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Heirs of the Sun

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My darling Elide,

                I hope this letter finds you well. I am afraid that, given the circumstances, I will be forced to be brief.

                We have managed to catch two of the rebels yestereve. Rowan and myself found them hiding in one of the underground passages of Orynth, and since then we have been questioning them in turns. No answers have been given to us. Whoever these two belong to, they are much more afraid of their leader than they are of us, which is worrying. Aelin herself has made them both sully their pants in the process of trying to get to the bottom of who they are and what they want, but to no avail.

                Aelin, Rowan and I, along with Fenrys, are positive we will find the rest of their group and eventually their leader. But to put a stop to this, I believe my presence in Orynth will be extended for another week or so. I will solve this, my love. The rebels threatening the queen will not see another beam of sunlight once I get my hands on them and make them pay for the damage they have already caused.

                It pains me, every single day, being parted from you. I miss you. I miss you so much. I spend every waking morning imagining you, my mate, in my arms once more. But – soon, Elide. Soon this will be over.

                Know I am protecting our home, my love. Know that I will be with you soon. Until then – take care of my heart, I have left it in your care.

                Your loving husband, and dashingly handsome mate,

                Lorcan.

***

 

Dear Lorcan,

                I am happy to hear news from you. I know it has not been easy these past few weeks, not for either of us. I’m writing to tell you-

***

 

My dear husband,

                I am not sure how to start this, but the truth is-

***

 

Dear Lorcan,

                All that matters, is that you are alright and safe. Also, I believe I have news. I do not know how you will react to it. Lorcan, I am-

***

 

Lorcan,

                I believe I am with child.

***

                Elide Lochan crumples yet another useless scribbled scroll. She takes a moment to steady herself and, with a deep breath, stares out the window and into the bright blooming gardens of Perranth Manor, her face stitched in worry, her eyes deep in thought.

                Her husband has been in Orynth for longer than two weeks now, ever since reports came from Aelin herself: a nameless rebel group had set fire to three houses in one of the villages in the north, flames so ferocious and wild that were carried through acres and acres of land, aided by the spring wind. Four people had died. A child with them.

                Lorcan’s previous letters state that Aelin had been raging with grief, and the queen herself had gone to the village to oversee the damage. It was brutal. When speaking with the fellow villagers, they could not even describe the men that had done such a thing, but some people spoke of an angry growl in the night, declaring Aelin a tyrant monster, a false queen that had no right to rule over a free people, painting her as someone who could only bring destruction upon Terrasen. The villagers had been too shaken by their burnt crops and the five funerals they had to organize to remember much about the rebels.

                Elide closes her eyes at the terrible images, shaking her head to be rid of them. No, she cannot burden Lorcan with something like this right now. The worry it will bring him will not do him any good. Especially if-

                If her suspicions end up not being true.

                Still – nervousness makes a bed at the pit of her stomach, demanding answers. Her nails have been bitten off, her under eyes are dark and purpling from lack of sleep, her skin dry from dehydration, and her cheeks hollow because of her inability to keep much other fruit in her stomach.

                So, she decides.

                Elide Lochan burns the scrolls she wasted and spreads out a new one over her desk. She begins another letter – this time to an old friend.

***

 

                Yrene Towers arrives in Perranth exactly two days later.

                Every month or so, Elide expects a visit from the healer. Ever since she agreed to begin the treatment for her ankle, Yrene has been a gods’ gift, as well as a true friend. Granted, no part of it has been easy. The pain of reshaping Elide’s bones, growing out new ones and twisting her tendons has surpassed the pain she had felt before on a daily basis. It is a slow process, slower than Elide expected. Each session is a triumph, Yrene explains, and Elide is conscious that everything has to get worse before it gets better, so she fights, and keeps on fighting. Of course, Yrene’s homemade ointments such as salves and creams and balms, even pots of tea leaves that Elide brews every morning, have helped immensely in this slow path to healing. Moreover, Yrene was kind enough to present Elide with a marvellous, beautifully crafted cane for a wedding gift, and that alone made Elide’s life so much easier. Especially in a Manor so full of stairs.

                And it is exactly when she’s walking down those evil stairs, supporting her weight on her cane, that Elide realizes how truly dependent of Lorcan’s powers she had been all those months. She had allowed herself to rely too much on the soothing darkness wrapping around her ankle and even had, at times, taken it for granted. She can feel the terrible absence of it now, as she walks to the main Hall to greet her friend.

                Motherhood suits Yrene beautifully – the young healer glows in her pale pink gown, her hair loosely coiled in a bun at the nape of her neck. Her cheeks are round and healthy, a tint to them as she smiles. Her eyes are bright and wide, albeit slightly tired. She has never looked as happy as she does now, standing in front of Elide.

                “I came as soon as I got your letter,” Yrene says as she pulls Elide in for a hug. “You sounded frightened, Elide. It worried me.”

                “I am truly sorry,” Elide begins, pulling away gently. “I know we’ve only just had a session, and I know you have your baby boy at home-”

                “Hardly a baby anymore,” Yrene laughs. “He’s two years old, and already a force of nature. And definitely favours his father over me.”

                Elide gives her friend a large smile. “How are Chaol and the little one fairing?”

                “Well, and so very happy,” Yrene says. Such loving tenderness in her eyes. “Chaol is absolutely in love with his son. They are inseparable, those two.”

                “I do hope to see them again soon. I don’t believe I have ever seen a happier baby in all my years.”

                “Oh, you should see him in the mornings,” Yrene chuckles. “Not so happy then.” Then a slight worry crosses her features and Yrene adds: “But – back to you. What seems to be the matter? I know you would not have written if it were not urgent.”

                When Yrene’s eyes lower to Elide’s bound foot, the Lady of Perranth quickly says: “The ankle is doing fine. Better than expected. It’s something else I want to talk to you about. I would not trust any other healer.”

                At her friend’s slight agitation, Elide invites her to sit at the sunny parlour at the end of the Hall. There, Elide calls for tea and cakes, and once Yrene has a steaming cup in her hands, the lady of Perranth tries and fails to find the proper words to explain her situation, but all of a sudden there is a knot tied at her throat, cutting off her breath.

                Yrene senses this, and begins instead. “I find you very tense today.”

                “I am a bit.”

                “Is it Lorcan?” Yrene murmurs, blowing the steam of her tea. “I understand how nerve wracking it must be being parted, since you’ve recently mated.”

                “Yes,” Elide pulls at the loose strand in her sleeve. “I believe it’s worse for him.”

                “It was a terrible thing what happened to that village,” Yrene says, shaking her head. “Have you heard from Lorcan?”

                “Yes,” Elide says. “They are slowly getting it under control.”  

                “I hope they do,” Yrene says.

                A pause. The young healer gives Elide one of those analysing looks the Lady of Perranth is too familiar with. Yrene Towers has a way to look at you – she sees through the pretty picture your eyes attempt to show, and she always manages to find a window that looks through all the things you hide.

                “You can talk to me,” she says, sipping her tea.

                “I think I might be with child,” Elide blurts out.

                Yrene almost spits her tea.

                Elide quickly adds, “Though it could also be an illness? I…it’s strange, Yrene. I do not feel like myself. Once I start thinking that I am with child, I feel as though it could not be possible. And yet something keeps nagging at me.”

                Yrene composes herself and faces Elide fully. The healer says, “When have these thoughts begun?”

                “Since Lorcan left.”

                “It could be a number of things,” Yrene says. “Your separation could be making you anxious. I see you have not been sleeping well.”

                “I have not slept at all.”

                Yrene’s nose scrunches up in thoughtfulness. “Any nausea?” 

                “Yes – terrible nausea. Every morning and just before I go to bed,” Elide says, picking at her nails. “But then again…I did have a glass of milk two weeks ago. Yes, I know, I’m sorry. I miss it.”

                Yrene laughs softly, giving Elide a pointed look. “Even if the nausea had been caused by your intolerance, it would not have lasted two whole weeks with only a glass.” A pause. “Any pains?”

                “My back and my thighs, mainly. I’ve been having headaches, but I reckoned that could be because of my lack of sleep.”

                Yrene rests her hands on her lap, looking Elide over. “How bad are these pains?”

                “Not bad, exactly. But muscle pains are not abnormal for me.”

                Yrene nods for a moment, and then promptly says, “I can check for you. Even if it’s early, I can…well, feel it, in a way. If you wish.”

                Elide pauses.

                If it is true…

                A child.

                She will become a mother. The mother of a fae child at that.

                Elide cannot wrap her head around it. Can barely imagine a little one in her arms, smiling up at her.

                All her life, she had never imagined a family of her own. It had never been in her mind. All she had done was try to survive, day by day, never expecting to live through the next hour. Back then, in her mind, she truly believed she would have never made it this far. She had been prepared to perish in that tower. And now that she had survived…

                A family. She can have a family.

                Is the thought of having a child truly that terrifying in comparison to what she had to live through? A child created out pure, genuine love?

                “I see that you are more than a little frightened,” Yrene’s voice makes Elide step out of her thoughts.

                “I simply…never expected to have to think about a family this soon,” Elide says.

