“Then that does not seem like love at all.”

“And what do you know of love?” He was so close—had neared without her realizing it.

“I think love should make you happy,” Elide said, remembering her mother and father. How often they had smiled and laughed, how they had gazed at each other. “It should make you into the best possible version of yourself.”

“Are you implying I am neither of those things?”

“I don’t think you even know what happiness is.”

His face grew grave—thoughtful. “I do not mind … being around you.”

“Is that a compliment?”

A half smile cut across his granite-hewn face. And she wanted … wanted to touch it. That smile, that mouth. With her fingers, her own lips. It made him younger, made him … handsome.

So she reached up with trembling fingers and touched his lips.

Lorcan froze, still half above her, his eyes solemn and intent.

But she traced the contours of his mouth, finding the skin there soft and warm, such a contrast to the harsh words that usually came out of it.

She reached the outer corner of his lips, and he turned his face into her hand, resting his rough cheek against her palm. His eyes grew heavy-lidded as she brushed a thumb over the hard plane of his cheekbone.

Elide whispered, “I would hide you. In Perranth. If you … if you do what you need to do, and need somewhere to go … You would have a place there. With me.”

His eyes snapped open, but there was nothing hard, nothing cold, about the light shining in them. “I would be a dishonored male—it’d reflect poorly upon you.”

“If anyone thinks that, they would have no place in Perranth.”

His throat bobbed. “Elide, you need to—”

But she rose up slightly, replacing her mouth where her fingers had been.

The kiss was soft, and quiet, and brief. Barely a grazing of her lips against his.

She thought Lorcan might have been trembling as she pulled back. As heat bloomed across her cheeks. But she made herself say, surprised to find her voice steady, “You don’t need to answer me now. Or ever. You could show up on my doorstep in ten years, and the offer would still stand. But there is a place for you, in Perranth—if you should ever need or wish for it.”

Something like agony rippled in his eyes, the most human expression she’d seen him make.

But he leaned forward, and despite the marshes, despite what gathered in the world, for the first time in ten years, Elide found herself not at all afraid as Lorcan caressed her lips with his own. Not afraid of anything as he did it again, kissing one corner of her mouth, then the other.

Such gentle, patient kisses—his hands equally so as they stroked the hair back from her brow, as they trailed over her hips, her ribs. She lifted her own hands to his face and dragged her fingers into his silken hair as she arched up into him, craving the weight of his body on hers.

Lorcan’s tongue brushed against the seam of her mouth, and Elide marveled at how natural it felt to open for him, how her body sang at the contact, his hardness against her softness. Lorcan groaned at the first caress of his tongue against her own, his hips grinding against hers in a way that made heat scorch through her, made her own body undulate against his in answer and demand.

He kissed her deeper at that request, a hand sliding down to grip her thigh, spreading her legs a bit wider so he could settle fully between them. And as all of him lined up with her … She was panting, she realized, as she ground herself against him, as Lorcan tore his mouth from hers and kissed her jaw, her neck, her ear. She was trembling—not with fear, but with want as Lorcan breathed her name over and over onto her skin.

Like a prayer, that was how her name sounded on his lips. She took his face in her hands, finding his eyes blazing, his breathing as ragged as her own.

Elide dared to run her fingers from his cheek down his neck, right beneath the collar of his shirt. His skin was like heated silk. He shuddered at the touch, head bowing so that his inky hair spilled onto her brow, and his hips drove into hers just enough that a small gasp came out of her. More, she realized—she wanted more.

His eyes met hers in silent question, her hand pausing over the skin above his heart. It was a raging, thunderous beat.

She lifted her head to kiss him, and as her mouth again met his, she whispered her answer—

Lorcan’s head snapped up. He was instantly on his feet, whirling toward the northeast.

Where a darkness had begun to spread across the stars, wiping them out one by one.

Any bit of heat, of desire, winked out of her.

“Is that a storm?”

“We need to run,” Lorcan said. But it was the dead of the night—dawn was at least six hours off. To cross the marshes now … More and more stars were gobbled up by that gathering darkness.

“What is that?” It spread farther with each heartbeat. Far out, even the marsh beasts stopped roaring.

“Ilken,” Lorcan murmured. “That is an army of ilken.”

Elide knew they weren’t coming for her.


Two days into the endless labyrinth of the Stone Marshes—two, not the day and a half that gods-damned Rolfe had suggested—Aelin was inclined to burn the whole place to the ground. With the water and humidity, she was never dry, always sweating and sticky. And worse: the insects.

She kept the little demons away with a shield of invisible flame, revealed only by the zinging as they slammed into it. She might have felt bad, had they not tried to eat her alive the first day here. Had she not scratched at the dozens of swollen red bites until her skin bled—and Rowan stepped in to heal them.

After the Bloodhound’s attack, her own healing abilities had remained depleted. So Rowan and Gavriel played healer for all of them, tending to the itching bites, the welts from stinging plants, the scratches from submerged, jagged chunks of the ruins that sliced into them if they weren’t careful while wading through the brackish water.

Only Manon seemed immune to the marshes’ drain, finding the feral, rotting beauty of the marshes to be pleasing. She indeed reminded Aelin of one of the horrid river beasts that ruled this place—with those golden eyes, those sharp, gleaming teeth … Aelin tried not to think on it too much. Tried to imagine getting out of this place and onto dry, crisp land.

But in the heart of this dead, wretched sprawl was Mala’s Lock.

