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Chapter no 44

Queen of Shadows (Throne of Glass, 4)

The hidden dagger Aelin had drawn clattered to the wooden floor the moment the cool black stone slid against her skin. She blinked at the ring, at the line of blood that had appeared on her hand beneath Arobynn’s sharp thumbnail as he raised her hand to his mouth and brushed his tongue along the back of her palm.

Her blood was on his lips as he straightened.

Such a silence in her head, even now. Her face stopped working; her heart stopped working.

“Blink,” he ordered her. She did.

“Smile.” She did.

“Tell me why you came back.”

“To kill the king; to kill the prince.”

Arobynn leaned in close, his nose grazing her neck. “Tell me that you love me.”

“I love you.”

“My name—say my name when you tell me that you love me.” “I love you, Arobynn Hamel.”

His breath warmed her skin as he huffed a laugh onto her neck, then brushed a kiss where it met her shoulder. “I think I’m going to like this.”

He pulled back, admiring her blank face, her features, now empty and foreign. “Take my carriage. Go home and sleep. Do not tell anyone of this; do not show your friends the ring. And tomorrow, report here after breakfast. We have plans, you and I. For our kingdom, and Adarlan.”

She just stared, waiting. “Do you understand?” “Yes.”

He lifted her hand again and kissed the Wyrdstone ring. “Good night, Aelin,” he murmured, his hand grazing her backside as he shooed her out.

 

 

Rowan was trembling with restrained rage as they took Arobynn’s carriage home, none of them speaking.

He’d heard every word uttered inside that room. So had Aedion. He’d seen the final touch Arobynn had made, the proprietary gesture of a man convinced that he had a new, very shiny toy to play with.

But Rowan didn’t dare grab for Aelin’s hand to see the ring.

She didn’t move; she didn’t speak. She just sat there and stared at the wall of the carriage.

A perfect, broken, obedient doll.

I love you, Arobynn Hamel.

Every minute was an agony, but there were too many eyes on them— too many, even as they finally reached the warehouse and climbed out. They waited until Arobynn’s carriage had driven off before Rowan and Aedion flanked the queen as she slipped inside the warehouse and up the stairs.

The curtains were already shut inside the house, a few candles left burning. The flames caught on the golden dragon embroidered on the back of that remarkable gown, and Rowan didn’t dare breathe as she just stood in the center of the room. A slave awaiting orders.

“Aelin?” Aedion said, his voice hoarse.

Aelin lifted her hands in front of her and turned.

She pulled off the ring. “So that was what he wanted. I honestly expected something grander.”

 

 

Aelin slapped the ring down on the small table behind the couch. Rowan frowned at it. “He didn’t check Stevan’s other hand?”

“No,” she said, still trying to clear the horror of betrayal from her mind. Trying to ignore the thing hanging from her neck, the abyss of power that beckoned, beckoned—

Aedion snapped, “One of you needs to explain now.”

Her cousin’s face was drained of color, his eyes so wide that the whites shone all around them as he glanced from the ring to Aelin and back again.

She’d held it together during the carriage ride, maintaining the mask of the puppet Arobynn believed she’d become. She crossed the room, keeping her arms at her sides to avoid chucking the Wyrdkey against the wall. “I’m sorry,” she said. “You couldn’t know—”

“I could have rutting known. You really think I can’t keep my mouth shut?”

“Rowan didn’t even know until last night,” she snapped. Deep in that abyss, thunder rumbled.

Oh, gods. Oh, gods

“Is that supposed to make me feel better?”

Rowan crossed his arms. “It is, considering the fight we had about it.” Aedion shook his head. “Just … explain.”

Aelin picked up the ring. Focus. She could focus on this conversation, until she could safely hide the amulet. Aedion couldn’t know what she carried, what weapon she’d claimed tonight. “In Wendlyn, there was a moment when Narrok … came back. When he warned me. And thanked me for ending him. So I picked the Valg commander who seemed to have the least amount of control over the human’s body, out of hope that the man might be in there, wishing for redemption in some form.” Redemption for what the demon had made him do, hoping to die knowing he’d done one good thing.

“Why?”