                And it is true – Elide and Lorcan had been swaying in their new found bliss, too busy enjoying their newfound bond, their home, and their marriage, to give any thought to having a family. They had been given time. They had a long time to discuss it. But now-

                “I will give you a true answer, and it will not take more than a few seconds,” Yrene says.

                “Yes,” Elide nods, breathing in. “Yes, I think that would be for the best.”

                Yrene instructs Elide to lie down on the couch, and rises to sit next to her, facing Elide fully. Once her dress is pulled up to reveal Elide’s stomach, Elide takes another steadying breath.

                Maybe it is all in her mind. Maybe Yrene will shake her head, and Elide will know she made her friend come all this way for nothing.

                Or maybe…

                A child. A child of her own.

                Yrene’s warm, soothing hands touch Elide’s sides. “If I was pregnant,” Elide begins, too nervous to keep silent, “wouldn’t it be too soon for you to…feel it? Since I am not even showing.”

                “No,” Yrene smiles. “Even if you had conceived yesterday, Elide, I would be able to tell.”

                “How?”

                “Well – even your blood feels different,” Yrene explains. “Even your heartbeat.”

                “You can feel all those things?” Elide murmurs, unable to hide her fascination. “Blood, heartbeats…?”

                “Yes.”

                Elide watches as the healer closes her eyes. In that instant, Elide feels her skin pricking all over – her arms, her neck, her legs – as she senses Yrene’s calming powers wash over her. She is all too afraid to close her eyes, so she keeps them firmly planted on the healer’s face, hoping for an answer.

                It is then that Yrene’s face steadies, her eyebrows unfurrow, and a muscle ticks on her cheek, as if she is holding back a smile. Yrene doesn’t even have to open her eyes and say anything, because Elide has her answer.

                She always has.

                Yrene pulls away gently, letting Elide’s dress fall back. The healer’s face is glowing with her powers, her eyes shining with emotion.

                “Congratulations, Elide,” she says.

                Elide expected to feel a storm raining down on her head.

                She expected those words to feel like a punch in the gut. To be a destruction.

                But all she feels is peace.

                Relief.

                Elide realizes then that she has been hoping for that same answer all along. Even if fear and nervousness and the anxiety of not knowing has clouded her mind and judgement.

                “Are you alright?” Yrene asks, tone gentle, taking Elide’s hand.

                “Yes,” Elide murmurs. “It is as if I already knew.”

                “Mothers always do.”

                Mother.

                A baby. I have a baby growing in me.

                “You’re in a bit of a shock right now,” Yrene says, and when she sits up, Elide feels a cup of tea being placed in her hands.

                “How long?” Elide says. “Do you know how long?”

                Yrene smiles. “Well, given your symptoms, and the size – I would say you are two weeks or two weeks and a half along.”

                Oh. Oh.

                She knows exactly when-

                “Wait – size?” Elide blinks, putting down her cold tea and turning her eyes to Yrene. “You…you saw him?”

                “Well,” Yrene chuckles. “See is a bit of a stretch. I get…an image.”

                Elide’s heart gives a jolt. “How big?” She murmurs.

                Yrene shows her, pinching her two fingers together, and opening them – just slightly.

                Tiny. So tiny.

                Elide swallows down a sob, and finds herself smiling – smiling as bright as the skies above her. Flowers are blooming in her heart.

                She has never expected…

                She has never known such fear. And yet, the thought of holding her child, her child with her mate-

                “Are you happy?” Yrene asks, squeezing Elide’s hand.

                “I…yes,” Elide says. “I believe I am.”

                Yrene gives Elide a second, and then the healer gently says, “It is your choice, you know. If you do not feel ready, or for any other reason you may consider enough, you can rethink this.”

                Elide raises her eyes to the healer. “I once had a girl come to me,” Yrene says, her eyes far away, the light in her eyes dimming slightly. “Back in Antica, when I was still studying in Torre Cesme. She had come to ask me specifically for help. She was more or less in her first weeks, as well.”

                “What happened?” Elide whispers.

                “She was young, Elide. Too young to support herself and a child. And with a war looming over our heads, she did not want to bring a child into a world as the one we had before. So, she asked, begged me, to end it.” Yrene pauses, eyes fixed on her cold tea. “I also knew that if I had said no, if I had denied that girl what she was asking for, she would only find another way to do it herself, endangering her own life in the process. So I examined her. Afterwards, I realized that, even if she had decided to keep the child, there was a high chance that she would not survive the birth. I gave her a concoction. She accepted. It was a simple procedure, and the mother did not come to any harm.”       

                Silence settles over Elide as she takes in the words.

                “I am not telling you this story to frighten you,” Yrene says. “I am telling you that you have a choice, Elide. Whatever path you may choose, know that I am here – and so is Lorcan. So is everybody else.”

                Elide finds herself wordless, nodding, squeezing Yrene’s hand.

                “Could you do it?” Elide asks after a while.

                It takes a few moments for Yrene to respond. “I don’t believe so. But I understand any woman who would.”

                Elide nods in agreement, leaning against her friend’s shoulder. “Yrene – I think I am floating with happiness.”

                Yrene wraps an arm around her. “I’m happy for you – and for Lorcan.”

                Lorcan.

                Elide pulls back, blinking. “He will know as soon as he sees me, won’t he?”

                “For fae – it is much easier to detect. And for mates…well, he’ll know even before he gets close to you, I believe.”

                For Lorcan could not have known the morning he left for Orynth, if only the night before-

                But he will know as soon as he gets here.

                Elide’s stomach bubbles with something other than nervousness. It takes her a while to realize that it’s excitement.

                A knock on the parlour’s door shakes Elide awake, and when she sees Mrs. Orland’s red face peeking through the door, she is pulled right back to reality.

                “Oh, my Lady, my apologies, but a messenger came just a few minutes ago.”

                The governess comes in, carrying a sealed envelope with Aelin’s insignia. “The boy, the messenger, my Lady, says he brings good news,” she smiles wide, breathlessly. “Almost did kill myself, I tell you, running down here-“

                “Mrs. Orland, you ought to be careful,” Elide says. “Those stairs-”

                “And your back, Mrs. Orland,” Yrene advices. “You must take care.”

                “Yes, but my dear Lady Yrene, Lady Elide,” the governess looks beyond happy, “I believe our Lord Lorcan and our Prince Rowan have at last caught the stinking rebels.”

                Elide blinks.

                Lorcan’s last letter could not have been two or three days old at most – could he and Rowan have truly ended the terrible doings of the rebels in such a short time?

                “We shall find out what my husband says,” Elide says, accepting the note Mrs. Orland gives her.

                Elide’s hand is still trembling as she opens the letter, and she notices the brief, yet worried glance Mrs. Orland throws her way. A caretaker, her governess. And has been a dear these last few weeks when Elide has not been feeling the best. When she hears what Elide has discovered today…well, she will need to be very careful delivering such news, in fear of giving Mrs. Orland a heart attack.

                The three women read the letter at the same time.

My dear Elide,

                I have good news at last. The leader of the rebels has handed himself in this evening-

                “Handed himself in?” Elide interjects. “Not much of a leader of a rebel group-”

                “But Lorcan says something else below,” Yrene says.

                -He approached the Guard at the gates of Orynth, and declared himself to be the leader of the group that terrorized that village. Rowan and I had been on the outskirts of town, asking around for any suspicious men lurking in the taverns or shops. We came back as soon as we heard.

                His story checks out. The two rebels we’d caught days before admitted they were being led by that man. Upon interrogation, the man who called himself the leader claims that he never intended to kill anyone, and decided to turn himself in because his men were serving a sentence that was only meant for him. A murderer with honour for his comrades. Smell the irony? A lucky bastard, too – for if Rowan had not held the queen back, I am positive that Aelin would have dismembered him on the spot. Powers or no powers.

                The rebels are Aelin’s to punish now. I believe they will not be seeing the sunlight for a long, long time.

                I will see you in a day’s time, Elide. I will only rest when I touch your face and see that you are alright.

                I love you,

                Lorcan.

Elide folds the letter in her hands.

Could it be? Could they really have gotten lucky with everything solving itself? But-

“I will only rest when I touch your face and see that you are alright.” Lorcan wrote.

                Does he know, somehow? Has he sensed anything through the bond?

                It’s too late to notify him now, Elide thinks. A letter will not reach him in time.

                Elide stifles a smile.

                Her Lord Husband will surely have the shock of his life when he returns home.

***

 

                Mrs. Orland is no longer surprised to witness the Lord of Perranth strolling through the gardens with his Lady Wife in his arms, as if he’s carrying his bride out of a chapel.

                The older woman hides a smile behind her hand as she watches from the back entrance the couple laughing at each other, trading kisses as they do, like young people in love.

                Even the gardener smiles to himself as the Lady and Lord of Perranth pass by, seemingly to have not a care in the world. They have been apart for almost three weeks, and now they only have eyes for each other.

                They love him – the people working at the manor. They love him like they love her. They warmed up to the male who worked day and night, night and day, to rebuild their home, their town. The male that put hours and hours of effort to make sure each house was safe and comfortable, for each family. The male who had proved to be kind, kind enough to match his wife. The male who had proved to be worthy of having Perranth as his home, and Elide as his partner.

