He steered them hour after hour, contemplating precisely how he was going to murder Aelin Galathynius without Elide or Whitethorn getting in the way, and then how he was going to slice up her corpse and feed it to the crows.
She had lied to him. She and Whitethorn had tricked him that day the prince had handed over the Wyrdkey.
There’d been nothing inside the amulet but one of those rings—an utterly useless Wyrdstone ring, wrapped in a bit of parchment. And on it was written in a feminine scrawl:
Here’s hoping you discover more creative terms than “bitch” to call me when you find this.
With all my love,
He’d kill her. Slowly. Creatively. He’d been forced to swear a blood promise that Mala’s ring truly offered immunity from the Valg when it was worn—he hadn’t thought to demand that their Wyrdkey was real, too.
And Elide—what Elide carried, what had made him realize it … He’d think about that later. Contemplate what to do with the Lady of Perranth later.
His only consolation was that he’d stolen Mala’s ring back, but the little bitch still had the key. And if Elide needed to go to Aelin anyway … Oh, he’d find Aelin for Elide.
And he’d make the Queen of Terrasen crawl before the end of it.
The world began and ended in fire.
A sea of fire with no room for air, for sound beyond the cascading molten earth. The true heart of fire—the tool of creation and destruction. And she was drowning in it.
Its weight smothered her as she thrashed, seeking a surface or a bottom to push off from. Neither existed.
As it flooded her throat, surging into her body and melting her apart, she began screaming noiselessly, begging it to halt—
The name, roared into the core of flame at the heart of the world, was a beacon, a summons. She’d been born waiting to hear that voice, had blindly sought it her whole life, would follow it unto the ending of all things—
Aelin bowed off the bed, flame in her mouth, her throat, her eyes. Real flame.
Golds and blues wove among simmering swaths of reds. Real flame, erupting from her, the sheets scorched, the room and the rest of the bed spared from incineration, the ship in the middle of the sea spared from incineration, by an uncompromising, unbreakable wall of air.
Hands wrapped in ice squeezed her shoulders, and through the flame, Rowan’s snarling face appeared, commanding her to breathe—
She took a breath. More flame rushed down her throat.
There was no tether, no leash to bring her magic to heel. Oh, gods—oh, gods, she couldn’t even feel a burnout threatening nearby. There was nothing but this flame—
Rowan gripped her face in his hands, steam rippling where his ice and wind met her fire. “You are its master; you control it. Your fear grants it the right to take over.”
Her body arced off the mattress again, utterly naked. She must have burned her clothes—Rowan’s favorite shirt. Her flames burned wilder.
He gripped her hard, forcing her to meet his eyes as he snarled, “I see you. I see every part of you. And I am not afraid.”
I will not be afraid.
A line in the burning brightness.
My name is Aelin Ashryver Galathynius …
And I will not be afraid.
As surely as if she grabbed it in her hand, the leash appeared.
Darkness flowed in, blessed and calm where that burning pit of flame had raged.
She swallowed once, twice. “Rowan.”
His eyes gleamed with near-animal brightness, scanning every inch of her.
His heartbeat was rampant, thundering—panicked. “Rowan,” she repeated.
Still he did not move, did not stop staring at her, searching for signs of harm. Something in her own chest shifted at his panic.
Aelin grasped his shoulder, digging in her nails at the violence rampant on every line of his body, as if he’d loosed whatever leashes he kept on himself in anticipation of fighting to keep her in this body and not some goddess or worse. “Calm down. Now.”
He did no such thing. Rolling her eyes, she tugged his hands from her face to lean over and throw the sheets off them. “I am fine,” she said, enunciating each word. “You saw to that. Now, get me some water. I’m thirsty.”
A basic, easy command. To serve, in the way he’d explained that Fae males liked to be needed, to fulfill some part of them that wanted to fuss and dote. To drag him back up to that level of civilization and reason.
Rowan’s face was still harsh with feral wrath—and the insidious terror running beneath it.
So Aelin leaned in, nipped his jaw, making sure her canines scratched, and said onto his skin, “If you don’t start acting like a prince, you can sleep on the floor.”
Rowan pulled back, his savage face not wholly of this world, but slowly, as if the words sank in, his features softened. He was still looking pissy, but not so near killing that invisible threat against her, as he leaned in, nipping her jaw in return, and said into her ear, “I’m going to make you regret using such threats, Princess.”
Oh, gods. Her toes curled, but she gave him a simpering smile as he rose to his feet, every muscle in his naked body rippling with the movement, and watched him pad with feline grace to the washstand and ewer atop it.
The bastard had the nerve to look her over as he lifted the jug. And then give her a satisfied, male smile as he poured a glass right to the brim, halting with expert precision.
She debated sending a lick of flame to burn his bare ass as he set down the jug with emphasized care and calm. And then stalked back to the bed, eyes on her every step of the way, and set the water on the small table beside it.
Aelin rose on surprisingly steady knees and faced him.
Only the creaking of the ship and hissing of the waves against it filled the room.
“What was that?” she asked quietly.
His eyes shuttered. “It was … me losing control.”
