewers just so you can feel better about yourself.”

Aedion’s nostrils flared as he reined in his temper. “You’re going to face a demon—”

“She’ll be taken care of,” Rowan said.

“I can take care of myself,” she snapped. “I’m going to get dressed.” She grabbed her suit from where she’d left it drying over an armchair before the open windows.

Aedion sighed behind her. “Please—just be safe. And Lysandra is to be trusted?”

“We’ll find out tomorrow,” she said. She trusted Lysandra—she wouldn’t have let her near Aedion otherwise—but Lysandra wouldn’t necessarily know if Arobynn was using her.

Rowan lifted his brows. Are you all right?

She nodded. I just want to get through these two days and be done with it.

“That will never stop being strange,” Aedion muttered.

“Deal with it,” she told him, carrying the suit into the bedroom. “Let’s go hunt ourselves a pretty little demon.”

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