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Chapter no 65

Queen of Shadows (Throne of Glass, 4)

Rowan was more tired than he’d admit to Aelin or Aedion, and in the flurry of planning, he hardly had a moment alone with the queen. It had taken him two days of rest and sleeping like the dead before he was back on his feet and able to go through his training exercises without being winded.

After finishing his evening routine, he was so exhausted by the time he staggered into bed that he was asleep before Aelin had finished washing up. No, he hadn’t given humans nearly enough credit all these years.

It would be such a damn relief to have his magic back—if their plan worked. Considering the fact that they were using hellfire, things could go very, very wrong. Chaol hadn’t been able to meet with Ress or Brullo yet, but tried every day to get messages to them. The real difficulty, it seemed, was that over half the rebels had fled as more Valg soldiers poured in. Three executions a day was the new rule: sunrise, noon, and sunset. Former magic-wielders, rebels, suspected rebel sympathizers— Chaol and Nesryn managed to save some, but not all. The cawing of crows could now be heard on every street.

A male scent in the room snapped Rowan from sleep. He slid his knife out from under his pillow and sat up slowly.

Aelin slumbered beside him, her breathing deep and even, yet again wearing one of his shirts. Some primal part of him snarled in satisfaction at the sight, at knowing she was covered in his scent.

Rowan rolled to his feet, his steps silent as he scanned the room, knife at the ready.

But the scent wasn’t inside. It was drifting in from beyond.

Rowan edged to the window and peered out. No one on the street below; no one on the neighboring rooftops.

Which meant Lorcan had to be on the roof.

 

 

His old commander was waiting, arms crossed over his broad chest. He surveyed Rowan with a frown, noting the bandages and his bare torso.

“Should I thank you for putting on pants?” Lorcan said, his voice barely more than a midnight wind.

“I didn’t want you to feel inadequate,” Rowan replied, leaning against the roof door.

Lorcan huffed a laugh. “Did your queen claw you up, or are the wounds from one of those beasts she sent after me?”

“I was wondering who would ultimately win—you or the Wyrdhounds.”

A flash of teeth. “I slaughtered them all.” “Why’d you come here, Lorcan?”

“You think I don’t know that the heir of Mala Fire-Bringer is planning something for the summer solstice in two days? Have you fools considered my offer?”

A carefully worded question, to bait him into revealing what Lorcan had only guessed at. “Aside from drinking the first of the summer wine and being a pain in my ass, I don’t think she’s planning anything at all.”

“So that’s why the captain is trying to set up a meeting with guards at the palace?”

“How am I supposed to keep up with what he does? The boy used to serve the king.”

“Assassins, whores, traitors—what fine company you keep these days, Rowan.”

“Better than being a dog leashed by a psychotic master.”

“Is that what you thought of us? All those years that we worked together, killed men and bedded females together? I never heard you complain.”

“I didn’t realize there was anything to complain about. I was as blind as you.”

“And then a fiery princess flounced into your life, and you decided to change for her, right?” A cruel smile. “Did you tell her about Sollemere?”

“She knows everything.”

“Does she now. I suppose her own history makes her even more understanding of the horrors you committed on our queen’s behalf.”

Your queen’s behalf. What is it, exactly, about Aelin that gets under your skin, Lorcan? Is it that she’s not afraid of you, or is it that I walked away from you for her?”

Lorcan snorted. “Whatever you’re planning, it won’t work. You’ll all die in the process.”

That was highly likely, but Rowan said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“You owe me more than that horseshit.”

“Careful, Lorcan, or you’ll sound like you care about someone other than yourself.” As a discarded bastard child growing up on the back streets of Doranelle, Lorcan had lost that ability centuries before Rowan had even been born. He’d never pitied him for it, though. Not when Lorcan had been blessed in every other regard by Hellas himself.

Lorcan spat on the roof. “I was going to offer to bring your body back to your beloved mountain to be buried alongside Lyria once I finish with the keys. Now I’ll just let you rot here. Alongside your pretty little princess.”

He tried to ignore the blow, the thought of that grave atop his mountain. “Is that a threat?”

“Why would I bother? If you’re truly planning something, I won’t need to kill her—she can do that all on her own. Maybe the king will put her in one of those collars. Just like his son.”

A chord of horror struck so deep in Rowan that his stomach turned. “Mind what you say, Lorcan.”