Speaking normally was an effort. “So I could offer him the mercy of death and freedom from the Valg, if he would only tell Arobynn all the wrong information. He tricked Arobynn into thinking that a bit of blood could control these rings—and that the ring he bore was the real thing.” She held up the ring. “I got the idea from you, actually. Lysandra has a very good jeweler, and had a fake made. The real thing I cut off the Valg commander’s finger. If Arobynn had taken off his other glove, he would have found him without a digit.”

“You’d need weeks to plan all that—” Aelin nodded.

“But why? Why bother with any of it? Why not just kill the prick?” Aelin set down the ring. “I had to know.”

“Know what? That Arobynn is a monster?”

“That there was no redeeming him. I knew, but … It was his final test.

To show his hand.”

Aedion hissed. “He would have made you into his own personal figurehead—he touched—”

“I know what he touched, and what he wanted to do.” She could still feel that touch on her. It was nothing compared to the hideous weight pressing against her chest. She rubbed her thumb across the scabbed-over slice on her hand. “So now we know.”

Some small, pathetic part of her wished she didn’t.

 

 

Still in their finery, Aelin and Rowan stared at the amulet lying on the low table before the darkened fireplace in her bedroom.

She’d taken it off the moment she entered the room—Aedion having gone to the roof to take watch—and slumped onto the couch facing the table. Rowan took a seat beside her a heartbeat later. For a minute, they said nothing. The amulet gleamed in the light of the two candles Rowan had lit.

“I was going to ask you to make sure it wasn’t a fake; that Arobynn hadn’t switched it somehow,” Rowan said at last, his eyes fixed on the Wyrdkey. “But I can feel it—a glimmer of whatever is inside that thing.” She braced her forearms on her knees, the black velvet of her dress softly caressing. “In the past, people must have assumed that feeling came from the magic of whoever was wearing it,” she said. “With my

mother, with Brannon … it would never have been noticed.”

“And your father and uncle? They had little to no magic, you said.”

The ivory stag seemed to stare at her, the immortal star between its horns flickering like molten gold. “But they had presence. What better place to hide this thing than around the neck of a swaggering royal?”

Rowan tensed as she reached for the amulet and flipped it over as quickly as she could. The metal was warm, its surface unmarred despite the millennia that had passed since its forging.

There, exactly as she’d remembered, were carved three Wyrdmarks. “Any idea what those mean?” Rowan said, shifting close enough that

his thigh grazed hers. He moved away an inch, though it did nothing to stop her from feeling the heat of him.

“I’ve never seen—”

“That one,” Rowan said, pointing to the first one. “I’ve seen that one.

It burned on your brow that day.”

“Brannon’s mark,” she breathed. “The mark of the bastard-born—the nameless.”

“No one in Terrasen ever looked into these symbols?”

“If they did, it was never revealed—or they wrote it in their personal accounts, which were stored in the Library of Orynth.” She chewed on the inside of her lip. “It was one of the first places the King of Adarlan sacked.”

“Maybe the librarians smuggled out the rulers’ accounts first—maybe they got lucky.”

Her heart sank a bit. “Maybe. We won’t know until we return to Terrasen.” She tapped her foot on the carpet. “I need to hide this.” There was a loose floorboard in her closet under which she stashed money,

weapons, and jewelry. It would be good enough for now. And Aedion wouldn’t question it, since she couldn’t risk wearing the damn thing in public anyway, even under her clothes—not until she was back in Terrasen. She stared down at the amulet.

“So do it,” he said.

“I don’t want to touch it.”

“If it was that easy to trigger, your ancestors would have figured out what it was.”

“You pick it up,” she said, frowning. He just gave her a look.

She bent down, willing her mind blank while she lifted the amulet off the table. Rowan stiffened as if bracing himself, despite his reassurance.

The key was a millstone in her hand, but that initial sense of wrongness, of an abyss of power … It was quiet. Slumbering.

She made quick work of pulling back the rug in her closet and yanking loose the floorboard. She felt Rowan come up behind her, peering over her shoulder where she knelt and into the small compartment.

She had picked up the amulet to drop it into the little space when a thread tugged inside her—no, not a thread, but … a wind, as if some force barreled from Rowan into her, as if their bond were a living thing, and she could feel what it was to be him—

She dropped the amulet into the compartment. It thudded only once, a dead weight.