                Mrs. Orland included, has much admiration for the Lord of Perranth. And Lady Elide knows that Mrs. Orland is not one to muck about and pretend – as an old friend of Marion’s, and for the love that she had for Lady Elide, Mrs. Orland would simply not accept anyone else for her dear girl. Anyone else but Lorcan.

                The couple stumbles through the main entrance, chuckling as they go, and Mrs. Orland dares a soft laugh, turning her head to the lovely gardens and the green, lush forests that lay beyond, marvelling at the peace and happiness that this new world brought about.

***

 

                He arrives in the afternoon.

                Elide watches her husband hand off his horse, his hair tied at the back, his face revealing a slight stubble and urgent eyes.

                And then he looks at her.

                Across the gardens, she takes in his appearance – the cream shirt hanging loose, the dark trousers and riding boots. He’s alright.

                He’s safe.

                Unharmed.

                A breath of relief leaves her lips, followed by a soft, happy sound that is close to a laugh, but leaning more towards a sob, as Lorcan runs to her.

                He takes her into his arms seconds later, faster than she can predict, and he laughs, and she laughs, and they’re laughing, at last, together. Head against his chest, she breathes in his scent, like rain and earth, and at last she is calm. Her mate is in her arms, and-

                Lorcan pulls back.

                He looks her over, arms never leaving her, never unwrapping from around her, and blinks. Elide pauses, eyes searching his, looking for what he’s found.

                And a thought crosses her mind: he knows.

                Instantly, he knows.

                However, Lorcan frowns, and says, “Elide, have you not been eating?”

                It’s Elide’s turn to blink at him. “I…what?”

                Lorcan gently touches her chin, her cheek, thumb caressing her skin. His touch-

                Elide immediately leans into it, eyes falling shut on their own accord, at the gentleness, at the warmth of him.

                Elide opens her eyes, staring at her mate, and whispers, before he can ask anything else: “Is that the only thing you noticed?”

                There is enough suggestion in her tone to make him stop and stare. Not wishing to wait any moment longer for him to understand, Elide takes his hand, and leads it to the bottom of her belly.

                “Tell me what else you feel,” she murmurs to him, arms wrapping around his neck. “What else you see.”

                Lorcan is very still.

                His eyes lower to where his hand is placed.

                Elide reads his face, and sees everything written in the emotion of his eyes, as he blinks.

                “You do not mean…?”

                Elide smiles at him, at the way his face is immediately brightening, softening. At the way Lorcan looks at her – his own smile gleaming, wide.

                “Elide-”

                “Yes,” she tells him, nodding. “Yes.”

                “You are…we…” he is without words, and Elide finds it absolutely delightful. She has been known for taking Lorcan’s words out of his mouth every now and then, but she cherishes this moment more than any other. “A child,” he marvels.      

                “Yes,” Elide says, hands drifting down to his chest. “Yours and mine.”

                “I sensed something was not quite right,” Lorcan whispers, touching his forehead to hers, pulling her close. “Dear Hellas, if I only had stopped for a second- It’s so clear.”

                Elide chuckles, pulling him closer still. “You’re having a better reaction than I did.”

                “How long have you known?” he asks, touching her cheeks.

                “I just found out yesterday,” Elide says. “I sent for Yrene. I did not think it would be right to worry you if it were not true, but…it is. It is true. Yrene herself confirmed it. And then you were already coming home and-“

                Lorcan kisses her mid-sentence.

                He kisses her, so, so gently. And with so much love that Elide is momentarily stunned, then a second later she is melting against him, cheeks burning.

                She giggles under her breath, dazed, as he breaks the kiss.

                “You,” he says, against her lips, his hand on her chin, “could not,” a kiss on the corner of her mouth, “have made me,” a kiss on the tip of her nose, “happier.”

                Elide smiles up at her mate, leaving a gentle peck on his chin. “Oh?”

                “Are you?”

                “Am I what?”

                Lorcan pulls back to stare into her eyes, to see what truth lies there. “Are you, happy, love?”

                Elide sees it then – what Yrene had said yesterday. That beyond that world-changing joy in Lorcan’s eyes, there was also a gentle worry brewing in there. An understanding. He would make sure that she was happy, first and foremost. And he would stand by her whatever path she decided to take. This is Lorcan taking a step back, giving her the choice.

                And Elide knows, right then and there, that her child has been a gift – but her husband, her mate, has been one, too.

                She leans on her tiptoes, takes his face in her hands, thumbs feeling the rough stubble there, and kisses him. Her heartbeat is a call for him, wild and unbound, and his kiss is his answer. Lorcan wraps his arms around her waist once more, pulling his wife impossibly close. Gods, gods. She missed him. She missed him so much.

                Lorcan’s eyes are still closed when she pulls back, breathing her in. She whispers to him, “I am overjoyed.”

                And Lorcan takes her into his arms, lifting her off the ground.

                Elide laughs herself hoarse as he carries her through the gardens, kissing her as he does, every touch on her sides playful, teasing, and Elide can feel every pair of eyes on them, but her bubbling happiness does not allow her to think of anything else past Lorcan’s own laugh, his smile, the gleam in his eyes as he carries over the threshold of their home and up the stairs to the first floor.

                “I left my cane downstairs,” she says, looking over his shoulder.

                “I’m home now,” he says, and Elide feels that soothing darkness once more, wrapping around her injury, like a phantom kiss being placed over her skin. “You can leave that for a little while. Rest.”

                Lorcan carries her to their room, and insists in doing so, despite Elide’s protests, of her telling him that with the relief of his powers, she can walk fine. But even then, she is all too happy to be in her mate’s arms once more, and doesn’t push him when he walks her to their bed, settling her down gently.

                Sitting there, Elide wraps her clever fingers around the loops of his trousers, bringing him close when Lorcan begins to pull away.

                "Where is my Lord Husband going?” She asks, and her low voice is enough to catch Lorcan’s undivided attention.

                “I was going to take a bath,” Lorcan says. “I did spend half a day on horseback, after all, wife.”

                “Bath later,” she says, falling back into the bed and taking her husband with her.

                Lorcan’s rough laugh is swallowed by her kiss, and Elide smiles with dark satisfaction the moment she feels him giving in to her, as he always does.

                “Your husband smells like a horse,” he says, as if there is no other way to put it. “And all you think about is ridding him off his clothes?”

                “Are you complaining?”

                “Not at all,” he murmurs, kissing the line of her jaw. “Even if it is the afternoon, and most of this household will surely know-“

                He’s provoking her, and it isn’t working – for Elide smiles wider, kissing the words out of his mouth, pulling him closer with her thighs, inch by inch, pressing him against her. “I have no worries about that. And no intention of leaving this room.”

                At her confession, Lorcan’s dark brows raise slightly, his lips turning upward into a semblance of a smirk. She watches him watching her, his eyes tracing the lines of her face, and hers tracing the fullness of his lips, the handsome ruggedness of his face.

                “Let me get clean,” he says, “and then we will play.”

                The words send a shiver down her spine, and despite her forwardness, Elide still manages to show him tinted cheeks and a sheepish smile when he speaks against her ear.

                Even though she knows he is only doing this to provoke her, Elide watches him move off her, every inch of him tense and begging to rid her of her own clothes. 

                Elide follows him into the bathroom, leaning against the door frame as he undresses. “So,” she says. “Is it really over?”

                “Apparently so,” Lorcan says, and his shirt comes off first. Elide is not shy about letting her eyes wonder over each and every ridge, and scar, and the imperfect perfection of him. Of course he knows, and of course Lorcan is planning to take full advantage of it.

                But then again – so is she.

                With slow fingers, Elide begins unbuttoning her own bodice, moving down to unlace the strings, as Lorcan watches with a careful, predatory gaze.

                “Don’t you think it’s strange that the supposed leader handed himself in?” Elide asks, letting her clothes fall to the floor.

                Lorcan was good at his own game – charming her, wooing her. But Elide had learned all too well, and she’d mastered his sport. The bulging evidence was right in front of her.

                Lorcan clears his throat as he unbuttons his trousers. “He seemed believable enough.”

                His boots come off, and so does her bodice. She begins untying her shoes. “It seems awfully convenient that-”

                “I don’t want to talk about the rebels,” Lorcan says, tone low but gentle, yet rough and wanting, all at the same time, as he approaches her.

                Elide’s breath is stolen from her lungs when he kneels, and with delicate hands begins removing her shoes. Elide leans her hands on his shoulders to stable herself. Even like this, with such tender gestures, she feels her entire body trembling with need, answering to his. She grows hot, cheeks burning, fingers twitching, as he works on removing her socks, seeming all too happy to be defeated in his own game.

                Elide stays still as he stands, reaching behind her and pulling the zip of her dress down. He falls from her shoulders, and one gentle tug has the fabric sliding down her body, and onto the floor.

                Lorcan takes a breath.

                Elide takes two, for good measure.

                She feels slightly faint.

                Slowly, she drags her hands down his chest, soft and tough skin meeting her palms, the tips of her fingers pausing over the waistline of his trousers. With one look at him, she tugs them down, and off they come.

                He’s gloriously bare.

                Elide’s heart thuds in her chest.