“I bet Maeve would offer good coin for her. And if she gets her hands on that Wyrdkey … You can imagine just as well as I what sort of power Maeve would wield then.”

Worse—so much worse than he could imagine if Maeve wanted Aelin not dead but enslaved. A weapon without limit in one hand, and the heir of Mala Fire-Bringer in her other. There would be no stopping her.

Lorcan read the hesitation, the doubt. Gold gleamed in his hand. “You know me, Prince. You know I’m the only one qualified to hunt down and destroy those keys. Let your queen take on the army gathering in the south—leave this task to me.” The ring seemed to glow in the moonlight as Lorcan extended it. “Whatever she’s planning, she’ll need this. Or else you can say good-bye.” Lorcan’s eyes were chips of black ice. “We all know how well you handled saying it to Lyria.”

Rowan leashed his rage. “Swear it.” Lorcan smiled, knowing he’d won.

“Swear that this ring grants immunity to the Valg, and I’ll give it to you,” Rowan said, and he pulled the Amulet of Orynth from his pocket.

Lorcan’s focus snapped to the amulet, to the otherworldly strangeness it radiated, and swore.

A blade flashed, and then the scent of Lorcan’s blood filled the air. He clenched his fist, lifting it. “I swear on my blood and honor that I have

not deceived you in any of this. The ring’s power is genuine.” Rowan watched the blood drip onto the roof. One drop; two; three.

Lorcan might have been a prick, but Rowan had never seen him break an oath before. His word was his bond; it had always been the one currency he valued.

They both moved at once, chucking the amulet and the ring into the space between them. Rowan caught the ring and swiftly pocketed it, but Lorcan just stared at the amulet in his hands, his eyes shadowed.

Rowan avoided the urge to hold his breath and stayed silent.

Lorcan slid the chain around his neck and tucked the amulet into his shirt. “You’re all going to die. Carrying out this plan, or in the war that follows.”

“You destroy those keys,” Rowan said, “and there might not be a war.” A fool’s hope.

“There will be a war. It’s too late to stop it now. Too bad that ring won’t keep any of you from being spiked on the castle walls.”

The image flashed through his head—made all the worse, perhaps, because of the times he’d seen it himself, done it himself. “What happened to you, Lorcan? What happened in your miserable existence to make you this way?” He’d never asked for the full story, had never cared to. It hadn’t bothered him until now. Before, he would have stood beside Lorcan and taunted the poor fool who dared defy their queen. “You’re a better male than this.”

“Am I? I still serve my queen, even if she cannot see it. Who was the one who abandoned her the first time a pretty human thing opened her legs—”

“That is enough.”

But Lorcan was gone.

Rowan waited a few minutes before going back downstairs, turning the ring over and over in his pocket.

Aelin was awake in the bed when he entered, the windows shut and curtained, the hearth dark. “Well?” she said, the word barely audible above the rustling of the blankets as he climbed in beside her.

His night-keen eyes allowed him to see the scarred palm she held out as he dropped the ring into it. She slid it onto her thumb, wriggled her fingers, and frowned when nothing particularly exciting happened. A laugh caught in his throat.

“How mad is Lorcan going to be,” Aelin murmured as they lay down face-to-face, “when he eventually opens up that amulet, finds the Valg commander’s ring inside, and realizes we gave him a fake?”

 

 

The demon ripped down the remaining barriers between their souls as though they were paper, until only one remained, a tiny shell of self.

He did not remember waking, or sleeping, or eating. Indeed, there were very few moments when he was even there, looking out through his eyes. Only when the demon prince fed on the prisoners in the dungeons

—when he allowed him to feed, to drink alongside him—that was the only time he now surfaced.

Whatever control he’d had that day— What day?

He could not remember a time when the demon had not been there inside of him.

And yet—

Manon. A name.

Do not think of that one—do not think of her. The demon hated that name.

Manon.

EnoughWe do not speak of them, the descendants of our kings. Speak of whom?

Good.

 

 

“You’re ready for tomorrow?” Aelin said to Chaol as they stood on the roof of her apartment, gazing toward the glass castle. In the setting sun, it was awash in gold and orange and ruby—as if it were already aflame.

Chaol prayed it wouldn’t come to that, but … “As ready as I can be.”

He’d tried not to look too hesitant, too wary, when he’d arrived minutes ago to run through tomorrow’s plan one last time and Aelin had instead asked him to join her up here. Alone.