“What?” Rowan asked.

She twisted to peer up at him. “I felt—I felt you.” “How?”

So she told him—about his essence sliding into her, of feeling like she wore his skin, if only for a heartbeat.

He didn’t look entirely pleased. “That sort of ability could be a helpful tool for later.”

She scowled. “Typical warrior-brute thinking.”

He shrugged. Gods, how did he handle it, the weight of his power? He could crush bones into dust even without his magic; he could bring this whole building down with a few well-placed blows.

She’d known—of course she’d known—but to feel it … The most powerful purebred Fae male in existence. To an ordinary human, he was as alien as the Valg.

“But I think you’re right: it can’t just blindly act on my will,” she said at last. “Or else my ancestors would have razed Orynth to the ground anytime they were royally pissed off. I—I think these things might be

neutral by nature; it’s the bearer who guides how they are used. In the hands of someone pure of heart, it would only be beneficial. That was how Terrasen thrived.”

Rowan snorted as she replaced the wooden plank, tamping it down with the heel of her hand. “Trust me, your ancestors weren’t utterly holy.” He offered her a hand up, and she tried not to stare at it as she gripped it. Hard, callused, unbreakable—nearly impossible to kill. But there was a gentleness to his grip, a care reserved only for those he cherished and protected.

“I don’t think any of them were assassins,” she said as he dropped her hand. “The keys can corrupt an already black heart—or amplify a pure one. I’ve never heard anything about hearts that are somewhere in between.”

“The fact that you worry says enough about your intentions.”

She stepped all around the area to ensure that no creaking boards gave away the hiding place. Thunder rumbled above the city. “I’m going to pretend that’s not an omen,” she muttered.

“Good luck with that.” He nudged her with an elbow as they reentered the bedroom. “We’ll keep an eye on things—and if you appear to be heading toward Dark Lorddom, I promise to bring you back to the light.” “Funny.” The little clock on her nightstand chimed, and thunder boomed again through Rifthold. A swift-moving storm. Good—maybe it

would clear her head, too.

She went to the box Lysandra had brought her and pulled out the other item.

“Lysandra’s jeweler,” Rowan said, “is a very talented person.”

Aelin held up a replica of the amulet. She’d gotten the size, coloring, and weight almost perfect. She set it on her vanity like a discarded piece of jewelry. “Just in case anyone asks where it went.”

 

 

The downpour had softened to a steady drizzle by the time the clock struck one, yet Aelin hadn’t come down from the roof. She’d gone up there to take over Aedion’s watch, apparently—and Rowan had waited, biding his time as the clock neared midnight and then passed it. Chaol had come by to give Aedion a report on the movements of Arobynn’s men, but slipped back out around twelve.

Rowan was done waiting.

She was standing in the rain, facing westward—not toward the glowing castle to her right, not toward the sea at her back, but across the

city.

He didn’t mind that she’d gotten that glimpse into him. He wanted to tell her that he didn’t care what she knew about him, so long as it didn’t scare her away—and would have told her before if he still hadn’t been so stupidly distracted by how she looked tonight.

The lamplight glinted off the combs in her hair and along the golden dragon on the dress.

“You’ll ruin that dress standing out here in the rain,” he said.

She half turned toward him. The rain had left streaks of kohl down her face, and her skin was as pale as a fish’s belly. The look in her eyes— guilt, anger, agony—hit him like a blow to the gut.

She turned again toward the city. “I was never going to wear this dress again, anyway.”

“You know I’ll take care of it tonight,” he said, stepping beside her, “if you don’t want to be the one to do it.” And after what that bastard had tried to do to her, what he’d planned to do to her … He and Aedion would take a long, long time ending Arobynn’s life.

She gazed across the city, toward the Assassins’ Keep. “I told Lysandra she could do it.”

“Why?”

She wrapped her arms around herself, hugging tight. “Because more than me, more than you or Aedion, Lysandra deserves to be the one who ends him.”

It was true. “Will she be needing our assistance?”

She shook her head, spraying droplets of rain off the combs and the damp strands of hair that had come loose. “Chaol went to ensure everything goes fine.”