                “How long?” He asks her in a murmur, letting his fingers weave through her unbound hair.

                And, without asking, Elide knows what he’s reffering to.         

                “Two weeks, and a few days.”

                “So…” Lorcan counts the days. “The night before I left-“

                She nods, “Yes.”

                He smiles, and such love is shown in that smile, in those dark eyes of his, that Elide’s heart feels as if it’s melting and crunching and being ultimately smashed in her chest.

                Neither of them has planned this, and yet-

                It feels right, so right, for both of them.

                The tub is filled to the brim, and Lorcan lifts Elide in his arms, her chest pressed against his, heart to heart, as he leaves a soft kiss on her lips, before taking them both in.

                Elide touches his cheeks, her legs around his waist, leaving slow, little kisses everywhere she can reach. Lorcan has his eyes closed, letting her pour her kisses down on him, fingers idly stroking circles on her back.

                “I missed you,” she murmurs.

                “I missed you, my love,” he says, touching his lips to her face, brushing away a bit of soap on her cheeks. “I missed you.”

                Elide brushes out his hair with her fingers as he kisses her lips. It’s blissful paradise.

                “We have to start thinking of names,” she laughs softly against his lips, pulling back just an inch to look at him. “And choose a room. Decorate it. There is still so much to do.”

                “We will do it,” Lorcan says, pulling her wet hair off her cheeks. “Together. And as for names…ah, we have time, Elide. We’ll come up with something for him soon enough.”

                Elide’s lips tug at the corners. “Him?”

                Lorcan pauses, and gives her a little shrug. “I have an inkling.”

                “You don’t say,” Elide breathes a laugh, a funny look on her face.

                “What?”

                She returns his shrug. “I also have an inkling that it’s a boy.” A pause. “It could be either at this point. We could only know for sure when we meet him. Or her.”

                Lorcan smiles up at her. “I’m terrified.”

                “So am I,” she admits, touching her forehead to his, closing her eyes, and letting out a soft breath. “I think we are supposed to. We will learn as we go.”

                Lorcan pulls her closer, leaving a kiss on her shoulder, as the silence envelops them.

                And then Elide moves her hips.

                His self-control is shattered.

                She knows it, too – he can sense it in the way that she parts her lips, as she takes that little breath he always hears before she decides what she wants to do. Every movement is purposeful.

                “Elide,” he breathes, but she touches his chin, and catches his lips with hers in a seeing, dizzying kiss.

                Lorcan has half a mind to get them out of the tub and into a bed, but Elide has other plans; her hand reaches down, grasping him under the water, and slowly, so slowly, she strokes him.

                Lorcan’s head falls on her shoulder. A groan escapes his lips, his hips shifting with her movements. To make matters worse, Elide’s lips are doing wonderful, terrible things to his neck, her free hand tugging gently at the hair at the back of his neck. He can barely breathe.

                And Elide is all too impatient.

                He is rock hard in her hand, his pants and soft groans clouding her mind. Elide now knows which movements drive him over the edge; what kisses make him beg for more, and the kind of touches that will make him say her name.

                She does all of them.

                Lorcan touches her chin and leads her lips to his. And then Elide shifts her hips once more, and feels him at her entrance. When they finally connect, it is like taking a breath after being underwater for weeks.

                He eases her down, breaking the kiss to look up at her. Elide has her bottom lip between her teeth, her brows scrunched together in blissful pleasure. For one long moment, when Elide takes the full length of him, they stare at each other, noses touching, Elide’s trembling hands on his cheeks.

                “I love you,” is the only thing she manages to say, as her hips begin rocking back and forth slowly, as if her body is acting on its own accord. “I love you.”

                Lorcan whispers the same sweet nothings into her ear, hands sliding down, down the sides of her body, feeling every curve and every scar against his fingertips. Her thighs begin to burn at the pressure of moving so slow, yet his hands are there to soothe the pain, gentle as he guides her, yet demanding as he presses his fingers into her skin.

                A gasp leaves her lips as his hips move in time with hers, perfectly in sync, and a blinding light covers her eyes. It is suddenly too much to bear – her mate in her arms, the need to have him now, and harder, and faster, the slow breathing touching her ear and the low groans that eventually turn into soft growls against the skin of her shoulder.

                Elide squeezes her thighs together, saying his name under her breath as Lorcan plunges himself deeper. And it’s all so slow, so agonizingly slow, that Elide finds herself moving on her own, pulling back slightly from him, giving him a view of her breasts as she places her hands on his knees.

                Lorcan’s lips taste the small hurt of one breast, and Elide inclines her head back, eyes closed against the overwhelming feeling. She’s moaning his name, hips shifting and losing their rhythm, her lungs struggling for air as she climbs higher and higher-

                She slams into that sweet release as Lorcan’s teeth graze the top of her breast, a trembling breath leaving her lips. Lorcan has one hand on the small of her back, pulling her closer.

                “Lorcan,” she whispers against his lips, voice slightly shaky, as Lorcan’s own thrusts get clumsier.

                She kisses him, long and deep, taking his lip between her teeth. “Let me see you,” she says, dragging her thumbs across his cheeks, urging him to open his eyes. “Let me see you.”

                Lorcan’s eyes meet her own, so full of love, and need, gentle and desperate. She kisses him again, and again, letting her hips roll against his, meeting his thrusts, coaxing another moan out of his pretty mouth.

                Lorcan crashes and burns, hands holding on for dear life, clinging to her waist, and Elide watches it all on his face – the furrow of his dark brows, the muscles of his jaws tightening as he spills himself inside her, hips stopping short, tense, before relaxing.               

                Elide smiles softly, touching her lips to his forehead, allowing him to slowly come down, and back to her. Slowly, he does.                             

                Lorcan looks up, and it is his turn to pester her face with kisses, some short, some long, some sweet, some playful. In each and every single one is a confession; and a promise of forever remaining in her arms.

                They rinse and dry themselves off, while the sun prepares to disappear.

                Elide helps Lorcan dry off his hair with a towel, all the while leaning over his shoulder and smacking occasional kisses on his cheeks. Her husband, in return, pinches her sides, making her jump, and all that can be heard from across the hall is endless laughter.

                Not for long.

                For when his mate crosses the bedroom with only a towel around her waist, Lorcan pauses, watching her, as he places a shirt over his head. And before Elide can turn, Lorcan is behind her, his lips at her neck.

                “Will my Lord Husband allow his wife to dress herself?” She pokes at his cheek. “I am still capable of such a thing, you know?”

                “I’m not finished with you.”

                Elide raises her brow, and begins to ask when Lorcan is literally tossing her over his shoulder.         

                “Lorcan,” she smacks his clothed ass. “Put your pregnant wife down.”

                He obeys – but does not place her on the floor.

                On the bed.

                Elide laughs as he slowly peels her towel away, making a show of it. “You are terrible,” she says. “What are you doing? Let me get dressed-!”

                He clicks his tongue, pushing Elide back down, earning himself another chuckle from her. “It has been two whole weeks, my love.”

                Elide’s laughter fades quickly enough as she understands where this is going.

                The words leave her mouth the moment Lorcan’s hands wrap around her knees, and she is gently pushed toward him, exposed and vulnerable to his eyes.

                And Lorcan does look, eyes trailing over her delicate neck, the curve of her shoulders, and the roundness of her breasts. Her waist and hips follow, which he accompanies with his hands, marvelling at the soft skin.

                “No matter how many times I love you,” he says, “I always crave more.”

                He parts her legs.

                “Lorcan…” she says, only a breath.

                He lifts a leg and one, two, three kisses are placed, following the path on the inside of her thighs, and back up towards the bone of her hip. He relishes the slow breath she lets out, her eyes intent on each and every kiss he leaves on her skin.

                “Do you want me to taste you?” He asks – a soft question muttered against her skin.

                Elide is silent, transfixed, heart hammering on her breast, while Lorcan breathes in the scent of her skin just below her belly button, now so different, and yet all the same. He kisses her stomach, up, and down, slow kisses leaving her wrecked.

                “If you want me to carry on, my love,” his voice reverberates against her. “I want an answer.”

                He tugs at her legs, and she is pressed closer to him.

                “Yes,” she breathes, watching him.

                It does no matter how many times Elide sees Lorcan between her legs. The sight of it makes her want to unravel on its own, and now – even minutes after a release – she is already desperate for his mouth on her.

                Lorcan cuts right to the chase, and places a sweet, lingering kiss on her swollen bud, making her hips jolt slightly, rising off the mattress.

                “So sensitive,” he smiles.

                Elide almost tells him to fuck off, but her mind is erased of any thought that is not his tongue making slow, teasing circles on her clit. Elide is fisting the sheets, breathing hard, silently begging for him to do something, anything, to put out the fire he started. She wants, needs, some kind of fast relief – but it seems that Lorcan refuses to give her that. Instead he licks at her entrance, all the way up, and back down again, making her see the brightest, most dizzy of stars.

                “Please, please, please,” she murmurs, body squirming and trashing as Lorcan keeps his pace moderately slow, tongue flicking in, out, in, out. And around.

                “Lorcan,” she groans the moment his lips stop their ministrations and instead turn to give their full attention to her thighs.