She was wearing a loose white shirt tucked into tight brown pants, her hair unbound, and hadn’t even bothered to put on shoes. He wondered what her people would think of a barefoot queen.

Aelin braced her forearms on the roof rail, hooking one ankle over the other as she said, “You know that I won’t unnecessarily endanger any lives.”

“I know. I trust you.”

She blinked, and shame washed through him at the shock on her face. “Do you regret,” she said, “sacrificing your freedom to get me to

Wendlyn?”

“No,” he said, surprising himself to find it true. “Regardless of what happened between us, I was a fool to serve the king. I like to think I would have left someday.”

He needed to say that to her—had needed to say it from the moment she’d returned.

“With me,” she said, her voice hoarse. “You would have left with me

—when I was just Celaena.”

“But you were never just Celaena, and I think you knew that, deep down, even before everything happened. I understand now.”

She studied him with eyes that were far older than nineteen. “You’re still the same person, Chaol, that you were before you broke the oath to your father.”

He wasn’t sure whether or not that was an insult. He supposed he deserved it, after all he’d said and done.

“Maybe I don’t want to be that person anymore,” he said. That person

—that stupidly loyal, useless person—had lost everything. His friend, the woman he loved, his position, his honor. Lost everything, with only himself to blame.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “About Nehemia—about everything.” It wasn’t enough. It never would be.

But she gave him a grim smile, eyes darting to the faint scar on his cheek. “I’m sorry I mauled your face, then tried to kill you.” She turned to the glass castle again. “It’s still hard for me, to think about what happened this winter. But in the end I’m grateful you sent me to Wendlyn, and made that bargain with your father.” She closed her eyes and took a shallow breath. When she opened her eyes, the setting sun filled them with liquid gold. Chaol braced himself. “It meant something to me. What you and I had. More than that, your friendship meant something to me. I never told you the truth about who I was because couldn’t face that truth. I’m sorry if what I said to you on the docks that day—that I’d pick you—made you think I’d come back, and it would all be fixed. Things changed. I changed.”

He’d waited for this conversation for weeks now, months now—and he’d expected himself to yell, or pace, or just shut her out entirely. But there was nothing but calm in his veins, a steady, peaceful calm. “You deserve to be happy,” he said. And meant it. She deserved the joy he so often glimpsed on her face when Rowan was near—deserved the wicked laughter she shared with Aedion, the comfort and teasing with Lysandra. She deserved happiness, perhaps more than anyone.

She flicked her gaze over his shoulder—to where Nesryn’s slim silhouette filled the doorway onto the roof, where she’d been waiting for the past few minutes. “So do you, Chaol.”

“You know she and I haven’t—”

“I know. But you should. Faliq—Nesryn is a good woman. You deserve each other.”

“This is assuming she has any interest in me.” A knowing gleam in those eyes. “She does.”

Chaol again glanced toward Nesryn, who gazed at the river. He smiled a bit.

But then Aelin said, “I promise I’ll make it quick and painless. For Dorian.”

His breathing locked up. “Thank you. But—if I ask …” He couldn’t say it.

“Then the blow is yours. Just say the word.” She ran her fingers over the Eye of Elena, its blue stone gleaming in the sunset. “We do not look back, Chaol. It helps no one and nothing to look back. We can only go on.”

There she was, that queen looking out at him, a hint of the ruler she was becoming. And it knocked the breath out of him, because it made him feel so strangely young—when she now seemed so old. “What if we go on,” he said, “only to more pain and despair? What if we go on, only to find a horrible end waiting for us?”

Aelin looked northward, as if she could see all the way to Terrasen. “Then it is not the end.”

 

 

“Only twenty of them left. I hope to hell they’re ready tomorrow,” Chaol said under his breath as he and Nesryn left a covert gathering of rebels at a run-down inn beside the fishing docks. Even inside the inn, the cheap ale hadn’t been able to cover the reek of fish coming from both the guts still splattered on the wooden planks outside and the hands of the fishmongers who shared the tavern room.

“Better than only two—and they will be,” Nesryn said, her steps light on the dock as they strode down the riverfront. Lanterns on the boats docked alongside the walkway bobbed and swayed with the current; from far across the Avery, the faint sound of music trickled from one of the pretty country estates on its banks. A party on the eve of the summer solstice.

Once, a lifetime ago, he and Dorian had gone to those parties, dropping by several in one night. He’d never enjoyed it, had only gone to keep Dorian safe, but …

He should have enjoyed it. He should have savored every second with his friend.