Rowan was scouting ahead in hawk form as the sun inched toward the horizon, Lysandra surveying the waters between the small hills as some slimy, scaled marsh thing that Aelin had grimaced at, eliciting an indignant hiss of a forked tongue before the shifter splashed into the water.

Aelin grimaced again as she trudged up one of those little hills, crusted in thorny brambles and crowned with two fallen pillars. A maze designed to scratch and stub and tear.

So she sent a blast of fire across the hill, turning it to wilting ashes. It clung to her wet boots as she passed over it, a sodden gray mush.

Fenrys chuckled at her side as they descended the hill. “Well, that’s one way to get through it.” He held out a hand to lead her through the water, and part of her balked at the idea of being escorted, but … she’d be damned if she fell into a watery pit. She had a very, very good idea of what was deep beneath them. She had no interest in swimming among the rotted remnants of people.

Fenrys gripped her hand tightly as they waded through the chest-deep water. He hauled her onto the bank first, then climbed out himself. He could no doubt leap the gaps between the islands in wolf form, as could Gavriel. Why they bothered staying in Fae form was beyond her.

Aelin used her magic to dry off as best she could, then used a tendril to dry Fenrys’s and Gavriel’s clothes, too.

A harmless, casual expenditure of power. Even if using it for three days straight on Eyllwe’s burning coast had drained her. Not the flame, but just … physically. Mentally. She still felt like she could sleep for a week. But the magic murmured. Incessantly, relentlessly. Even if she was tired … the power demanded more. Drying their clothes between dips into the marsh water, at least, kept the damn thing quiet. For now.

Lysandra popped her hideous head up from a tangle of brambles, and Aelin yelped, falling back a step. The shifter grinned, revealing two very, very sharp fangs. Fenrys loosed a low laugh, scanning the shifter as she slithered a few feet ahead. “So you can change skin and bone, but the brand remains?”

Lysandra paused a few inches from the water, and on the island ahead, Aedion seemed to go tense, even as he continued on. Good. At least she wasn’t the only one who’d rip out anyone’s throat if they so much as mocked Lysandra. But her friend shifted, glowing and expanding, until her form became humanoid—Fae.

Until Fenrys was looking at himself, albeit a smaller version to fit into the woman’s clothes. Gavriel, clearing the bank behind them, stumbled a step at the sight.

Lysandra said, her voice near-identical to Fenrys’s drawl, “I suppose it shall always be my tell.” She extended her wrist, pushing back the sleeve of her jacket to reveal his golden-brown skin, marred with that brand.

But she kept peering down at herself as they all continued wading and climbing, and finally remarked, “Your hearing is better.” Lysandra ran her tongue over the slightly elongated canines. Fenrys cringed a bit. “What’s the point of these?” she asked.

Gavriel edged closer and nudged the shape-shifter along, walking a few paces ahead with her. “Fenrys is the last person to ask. If you want an appropriate answer, that is.”

Lysandra chuckled, smiling at the Lion as they ascended the hill. Odd—to see her smile on Fenrys’s face. Fenrys caught Aelin’s eye and grimaced again, no doubt finding it equally unnerving. She chuckled.

Wings flapped ahead, and Aelin took a moment to marvel as Rowan sailed hard and fast to them. Swift, strong—unfaltering.

Gavriel fell back a few paces as Lysandra stilled beside Aedion atop the hill and shifted into her own form. She swayed a bit, and Aelin lunged—only for Aedion to beat her to it, gripping Lysandra gently under her elbow as Rowan landed and shifted himself. They all needed a nice, long rest.

Her Fae Prince said, “Dead ahead—we’ll be there by tomorrow afternoon.”

Whenever she saw Rolfe again, they’d have a little chat about how, exactly, he calculated distances on that infernal map of his.

But Rowan’s face had paled beneath the tattoos. After a moment, he added, “I can feel it—my magic can feel it.”

“Tell me it’s not under twenty feet of water.”

A swift, cutting shake of the head. “I didn’t want to risk getting too close. But it reminds me of the Sin-Eater’s temple.”

“So, a really lovely, welcoming, and relaxing place to be, then,” she said.

Aedion laughed under his breath, eyes on the horizon. Dorian and Manon hauled themselves onto the bank below, dripping wet, the witch scanning the sea of islands ahead. If she noted anything, the witch said nothing.

Rowan surveyed the island they stood atop: high, shielded by a crumbling stone wall on one side, thorns on the other. “We’ll camp here tonight. It’s secure enough.”

Aelin nearly sagged in relief. Lysandra uttered a faint thank-you to the gods.

Within minutes, they’d cleared enough of a general area, through physical and magical toiling, to find seats among the huge blocks of stone, and Aedion set about cooking: a rather sad meal of hard bread and the swamp creatures Gavriel and Rowan had hunted, deeming them safe enough to eat. Aelin didn’t watch her cousin, preferring not to know what the hell she was about to shove down her throat.

The others seemed inclined to avert their attention as well, and though Aedion managed to wield their meager spices with surprising talent, some of the meat was … chewy. Slimy. Lysandra had politely, but thoroughly, gagged at one point.

Night set in, a sea of stars twinkling into existence. Aelin couldn’t recall the last time she had been so far from civilization—perhaps on the ocean crossing to and from Wendlyn.

Aedion, seated beside her, passed the too-light skin of wine. She swigged from it, glad for the sour slide that washed away any lingering taste of the meat.