                “Yes, my wife?”

                Her legs fall limp, her eyes close in both exhaustion and desperation. “I am begging you.”

                “For what?”

                Oh, how he loves to see the fire in those eyes of hers. The cunning frustration in them as she lifts herself on her elbows and gives him a look that would terrorize the most powerful male in the world.

                “Don’t toy with me.”    

                “Then tell me what you want.”

                “You know what I want,” she says, letting her head rest into the mattress. “Lorcan. Please.”

                “Do you want my mouth on you?” he says, and takes her hand, kissing the centre of her palm.

                “Yes,” she sighs, closing her eyes.

                “Do you want to come?” he asks her, a kiss placed on her centre as he looks up at her. “Do you want me to make you come?”

                “Yes,” she breathes. “Yes, yes.”

                Lorcan lets out a dark laugh, and Elide sigh of relief turns into a strangled moan as his tongue works on her, parting her lips and taking everything. His fingers dig into the back of her thighs as Elide throws her head back and parts her mouth in a silent cry.

                She unravels with whimper and his name following, her hand holding on to his shoulder of support as Lorcan finishes her off.

                Elide’s eyes remain closed when he pulls away at last, for she can barely move. She can hardly breathe.

                Lorcan laughs softly, leaning over her as Elide turns to her side, body limp and thrumming. “Is that what you wanted, Elide?”

                She mumbles a soft, “I hate you”, under her breath, before her body begins to settle down, and her mind drifts off.

                Lorcan smiles down at his wife, kissing the crown of her head. “Sleep, now.” He murmurs.

                Before he can pull away, Elide is wrapping a hand around his wrist. “Don’t go.”

                She is almost instantly asleep, exhaustion of the last few days finally catching up to her, but Lorcan lays down anyway, opening his arms, and letting his mate nuzzle into him. The covers are pulled under them both. Lorcan watches her with quite wonder and unending happiness. In the remains of her smile, the Lord of Perranth finds his forever, and intends to keep her in his arms, for as long as he is allowed to.

***

                Elide recounts one of the best days of her life as being one of the first days of winter.

                It is dark but calm, the snow still too weak to truly settle, and the storms still weeks away. It had been a long, winding summer, filled with challenges, tears and laughter. But as Elide looks down at the smiling boy in her arms, she realizes that there is not a single bone in her body wishing to change anything. Anything at all.

                Her baby boy is only days old, and the pains in her body are still a proof of a healthy, uncomplicated birth. The thin, black hair sits atop a chubby-cheeked face that is as dark as his father’s, soft as an early summer breeze. She has only known him for a short period of time, but the amount of love in her heart for this little one can’t even fit in this whole world, for it goes beyond that.

                “Ferran,” she murmurs to him, swearing his mouth tugs upwards as he hears her. “My beautiful joy.”

                She gently sways him, humming to herself. She hears people down below, familiar voices and cheery laughter, and Elide finds a large smile on her own face. “You are meeting your family today. They are…well, you will see for yourself. But you will love them, as they will love you. As I do.”

                Lorcan knocks gently, and Elide turns to face her husband as he steps inside the nursery they had built together, months prior to Ferran’s arrival. Lorcan’s step is almost a bounce as he touches his lips to his wife’s forehead.

                “How’s my warrior?”

                “Drunk on milk,” Elide breathes a laugh. “And very happy right now. Let us see if it lasts.”

                “With that crazy bunch looking down at him? Doubt it.”

                With another laugh and a shake of her head, Elide gently places the baby in Lorcan’s awaiting arms. Lorcan rocks him back and forth, kissing his son’s hand, smiling down at him, as the little one smiles up at him.

                “I swear he is smiling,” Lorcan breathes.           

                “I know!” Elide says. “I was noticing that too-“

                The door bursts open, and in comes Aelin in all her mighty glory, declaring, “I wish to see my nephew.”

                And it is in his might glory, that Lorcan replies, “He is most definitely not your nephew.”

                “Oh, hush,” Aelin swats a hand, and Elide smiles at an amused looking Rowan behind her.

                “Ferran,” Aelin sings softly, staring down at the little one as Lorcan, certainly containing the roll of his eyes, turns to the queen.

                “Elide,” Rowan smiles widely, “congratulations. And you, brother.”

                Lorcan nods at the prince once, emotion shining in his eyes, which Lorcan quickly blinks away as Aelin makes a move for the baby.

                “Careful,” Lorcan says, “have you even held a baby before?”

                “How dare you,” Aelin fumes. “Babies love me, for your information.”

                Elide gives her husband an equally amused glance. “Lorcan’s been…a little overprotective.”

                “I wouldn’t call it overprotective,” Lorcan interjects, back straightening defensively.

                “My love, you scared the living daylights out of poor Mrs. Orland just yesterday when she held the baby,” Elide says, then turns her face to both Aelin and Rowan. “He would not tear his eyes away. It was honestly the creepiest thing I have ever witnessed.”

                “Go on, you big brute, give him to me,” Aelin takes the baby into her eyes, and Lorcan goes positively green. “He loves his aunt already. Look – he’s smiling at me. Rowan, look!”

                And then, all of a sudden, everybody goes very still.

                Because one moment Aelin is smiling, delighted.

                The next she is crying.

                Sobbing.

                “Aelin?” Both Elide and Rowan say at the same time, as Elide gently picks up Ferran from the queen’s arms.

                “He’s so beautiful,” Aelin sobs, letting Rowan pull her into his arms. “And so tiny. He takes after you, Elide, of course. Thank the heavens.”

                Lorcan narrows his eyes.

                Elide smiles gently, “It is an emotional day.”

                “Yes, indeed,” Aelin smiles. “He’s…going to be so loved.”

                Rowan and Elide exchange a glance and, for one second, she is sure the Prince lets something slip in his gaze. She has an inkling of what it might be, but-         

                Elide smiles to herself, and keeps silent.

                All in due time.

                Mrs. Orland is the next one barging into the nursery, bringing with her a smile so delighted it brightens up the room. “My Lady, My Lord, Your Majesty and Your Highness-”

                “Mrs. Orland, did you run here again?” Lorcan says. “The stairs-”

                Elide shakes her head hopelessly at her governess. “Never listens.”

                “The carriages are here,” Mrs. Orland declares And then, with a slight wavering to her tone: “And…wyverns.”

                Elide and Aelin exchange a glance as the queen wipes her tears. “Do you think the witch has already ripped Dorian’s head off?”

                “Aelin, please,” Elide chuckles, and smiles wider and little Ferran nuzzles into her. “They have only just gotten married – leave them be.”

                Aelin smirks. “Let us see how long that lasts.”

                They make their way downstairs, Elide letting Lorcan carry the baby as she’s still limping slightly.

                The first person to push her into a death-gripping hug is Lysandra herself, who looks absolutely mesmerizing in her green gown. Aedion, in matching colours follows suit, rumbling about how lucky it was that little Ferran had seemed to take after his mother, instead of his father.

                Chaol and Yrene, with their own little one walking hand in hand with his mother, look as happy as everyone else, congratulating both Lorcan and Elide on the new bundle of joy. Ferran, all the while, is looking around with wide, curious eyes, being passed from person to person, cooed and smiled at, leaving everybody falling head over heels with him.

                “Nesryn and Sartaq’s congratulatory letter,” Aelin says, giving Elide a pretty bound-up note, with the Emperor and Empress’s insignia attached. “From her last letter, I believe Nesryn is joining us for the Spring Ball.”

                Elide hopes so – she misses Nesryn terribly.

                Last to show is Manon, her own crown of stars glinting on top of her head. She looks down at the little one in Elide’s arms and, with a smile and a knowing glance to Elide, she murmurs, “Congratulations, witchling.”

                Elide feels too inclined to cry from all that joy, so she takes a moment to gather her emotions, and then says, “So, can we expect any little ones from you, soon?”

                Manon makes a face, the most human gesture she’s ever seen the witch Queen make. “Absolutely not.”

                Dorian strides in after her, looking up at the queen with the world’s admiration in his eyes. “We never like to say never.”

                Manon looks positively horrified. “No.”

                Dorian gives Elide a wink, full of love and light and happiness. “That’s what she said when I asked her to marry me. And that’s my ring on her finger now.”

                Elide smiles at both of them, even if Manon swats away Dorian’s hands wrapping around her waist.

                She turns, finds her husband smiling down at her and at their new love. She watches him lift the little one in his arms, cuddling him closer, greedy for his son’s attention.

                For a few moments, Elide loses herself.

                She gets lost in the sea of smiling faces, her friends – now her family. She watches every single face, and begins to believe that miracles are real. Manon and Dorian whispering to themselves, and a secret smile on Manon’s face as she gazes at the prince; Lysandra and Aedion, gushing over to Lorcan about Ferran; Chaol, standing as his wife’s magic envelops him, taking his own son in his arms; and then Aelin, and Rowan, laughing to themselves as Fenrys brings the queen a drink.

                “Don’t be silly, Fenrys,” Aelin smiles. “Pregnant women cannot drink.”

                Everything goes still and silent.

                Dorian lets his cup slip out of his hand, and Manon catches it before it hits the floor, eyes yellow eyes never leaving Aelin’s.