Rowan allowed himself a moment to look at her—at the relaxed shoulders and uplifted chin, the grip she had on her elbows, the curve of her nose against the streetlight, the thin line of her mouth.

“It feels wrong,” she said, “to still wish that there had been some other way.” She took an uneven breath, the air clouding in front of her. “He was a bad man,” she whispered. “He was going to enslave me to his will, use me to take over Terrasen, maybe make himself king—maybe sire my

—” She shuddered so violently that light shimmered off the gold in her dress. “But he also … I also owe him my life. All this time I thought it would be a relief, a joy to end him. But all I feel is hollow. And tired.”

She was like ice when he slid an arm around her, folding her into his side. Just this once—just this once, he would let himself hold her. If he’d

been asked to put down Maeve, and one of his cadre had done it instead

—if Lorcan had done it—he would have felt the same.

She twisted slightly to peer up at him, and though she tried to hide it, he could see the fear in her gaze, and the guilt. “I need you to hunt down Lorcan tomorrow. See if he’s accomplished the little task I gave him.”

If he’d killed those Wyrdhounds. Or been killed by them. So she could at last free magic.

Gods. Lorcan was his enemy now. He shut out the thought. “And if it’s necessary to eliminate him?”

He watched her throat bob as she swallowed. “It’s your call then, Rowan. Do as you see fit.”

He wished she’d told him one way or another, but giving him the choice, respecting their history enough to allow him to make that decision … “Thank you.”

She rested her head against his chest, the tips of the bat-wing combs digging into him enough that he eased them one at a time from her hair. The gold was slick and cold in his hands, and as he admired the craftsmanship, she murmured, “I want you to sell those. And burn this dress.”

“As you wish,” he said, pocketing the combs. “Such a pity, though. Your enemies would have fallen to their knees if they ever saw you in it.”

He’d almost fallen to his knees when he’d first seen her earlier tonight.

She huffed a laugh that might have been a sob and wrapped her arms around his waist as if trying to steal his warmth. Her sodden hair tumbled down, the scent of her—jasmine and lemon verbena and crackling embers—rising above the smell of almonds to caress his nose, his senses.

Rowan stood with his queen in the rain, breathing in her scent, and let her steal his warmth for as long as she needed.

 

 

The rain lightened to a soft sprinkle, and Aelin stirred from where Rowan held her. From where she’d been standing, soaking up his strength, thinking.

She twisted slightly to take in the strong lines of his face, his cheekbones gilded with the rain and the light from the street. Across the city, in a room she knew too well, Arobynn was hopefully bleeding out. Hopefully dead.

A hollow thought—but also the clicking of a lock finally opened.

Rowan turned his head to look at her, rain dripping off his silver hair. His features softened a bit, the harsh lines becoming more inviting— vulnerable, even. “Tell me what you’re thinking,” he murmured.

“I’m thinking that the next time I want to unsettle you, all I need to do is tell you how rarely I wear undergarments.”

His pupils flared. “Is there a reason you do that, Princess?” “Is there any reason not to?”

He flattened his hand against her waist, his fingers contracting once as if debating letting her go. “I pity the foreign ambassadors who will have to deal with you.”

She grinned, breathless and more than a little reckless. Seeing that dungeon room tonight, she’d realized she was tired. Tired of death, and of waiting, and of saying good-bye.

She lifted a hand to cup Rowan’s face.

So smooth, his skin, the bones beneath strong and elegant.

She waited for him to pull back, but he just stared at her—stared into her in that way he always did. Friends, but more. So much more, and she’d known it longer than she wanted to admit. Carefully, she stroked her thumb across his cheekbone, his face slick with the rain.

It hit her like a stone—the wanting. She was a fool to have dodged it, denied it, even when a part of her had screamed it every morning that she’d blindly reached for the empty half of the bed.

She lifted her other hand to his face and his eyes locked onto hers, his breathing ragged as she traced the lines of the tattoo along his temple.

His hands tightened slightly on her waist, his thumbs grazing the bottom of her ribcage. It was an effort not to arch into his touch.

“Rowan,” she breathed, his name a plea and a prayer. She slid her fingers down the side of his tattooed cheek, and—

Faster than she could see, he grabbed one wrist and then the other, yanking them away from his face and snarling softly. The world yawned open around her, cold and still.