He’d never realized how precious the calm moments were.

But—but he wouldn’t think about it, what he had to do tomorrow.

What he’d say good-bye to.

They walked in silence, until Nesryn turned down a side street and walked up to a small stone temple wedged between two market warehouses. The gray rock was worn, the columns flanking the entrance imbedded with various shells and bits of coral. Golden light spilled from the inside, revealing a round, open space with a simple fountain in its center.

Nesryn climbed the few steps and dropped a coin into the sealed bin beside a pillar. “Come with me.”

And maybe it was because he didn’t want to sit alone in his apartment and brood over what was to come tomorrow; maybe it was because visiting a temple, however useless, couldn’t hurt.

Chaol followed her inside.

At this hour, the Sea God’s temple was empty. A small door at the back of the space was padlocked. Even the priest and priestess had gone to sleep for a few hours before they had to awake ahead of the dawn, when the sailors and fishermen would make their offerings, reflect, or ask for blessings before setting off with the sun.

Two lanterns, crafted from sun-bleached coral, hung from the domed ceiling, setting the mother-of-pearl tiles above them glimmering like the surface of the sea. Nesryn took a seat on one of four benches set along the curved walls—a bench for each direction a sailor might journey in.

She picked south.

“For the Southern Continent?” Chaol asked, sitting beside her on the smooth wood.

Nesryn stared at the little fountain, the bubbling water the only sound. “We went to the Southern Continent a few times. Twice when I was a child, to visit family; once to bury my mother. Her whole life, I’d always catch her gazing south. As if she could see it.”

“I thought only your father came from there.”

“Yes. But she fell in love with it, and said it felt more like home than this place. My father never agreed with her, no matter how many times she begged him to move back.”

“Do you wish he had?”

Her night-dark eyes shifted toward him. “I’ve never felt as though I had a home. Either here, or in the Milas Agia.”

“The … god-city,” he said, recalling the history and geography lessons that had been drilled into him. It was more frequently called by its other name—Antica—and was the largest city on the Southern Continent, home to a mighty empire in its own right, which claimed it had been built by the hands of gods. Also home to the Torre Cesme, the best mortal healers in the world. He’d never known Nesryn’s family had been from the city itself.

“Where do you think home might be?” he asked.

Nesryn braced her forearms on her knees. “I don’t know,” she admitted, twisting her head to look back at him. “Any ideas?”

You deserve to be happy, Aelin had said earlier that night. An apology and a shove out the door, he supposed.

He didn’t want to waste the calm moments.

So he reached for her hand, sliding closer as he interlaced their fingers. Nesryn stared at their hands for a heartbeat, then sat up. “Maybe once all this … once everything is over,” Chaol said hoarsely, “we could figure that out. Together.”

“Promise me,” she breathed, her mouth shaking. Indeed, that was silver lining her eyes, which she closed long enough to master herself. Nesryn Faliq, moved to tears. “Promise me,” she repeated, looking at their hands again, “that you will walk out of that castle tomorrow.”

He’d wondered why she’d brought him in here. The Sea God—and the God of Oaths.

He squeezed her hand. She squeezed back.

Gold light rippled on the surface of the Sea God’s fountain, and Chaol offered up a silent prayer. “I promise.”

 

 

Rowan was in bed, casually testing his left shoulder with careful rotations. He’d pushed himself hard today while training, and soreness now throbbed in his muscles. Aelin was in her closet, preparing for bed

—quiet, as she’d been all day and evening.

With two urns of hellfire now hidden a block away in an abandoned building, everyone should be tiptoeing around. One small accident, and they would be incinerated so thoroughly that no ash would remain.

But he’d made sure that wasn’t her concern. Tomorrow, he and Aedion would be the ones bearing the urns through the network of sewer tunnels

and into the castle itself.

Aelin had tracked the Wyrdhounds to their secret entrance—the one that fed right to the clock tower—and now that she’d tricked Lorcan into killing them all for her, the way would be clear for him and Aedion to plant the vats, set the fuses, and use their Fae swiftness to get the hell out before the tower exploded.

Then Aelin … Aelin and the captain would play their part, the most dangerous of all. Especially since they hadn’t been able to get a message in to the palace beforehand.

And Rowan wouldn’t be there to help her.