                “WHAT?!” Lysandra screams, charging at Aelin.

                “No fucking way,” Aedion is saying, looking around. “Did you know this? Elide, did you know this?”

                In return, Fenrys is still holding the glass, as if he did not comprehend a word.

                “I’m sorry,” Aelin looks up at Rowan, smiling with her teeth. “I could not help myself.”

                Rowan sighs, but there’s a smile as large as the world on his face. “We were supposed to surprise you,” he says to them all. And then, disappointed, to himself: “I made everyone nice cards.”

                An endless row of congratulations sounds around them, and Elide herself cannot keep the grin out of her lips as she hugs Aelin to her, as she murmurs her congratulations and best wishes. Another baby for them to love and care for. Another member of their family on the way.

                This, Elide thinks, as she watches her family celebrate – this is happiness. This is what they had survived for. This is the world they fought so hard for. A better world – for all of them.

                And for all the miracles in the world…

                Elide cannot imagine that this one belongs to her. To them all.

***

                At the end of the afternoon, Yrene Towers pulls Elide aside.

                “I need a word with you,” is Yrene’s only explanation.

                Yrene herself delivered Ferran, and was there the whole day to help Elide. And as such, the first thing that comes to Elide’s tired brain is that Yrene has bad news concerning her child. Why else would they be having this conversation apart from everybody else?

                “Oh,” Yrene quickly adds, at seeing the worry in Elide’s face. “No, no. Everything is fine with little Ferran.”

                “Yrene,” Elide places a hand at her heart. “Good Gods.”

                “I’m sorry,” Yrene says. “But I have been trying to find an opportunity to tell you something – about yourself.”

                “About me?” Elide says.

                Yrene takes a breath, and begins: “Nine months ago, when you asked me to examine you for a child, I noticed that your blood had changed.”

                “My blood had changed,” Elide repeats dumbly.

                Yrene nods. “It’s a difficult thing to explain. But each species has their own type of blood. A human’s is not like a shifter’s, for example. Shifters are long-lived, like fae, like witches.”

                “Are you saying I have witch blood?” Elide asks. “But we’ve discussed it-”

                “Yes,” Yrene patiently says. “But that day, Elide, when I was examining you, it was not only your witch blood that I sensed.”

                Elide is dead silent.

                “Fae blood,” Yrene says. “Or, better yet, an outward source of fae magic. Strong, and ancient. None of the compounds of fae blood is in your system, but your own blood, witch and human, seems to be electrified with a characteristic of fae blood. As if…wrapped around its magic.”

                “I don’t understand,” Elide murmurs. 

                “I have read books about this, but they were simply mere superstition,” Yrene explains. “Humans and fae have been mating for centuries. Some fae bind themselves to their chosen partner, so they can live the same duration of life. Fae’s blood is stronger than human’s blood; their magic is always dominant.”

                “Yes,” Elide says, nodding. “Lorcan and I did the same at our wedding, but…”

                Yrene pauses, and then says, “I think it had the opposite effect of what you’re referring to, Elide. Nine months ago, I believed the fae magic in your blood was caused by your child, since he is, by nature, faerie. But nine months later, your child has been born, and your blood is still thrumming with it.”

                Elide widens her eyes as it slowly begins to dawn upon her, what Yrene is saying. “What are you saying?”

                “You did not bind Lorcan’s life to yours, Elide. You bound your life to his,” Yrene says. “It has made you immortal.”

Chapter Text

Aelin never defeats the monsters.

            In her worst moments, the Queen of Terrasen is kneeling in a pool of blood that is not entirely her own, kicking and screaming at the voice haunting her dreams.

            It is not real, Aelin, that voice begins to whisper, its phantom claws digging into her scalp, pulling at her head, dragging down her back. It is not real.

            Rowan.

            He is not here, that honeyed voice whispers.

            Rowan. Rowan. Rowan.

            Where is your daughter, Aelin?

            Her daughter. Her daughter-

            You will never leave this place, Aelin, the voice hisses in her ear, its talons sinking into the skin of her back, leaving burning scars. You will perish, and so will everyone you love.

            In her worst moments, the Queen of Terrasen believes herself not worthy of salvation. She allows the voice to creep into her thoughts, to shatter every single dream she ever had, destroying every good memory, every good thing, and turn it into ashes – insignificant, forgotten, carried away with the wind.

            Where is your mate, Aelin?

            Rowan, she tries to call – but nobody listens. There is nobody here.

            They are not real, she tells Aelin. None of it was real.

            I survived.

            You have perished, Maeve says. You perished with the rest of them.

            In her worst moments, the Queen of Terrasen plays a game.

            She tells herself, My name is Aelin Ashryver Galathynius.

            I am a wife, and I am a mother.

            I am a Queen.

            Maeve’s phantom laugh consists of two hands wrapping around her throat, choking the light out of her eyes. And still, Aelin says, I am Aelin Ashryver Galathynius, and I will not be afraid.

            You are trapped. You have never left the iron coffin, Aelin.

            You are nothing. You will never be more than nothing.

            You have perished.

            I survived. I will not be afraid.

            Your mate is dead, Maeve whispers, slow and sweet, like a child’s ballad. Your daughter is dead.

            In her worst moments, the Queen of Terrasen fights against the weight of iron shackles and the sound of a whip.

When the voice gets closer and closer to tearing her apart, one last time, she closes her eyes against that terrible nothingness, that empty, cold darkness, and she tells herself, My name is Aelin, and I will not be afraid.

            The whip sounds again.

            Cairn’s flat laugh kisses her ears.

            Maeve’s phantom hands caress her mind, bringing lies, taking dreams.

            And in those moments, the most frightening of her life, when the Queen is alone and defenceless, when she knows nothing beyond the blood in her hands and the fear in her heart, Aelin feels as if she is never going to win again.

            My name is-

            Nothing.

            I am not afraid.

            But you are. You always were. And always will be.

            A stag’s head lies in front of her, the animal’s empty, soulless eyes meeting her own. His antlers broken.

            Beneath her feet, a sea of flowers, having been once bright as flames, now lay torn and colourless.

            In those moments, Aelin believes it. She believes the voice, and she believes the monsters.

            In those moments, the Queen lays down her sword. She lets them win.

***

            “Fireheart.”

            It takes a long moment for his mate to look at him, and when she does, Aelin’s eyes are rimmed with tears.

            “Fireheart,” Rowan whispers, taking his wife into his arms.

            In the night, she had jolted awake and out of his embrace, shivering from head to toe, clutching her heart in her chest, eyes wide and startled. Rowan had felt the tremble of her lip and her teeth chattering as she’d sat up in bed. The prince had opened his eyes to see his wife sobbing quietly to herself, eyes firmly closed as if in desperation, her arms wrapped around her knees.

            “Aelin?” He’d tried.

            Instantly, as if shocked back to life by his voice, Aelin had moved out of bed with an urgency that had frightened her husband further. Rowan only had time to put on his trousers before following the queen down the hall, her breathing shallow, her heart thumbing wildly in her chest.

            Aelin had barged into their daughter’s room, and halted at the sight of their girl still in bed, still peacefully asleep, still clutching the toy dog to her chest Aelin had left with her before her goodnight kiss.

            And now, here they stand.

            Fleetfoot, always lying at the end of the girl’s bed, bolts awake, her long-lived, but still powerful body turning to the intruders in a protective manner. At seeing both Aelin and Rowan, the hound settles back down, upset to having been woken up.

            Aelin does not take her eyes away from their still sleeping daughter, relief and anguish tumbling together in those clear eyes of hers. It is as if she cannot believe there is a seven-year-old girl on that bed, safe and sound.

            “Amara,” Aelin whispers, so low, even for Rowan to properly hear. “She is alive.”

            Rowan touches her waist gently, guiding her to him. “Fireheart, what is the matter?”

            Aelin does not dare to blink once as she looks up at him, her eyes big and frightened – a dear being chased by an unseen danger. “Rowan.”

            “Yes,” he says, hands on her cheeks, voice low so as not to wake his daughter. “Yes, beautiful.”

            She touches his cheeks too, then his mouth, his jaw, his strong shoulders. Relief, so much relief in his queen’s eyes at the sight of him. Her gaze follows each one of her movements, as if in disbelief. More tears fall.

            “Aelin,” he murmurs as Aelin begins to silently sob, carefully pulling her into his arms. He understands it now. He has seen that same fear in her eyes countless times before, that same disoriented, chaotic gaze. He’s seen it. He’s seen those monsters chasing her. “Aelin,” he says. “It’s real.”

            Aelin buries her face in his chest, arms wrapping around his shoulders and fingers twisting in the white strands of his hair.

            “This is real,” he repeats next to her hear, so slow, and so softly, so his fireheart comes back to him. “Aelin, you are alright.”

            Aelin turns her face back to her daughter, cheek against her husband’s heart. “Is it true?”

            “Yes,” he says, hands resting on the small of her back. “She is real – as am I.”

            “You are not dead.”

            “No, Fireheart.”

            A tremble washes over her body. Weakly, she says, “Take me to bed.”

            The sound of that whip echoes in the back of her mind.