He dropped her hands as if they were on fire, stepping away, those green eyes flat and dull in a way she hadn’t seen for some time now. Her throat closed up even before he said, “Don’t do that. Don’t—touch me like that.”

There was a roaring in her ears, a burning in her face, and she swallowed hard. “I’m sorry.”

Oh, gods.

He was over three hundred years old. Immortal. And she—she …

“I didn’t mean—” She backed away a step, toward the door on the other side of the roof. “I’m sorry,” she repeated. “It was nothing.”

“Good,” he said, going for the roof door himself. “Fine.”

Rowan didn’t say anything else as he stalked downstairs. Alone, she scrubbed at her wet face, at the oily smear of cosmetics.

Don’t touch me like that.

A clear line in the sand. A line—because he was three hundred years old, and immortal, and had lost his flawless mate, and she was … She was young and inexperienced and his carranam and queen, and he wanted nothing more than that. If she hadn’t been so foolish, so stupidly unaware, maybe she would have realized that, understood that though she’d seen his eyes shine with hunger—hunger for her—it didn’t mean he wanted to act on it. Didn’t mean he might not hate himself for it.

Oh, gods.

What had she done?

 

 

The rain sliding down the windows cast slithering shadows on the wooden floor, on the painted walls of Arobynn’s bedroom.

Lysandra had been watching it for some time now, listening to the steady rhythm of the storm and to the breathing of the man sleeping beside her. Utterly unconscious.

If she were to do it, it would have to be now—when his sleep was deepest, when the rain covered up most sounds. A blessing from Temis, Goddess of Wild Things, who had once watched over her as a shape-shifter and who never forgot the caged beasts of the world.

Three words—that was all that had been written on the note Aelin slipped her earlier that night; a note still tucked into the hidden pocket of her discarded underwear.

He’s all yours.

A gift, she knew—a gift from the queen who had nothing else to give a no-name whore with a sad story.

Lysandra turned onto her side, staring now at the naked man sleeping inches away, at the red silk of his hair spilled across his face.

He’d never once suspected who had fed Aelin the details about Cormac. But that had always been her ruse with Arobynn—the skin she’d worn since childhood. He had never thought otherwise of her vapid and vain behavior, never bothered to. If he had, he wouldn’t keep a knife under his pillow and let her sleep in this bed with him.

He hadn’t been gentle tonight, and she knew she would have a bruise on her forearm from where he’d gripped her too tightly. Victorious, smug, a king certain of his crown, he hadn’t even noticed.

At dinner, she’d seen the expression flash across his face when he caught Aelin and Rowan smiling at each other. All of Arobynn’s jabs and stories had failed to find their mark tonight because Aelin had been too lost in Rowan to hear.

She wondered whether the queen knew. Rowan did. Aedion did. And Arobynn did. He had understood that with Rowan, she was no longer afraid of him; with Rowan, Arobynn was now utterly unnecessary. Irrelevant.

He’s all yours.

After Aelin had left, as soon as he’d stopped strutting about the house, convinced of his absolute mastery over the queen, Arobynn had called in his men.

Lysandra hadn’t heard the plans, but she knew the Fae Prince would be his first target. Rowan would die—Rowan had to die. She’d seen it in Arobynn’s eyes as he watched the queen and her prince holding hands, grinning at each other despite the horrors around them.

Lysandra slid her hand beneath the pillow as she sidled up to Arobynn, nestling against him. He didn’t stir; his breathing remained deep and steady.

He’d never had trouble sleeping. The night he’d killed Wesley he slept like the dead, unaware of the moments when even her iron will couldn’t keep the silent tears from falling.

She would find that love again—one day. And it would be deep and unrelenting and unexpected, the beginning and the end and eternity, the kind that could change history, change the world.

The hilt of the stiletto was cool in her hand, and as Lysandra rolled back over, no more than a restless sleeper, she pulled it with her.

Lightning gleamed on the blade, a flicker of quicksilver. For Wesley. For Sam. For Aelin.

And for herself. For the child she’d been, for the seventeen-year-old on her Bidding night, for the woman she’d become, her heart in shreds, her invisible wound still bleeding.

It was so very easy to sit up and slice the knife across Arobynn’s throat.

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