He’d gone over the plan with her again and again. Things could go wrong so easily, and yet she hadn’t looked nervous as she downed her dinner. But he knew her well enough to see the storm brewing beneath the surface, to feel its charge even from across the room.

Rowan rotated his shoulder again, and soft footsteps sounded on the carpet. “I’ve been thinking,” Rowan started, and then forgot everything he was going to say as he bolted upright in bed.

Aelin leaned against the closet doorway, clad in a nightgown of gold. Metallic gold—as he’d requested.

It could have been painted on her for how closely it hugged every curve and dip, for all that it concealed.

A living flame, that’s what she looked like. He didn’t know where to look, where he wanted to touch first.

“If I recall correctly,” she drawled, “someone said to remind him to prove me wrong about my hesitations. I think I had two options: words, or tongue and teeth.”

A low growl rumbled in his chest. “Did I now.”

She took a step, and the full scent of her desire hit him like a brick to the face.

He was going to rip that nightgown to shreds.

He didn’t care how spectacular it looked; he wanted bare skin.

“Don’t even think about it,” she said, taking another step, as fluid as molten metal. “Lysandra lent it to me.”

His heartbeat thundered in his ears. If he moved an inch, he’d be on her, would take her in his arms and begin learning just what made the Heir of Fire really burn.

But he got out of bed, risking all of one step, drinking down the sight of the long, bare legs; the curve of her breasts, peaked despite the balmy summer night; the bob of her throat as she swallowed.

“You said that things had changed—that we’d deal with it.” Her turn to dare another step. Another. “I’m not going to ask you for anything you’re not ready or willing to give.”

He froze as she stopped directly before him, tipping back her head to study his face as her scent twined around him, awakening him.

Gods, that scent. From the moment he’d bitten her neck in Wendlyn, the moment he’d tasted her blood and loathed the beckoning wildfire that crackled in it, he’d been unable to get it out of his system. “Aelin, you deserve better than this—than me.” He’d wanted to say it for a while now.

She didn’t so much as flinch. “Don’t tell me what I do and don’t deserve. Don’t tell me about tomorrow, or the future, or any of it.”

He took her hand; her fingers were cold—shaking slightly. What do you want me to tell you, Fireheart?

She studied their joined hands, and the gold ring encircling her thumb. He squeezed her fingers gently. When she lifted her head, her eyes were blazing bright. “Tell me that we’ll get through tomorrow. Tell me that we’ll survive the war. Tell me—” She swallowed hard. “Tell me that even if I lead us all to ruin, we’ll burn in hell together.”

“We’re not going to hell, Aelin,” he said. “But wherever we go, we’ll go together.”

Her mouth wobbled slightly, and she released his hand only to brace her own on his chest. “Just once,” she said. “I want to kiss you just once.”

Every thought went out of his head. “That sounds like you’re expecting not to do it again.”

The flicker of fear in her eyes told him enough—told him that her behavior at dinner might have been mostly bravado to keep Aedion calm. “I know the odds.”

“You and I have always relished damning the odds.”

She tried and failed to smile. He leaned in, sliding a hand around her waist, the lace and silk smooth against his fingers, her body warm and firm beneath it, and whispered in her ear, “Even when we’re apart tomorrow, I’ll be with you every step of the way. And every step after— wherever that may be.”

She sucked in a shuddering breath, and he pulled back far enough for them to share breath. Her fingers shook as she brushed them against his mouth, and his control nearly shredded apart right there.

“What are you waiting for?” he said, the words near guttural. “Bastard,” she murmured, and kissed him.

Her mouth was soft and warm, and he bit back a groan. His body went still—his entire world went still—at that whisper of a kiss, the answer to a question he’d asked for centuries. He realized he was staring only when she withdrew slightly. His fingers tightened at her waist.

“Again,” he breathed.

She slid out of his grip. “If we live through tomorrow, you’ll get the rest.”

He didn’t know whether to laugh or roar. “Are you trying to bribe me into surviving?”

She smiled at last. And damn if it didn’t kill him, the quiet joy in her face.

They had walked out of darkness and pain and despair together. They were still walking out of it. So that smile … It struck him stupid every time he saw it and realized it was for him.

Rowan remained rooted to the center of the room as Aelin climbed into bed and blew out the candles. He stared at her through the darkness.

She said softly, “You make me want to live, Rowan. Not survive; not exist. Live.”

He didn’t have the words. Not when what she said hit him harder and deeper than any kiss.

So he climbed into bed and held her tightly all through the night.

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