            She can feel the scars on her shoulders, and down the expanse of her back. She can feel them as if they were still there. She can feel the blood dripping down her legs, and feel her hands – cut and bruised – sticky with it.

            Rowan does not have to be told twice as he silently closes the door to his daughter’s room. He wipes his wife’s tears with two soft, loving thumbs. Then he picks her up in his arms, and carries her back to their room, her shivering body pulled protectively against his.

            Once in their bed, Aelin looks around the room. Her eyes adjust to the dim moonlight slipping in through the windows. The balcony – she knows that balcony. How many mornings has she spent leaning against that railing, taking in the sun, feeling the mountain’s breeze like a greeting kiss on both her cheeks, and devouring the sight of the kingsflame just because she can?

            She knows the softness of these bedsheets, their smell.

            She recognizes herself then, slowly at first, and then all at once: a mother, a wife, a queen, a friend, a sister, a leader. She knows her face is now free of scars, and knows that her back does not bear them any longer, either. She knows her hair – not matted or coated in blood or tight from the iron mask’s pull, but soft to the touch and cut to her shoulders. Rowan gave her that cut. He is always the one to cut her hair.

            Rowan.

            “Rowan.”

            “I’m here,” he says, and oh, that touch – his touch, her mate’s touch. It’s real. It’s real.

            Aelin turns her face and sees that Rowan is lying right beside her, as he always has. They join hands, and the queen takes a steadying breath. And two. And three. And she continues, counting to herself. By her thirtieth, she feels her heart begin to settle, her world slowly drifting back into place, her mind at ease.

            Rowan caresses her hair with a free hand, waiting, always waiting. Waiting until his wife comes back to him.

            Eventually, she does.

            “It happened again?” That tender voice she knows all too well, soothing her mind, catches her attention. Rough at the edges, too, and slightly hoarse from sleep.

            “She will never leave me,” Aelin whispers, raising her eyes to the white, carved ceiling. Lambs and hares run together in that expanse of stone, with no clouds hovering above them. “Will she?”

            Rowan’s face contorts – it is an echo of Aelin’s own anguish from before. “It will stop, Aelin,” he says, leading her fingers to his lips. “The nightmares will stop.”

            But they have not.

            Almost a decade later, and the monsters are still awake, hiding in the deep forest of her mind, waiting for the perfect moment to catch her off guard and sink their teeth into her throat.

            They wait, and they linger, and they kill her.

            Aelin says, “I thought it was real this time. All of it. You were gone. Our daughter was gone.”

            “No,” Rowan says. A kiss to her palm. “None of it happened.”

            “She asked me where my daughter was, Rowan,” Aelin breathes. “And I did not know. I did not even remember her face.”

            “No one is taking our daughter away from us. No one. Maeve is dead. Cairn is dead. Look at me, Aelin. Fireheart, look at me.”

            She does, focusing on the firm squeeze of his hand, steady against hers. I am here, that gesture says. I never left you.

            “You are more than this pain,” Rowan says, green eyes bright in the pale moonlight. “You are more than the trauma they left you with. Say it, Aelin. You are a survivor.”

            “I survived,” she murmurs. “I live.”

            “Yes,” he nods, blinking back tears of his own. “You have conquered. We survived – together.”

            Aelin takes another breath as Rowan bents down, his forehead touching hers. The tip of his nose grazes hers, nudging it slightly, as if to say, Yes, Fireheart. We are still here. His arms circle her body, pulling her impossibly close. So, so close. Never allowing her to fully break apart.

            Aelin touches her lips to his cheek once and so softly, taking the time to feel him – his realness – all against her. All of him – real. Safe.

            Safe, safe, safe.

            Her mate, and husband. Her prince, and warrior.

            Her warrior who, even years and years after, still fights for her with teeth and claws. Her warrior who, despite their odds, has never given up on her.

            “Dawn is still hours away,” he says with a small sniff. “Sleep, beautiful.”

            He makes to pull away and lie down next to her, but Aelin stops him with a hand at the centre of his chest.

            Rowan’s eyes snap to her.

            “Show me,” she whispers.

            That loving tenderness never leaves his eyes. Not as Rowan bents down and touches his lips to her cheek, her nose, up to her eyelid and down to her jaw. Aelin breathes a sigh as deep as their bond goes, and Rowan catches it with a searing kiss.

            Melting the frost off her bones, her mate lets his hands guide down, down her sides and down her thighs, each touch leaving a path of devious flames sent scattering on her skin.

            It’s real, she tells herself as his lips touch the shell of her ear, his breath making tiny little shocks of pleasure move down her body. It’s real, she tells herself as Rowan’s hands trace her spine over her nightgown, up, then down, up, then down, caressing the place where her scars used to be.

            “Show me it’s real,” she breathes, cheek to cheek, her mouth grazing his soft skin. Then, with incredible slowness, Aelin lifts her hips, and it is enough to feel him through the fabric of his trousers.

            Her mate lets out a low, deep growl – the only sound in the room besides their short breaths and broken kisses. Rowan’s answer comes in the form of his large hands pushing her night gown up to her waist, and letting his fingers trace the soft skin there: her stomach, her hips, her thighs – the places he already knows by heart, like a bird taking on the familiar skies.

            Aelin does not allow herself to shut her eyes.

            The monsters are watching her in the darkness of her mind.

            No. She keeps her eyes on his, their breaths together, two of their hands joined as Rowan’s fingers drift down, down the outside of her thigh. Aelin bites her lip in anticipation as he-

            A crashing sound makes them both jump apart and back to reality, their hearts thudding.

            “Amara,” they both let out at the same time.

            Not a second later they are running down the hall to their daughter’s bedroom and-

            Rowan’s heart falls out of his chest the moment they see their daughter out of her bed and, instead, look up to see a bird – a small dove, white as snow – flying about, wings flapping in urgency, books and toys and pens and crayons fallen on the floor. And poor Fleetfoot, her head moving from side as she anxiously stares at the princess of Terrasen, now changed into her second form.

            “Amara,” Aelin says calmly. “It’s alright, my darling. Rowan-”

            Rowan is by his daughter’s side in an instant. “Sweetheart, calm down,” he says to the little bird, hands poised under her tiny body. “It is just like last time, remember? Nothing to fear.”

            But Amara’s wings only flap harder, faster, and the sudden motion makes the little one fly backwards into the hard bookshelf. But Amara’s tiny form never hits the wood, for her father’s hand is right there, holding her steady.

            “It’s okay,” he says. “Fall into my hands, sweetheart. You are safe.”

            Aelin watches helplessly, heart beating in her throat, as her daughter’s panic-stricken eyes jump between her mother and father. Then, opening her tiny beak as if taking a deep breath, Amara let’s her wings close and she falls – right into her father’s waiting palms.

            The trembling body lets out a shriek as her father guides her into his chest, cupping her in his hands. Both Aelin and Rowan sit on their daughter’s bed, with Aelin gently patting Fleetfoot’s anxiousness away. The dog gently licks at Amara’s wings, and the girl – dove – hides her face deeper into her father’s chest.

            “She is alright, Fleetfoot,” Aelin says. “She is alright now.”

            “Amara, love,” Rowan smiles, leaning down and touching his nose to her small head. “You are safe now. Come out of hiding. Fleetfoot is not going to hurt you. She is just making sure you are not hurt.”

            Slowly, Amara’s beak lifts, and she’s staring at her parents, her eyes bright with very human tears.

            “Were you sleeping when you shifted?” Aelin asks, caressing her daughter’s wings with a finger.

            Amara, in her tiny form, manages a nod.

            “Oh, sweetheart,” Rowan says.

            Their daughter has only shifted once before – weeks and weeks ago, Aelin recalls.

            The queen and the prince had celebrated their daughter’s seventh birthday by showing her the Terrasen mountains, the northernmost peaks a few miles from the palace of Orynth. Amara had absolutely adored it there – had sighed and marvelled at the sharp-pointed pine trees, swooning at the small forest animals climbing up the thin thick branches of oak trees with acorns filling their cheeks to take to their homes, and loving, most of all, the ice-cold North Sea in the distance that carried winter’s careless, unloving wind.

            Aelin and Rowan had watched with incredible love in their eyes as their daughter had raised her arms high into the sky, happiness unfaltering, as if she could, indeed, reach the clouds and grasp them in the tips of her fingers.            

            Not even a second later, the queen and the prince watched their daughter transform for the first time right in front of their eyes. Aelin only had time to stretch her arm, and then a white feathered bird fell into her hand.

            Amara had squeaked uncontrollably, unable to understand what was happening to her and why the world around her, that once seemed to big, now looked beyond what she considered to be enormous.

            It had taken days and days to calm her down after she managed to shift herself back. Days of Rowan explaining that it was in her blood and, after all, it was not as scary as she believed it to be. Just strange, for now.

            But Amara, as it seems, still does not quite agree.

            Even if her mother’s touch relaxes her, even if her father’s kiss on her beak soothes her, her new form is no easy thing to control. Eventually, she calms down and, with her parents there, Amara ends up resting her beak on her father’s hand, her pine-green eyes looking more tired than Aelin has ever seen.

            “Don’t worry, my darling,” Aelin says. “You will shift back soon.”