He glanced at the porthole and moon-kissed sea beyond. So rare for him to avoid her stare.
“Why?” she pushed.
Rowan at last met her gaze. “I didn’t know if she’d taken you again.” No matter that the Wyrdkey now lay beside the bed and not around her neck. “Even when I realized you were just in the magic’s thrall, I still … The magic took you away. It’s been a long time since I wasn’t certain … since I didn’t know how to get you back.” He bared his teeth, loosing a jagged breath, the wrath now directed inward. “Before you call me a territorial Fae bastard, allow me to apologize and explain that it is very difficult—”
“Rowan.” He stilled. She crossed the small lingering distance between them, every step like the answer to some question she’d asked from the moment her soul had sparked into existence. “You are not human. I do not expect you to be.”
He almost seemed to recoil. But she put a hand on his bare chest, over his heart. It still thundered beneath her palm.
She said softly, feeling that heart beneath her hand, “I do not care if you are Fae, or human, if you are Valg or a gods-damned skinwalker. You are what you are. And what I want … what I need, Rowan, is someone who does not apologize for it. For who they are. You have never once done so.” She leaned forward to kiss the bare skin where her hand had been. “Please don’t start doing it now. Yes, sometimes you piss me the hell off with that Fae territorial nonsense, but … I heard your voice. It woke me up. It led me out of that … place.”
He bowed his head until his brow leaned against hers. “I wish I had more to offer you—during this war, and beyond it.”
She slid her arms around his bare waist. “You offer me more than I ever hoped for.” He seemed to object, but she said, “And I figured since both Darrow and Rolfe informed me I needed to sell my hand in marriage for the sake of this war, I should do the opposite.”
A snort. “Typical. But if Terrasen needs—”
“Here is the way I see it,” she said, pulling back to examine his harsh face. “We do not have the luxury of time. And a marriage to a foreign kingdom, with its contracts and distances, plus the months it takes to raise and send an army … we do not have that time. We only have now. And what I don’t need is a husband who will try to get into a pissing contest with me, or who I’ll have to cloister somewhere for his own safety, or who will hide in a corner when I wake up with flames all around me.” She kissed his tattooed chest again, right over that mighty, thundering heart. “This, Rowan—this is all I need. Just this.”
The reverberations of his deep, rattling breath echoed into her cheek, and he stroked a hand over her hair, along her bare back. Lower. “A court that can change the world.”
She kissed the corner of his mouth. “We’ll find a way—together.” The words he’d given her once, the words that had begun the healing of her shattered heart. And his own. “Did I hurt—” Her words were a rasp.
“No.” He brushed a thumb over her cheekbone. “No, you didn’t hurt me. Or anything else.”
Something in her chest caved in, and Rowan gathered her in his arms as she buried her face in his neck. His calloused hands caressed her back, over each and every scar and the tattoos he’d inked on her.
“If we survive this war,” she murmured after a while onto his bare chest, “you and I are going to have to learn how to relax. To sleep through the night.”
“If we survive this war, Princess,” he said, running a finger down the groove of her spine, “I’ll be happy to do anything you want. Even learn how to relax.”
“And if we never have a moment’s peace, even after we get the Lock, the keys, and send Erawan back to his hellhole realm?”
The amusement faded, replaced by something more intent as his fingers stilled on her back. “Even if we have threats of war every other day, even if we have to host fussy emissaries, even if we have to visit god-awful kingdoms and play nice, I’ll be happy to do it, if you’re at my side.”
Her lips trembled. “Och, you. Since when did you learn to make such pretty speeches?”
“I just needed the right excuse to learn,” he said, kissing her cheek.
Her body went taut and molten in all the right places as his mouth moved lower, pressing gentle, biting kisses to her jaw, her ear, her neck. She dug her fingers into his back, baring her throat as his canines scratched lightly.
“I love you,” Rowan breathed onto her skin, and flicked his tongue over the spot where his canines had scratched. “I’d walk into the burning heart of hell itself to find you.”
He almost had mere minutes ago, she wanted to say. But Aelin only arched her back a bit more, a small, needy noise coming out of her. This—him … Would it ever stop—the wanting? The need to not only be near him, but to have him so deep in her she felt their souls twining, their magic dancing … The tether that had led her out of that burning core of madness and destruction.
“Please,” she breathed, nails digging into his lower back in emphasis.
Rowan’s low groan was his only answer as he hoisted her up. She wrapped her legs around his waist, letting him carry her not to the bed, but to the wall, and the sensation of the cool wood against her back, compared to the heat and hardness of him pushing into her front—
Aelin panted through her gritted teeth as he again dragged his tongue over that spot on her neck. “Please.”
She felt his smile against her skin as Rowan thrust into her in a long, powerful stroke—and bit down on her neck.
A claiming, mighty and true, that she understood he so desperately needed. That she needed, and with his teeth in her, his body in her … She was going to combust, she was going to splinter apart from the overwhelming need—
Rowan’s hips began to move, setting a lazy, smooth pace as he kept his canines buried in her neck. As his tongue slid along the twin points of pleasure edged with finest pain, and he tasted her very essence as if it were wine.