            “Look on the bright side,” Rowan adds. “You flew! And all on your own.”

            Amara lifts her head and turns her beak to her father slowly, giving Rowan a look that he knows all too well. It is a look he’s seen on Aelin’s own face too many times to count; a look Aelin is extremely fond of whenever she is preparing herself to give him a good piece of her mind. A look that is always followed with a: “…honestly, Rowan?”

            “Don’t be mad at me,” Rowan tenderly says, smiling down at his daughter. “I know you are scared right now, sweetheart, but what your mother and I have been telling you all these weeks is true: you will get the hang of it.”

            Amara squeaks, feathers ruffling at her back.

            Rowan pauses, listening, and then says: “You’re looking at an impossible bargain here. You cannot change who you are, Amara.”

            “Wait,” Aelin says, blinking. “You…understand her?”

            Rowan’s eyebrows lift up slightly, as if he’s only now considering this. “It seems like I can. I could always communicate with my cousins,” he says. “But it is more like a mind voice than anything else.”

            “I feel tremendously left out.”

            Rowan shows his wife a smile, and, before he has a chance to respond, a small squeak comes from Rowan’s lap, and the prince stops himself short. “Your daughter,” he says, narrowing his eyes, “just called me buzzard.”

            Aelin does not try to hide her smile. “Well – she’s not wrong.”

            “Don’t encourage her, Aelin.”

            Amara turns her beak toward her father angrily. When he attempts to cuddle her into his palm, Amara nibbles on his finger as if to say, No hugs for you, father.

            “Amara, darling, don’t call your father buzzard,” Aelin says flatly. “Even if he is, in fact, a buzzard.”

            “Aelin-” Rowan fights a grin.

            “She does it affectionately – so do I.”

            “You,” Rowan says to his daughter, “are a clone of your mother.”

            Aelin and Amara give each other a look filled with pride, and Rowan is very much tempted to roll his eyes, but refrains from doing so at the look his daughter gives him. She may have gotten his eyes, but Amara has her mother’s expressions – even in this form.

            “You should sleep,” her father says to her. “Even in this form, love. If you wish to keep up with the Lochan boys when they arrive tomorrow, it is better if you take-”

            Amara lifts up her feathers, her wings, and bats at her father.

            “No,” Rowan scolds half-heartedly, a half-smile on his lips as he places a finger on is daughter’s hand, stopping her from advancing towards his chest. Amara tries in vain, swinging one wing, and then the other, and Aelin realizes, with a burst of a laugh, that she is trying to wrestle her father, as if they were both in the back gardens play-fighting with each other. “No playing, sweetheart. Not now. And stop that, you’ll injure yourself.”

            “Your father is a bore,” Aelin grins.

            Rowan does roll his eyes this time around, but ends up lying back on his daughter’s bed which, Aelin notices with a soft smile, is ridiculously small for him. Their daughter sits on his chest, her body heaving one up and down once, as if she’s sighing in defeat.

            “You will love the flying, sweetheart,” he says to her, voice filled with love. “Someday, I know you will.”

            Aelin smiles at them, and then lies back as well, nuzzling into Rowan’s side. The prince makes space for his wife, an arm wrapped around her, and keeping his daughter close to his heart. Fleetfoot is all too happy that the princess is no longer flying away from her and settles down at Aelin’s feet, resting her chin on the queen’s ankle.

            “Try to think of your usual form,” Rowan says to his daughter, tone soft. “It will become easier and easier each time, Amara. And then there will come a day when you no longer have to think. It will be instinctive.”

            In answer, Amara curls on her father’s chest, eyes closing.

            Aelin wraps an arm around her family, feeling safe and warm in Rowan’s embrace, and there they stay – for an hour, or two, or three. Aelin does not know. She only knows that, when Rowan begins to fall back into sleep and when Aelin herself is about to doze off once again, she forces her eyes open, just one more time. Instead of a dove, a girl is now nuzzled into her father’s side, her long, curling blond hair falling over her face, her thumb in her mouth. She is sleeping soundly. Safe. Real.

            A memory comes to her before sleep finds the queen of Terrasen.

            She sees a baby girl in her arms, her smiling eyes watching her mother back, and a strong male presence behind her, ready to catch her if she ever falls down again. No whips. No voices. It is peaceful here.

            In her dreams, a white bird opens its wings and soars over a land that thrives. Stags bow their heads to the grass in the deep woods. No blood. But sunshine – sunshine everywhere.

            Aelin hears laughter. She feels spring around the corner, and the kingsflame blooming around her. She no longer fears the darkness of sleep, nor the darkness of her own mind.

***

            Evangeline cannot remember the last time she wore pink.

            As she strides down the gravel pathway leading to the Palace of Adarlan, she allows her head to tilt back for a second as the spring wind flutters her red-gold hair, tickling her face. Above her, long, thick branches of ancient oak trees make a pretty, shadowed canopy over her head, allowing soft rays of morning sunshine to peak through.

            For almost a decade, Evangeline found herself moving between two homes every year: Orynth being her second, since she was under Darrow’s tutelage and apprenticeship, and Caraverre her first. During her time in Orynth, Evangeline soon got used to wearing whatever felt most comfortable, and as much as dresses and soft colours brought a smile to her face, they were not exactly fit for moving around the palace, for organizing letters and important documents, or even for sitting in a stiff, wooden chair for half her day learning runes and ancient languages. So loose cotton trousers and embroidered tunics it was. Although, being in Orynth, where parties and dinners and events were so bright and colourful, there was always the chance to dress up – as Queen Aelin herself liked to say – and Evangeline never missed the chance to.   

            However, as she walks to the great entrance doors, Evangeline admits to feeling a tad underdressed for Adarlan. Maybe it is because this is the first time she walks this path on her own, without Lysandra or Aedion at her side. Or maybe it is because of Adarlan’s fantastic splendour, which… is rather intimidating to Evangeline, still to this day.

            Groups of hares greet her with their pink noses in the air, promptly running off and hiding behind the bushes, just to finally disappear into their burrows. Despite her slight apprehension of the massiveness that is Adarlan, happiness coils at the pit of her stomach, bright and bubbling and exciting, like the smell of the beginning of summer. At the end of the path, guarded by vases of white roses, waiting at the top of the steps to the main entrance, is Dorian.

            The King pulls her into a cheerful hug before Evangeline can bow. “None of that,” he says, breaking their hug to smile at her. “You’re family.”

            King Dorian looks not a day over twenty years old. Besides the wise gleam in his eyes and the way he presents himself – with more confidence than Evangeline has ever seen him wear – there is no telling the King’s age.

            Only a few years back, Evangeline heard from both Lysandra and Aedion that Dorian suspected he had stopped aging. He’d felt signs of it, of his unchanged body, as if he’d settled somehow. Yrene Towers had been the one to confirm his immortality, suggesting that its cause lay with Dorian’s Valg blood. Evangeline was in no position to ask whether that made the King happy or not, even as familiar as she was with him by now, but she could guess that it was no tragedy considering that now he had a family to raise and still a lot to experience with them.

            “Dorian, I’m so happy to see you,” she says, a smile spreading on her lips as the king lets her go. A few of Dorian’s household members help her with her trunks, and Evangeline cannot stop apologizing for their weight – she brought a lot of books with her. “You look well.”

            “As do you,” Dorian says, politely taking her briefcase. “I swear it; everytime I see you, Evangeline, you grow four inches.”

            She laughs, shaking her head. “Oh, wouldn’t that be nice? And you said exactly the same thing as Aedion back in Caraverre.”

            “I take it he’s well?”

            “He’s very well, thank you. I believe they’re now finishing the new school near the riverbank, and Aedion’s been quite pleased with his work.”

            “What about Lys?” Dorian asks as he leads her inside the palace. Neither of them takes notice of the young man watching from the adjacent tower, three stories up, a disdainful look marrying his handsome features.

            Evangeline smiles, knowing perfectly well that the King of Adarlan must have a thousand better things to do, but instead he is devoting his attention to welcoming her to her new home for the next year. Dorian, like most of her family, only grew kinder and more compassionate over the years. He’s never once changed from the man who used to entertain her at events by playing hide and seek with her.

            “Busy as a bee, as well,” Evangeline tells Dorian.

            “I’d begun to think her and Aedion would be expecting by now,” Dorian chuckles. “I believe they want to keep us in suspense by being the last ones of the family to have children, don’t you think?”

            Evangeline gives a little laugh of agreement. Indeed, Aedion and Lysandra had been planning for some time to begin a family, and whenever Evangeline asked, with a hopeful glint in her eyes, Lysandra simply smiled and said that they needed to wait until everything was less chaotic. At the same time, Evangeline was happy to see them enjoy their marriage and build their town – bit by bit, Caraverre became one of the largest cities in Terrasen, spanning over green fields and swirling rivers, as well as grand plots of land that nowadays are filled up with white, pretty houses – each for every family that survived the war. Caraverre is home to the lost ones, the people who had nowhere to go. Caraverre was the place, along with Terrasen and Adarlan, and even the Witch Kingdom, to open its arms and welcome their people home. It had all been because of Lysandra and Aedion.

            “And I believe they will keep us waiting a few more years,” Evangeline adds.

            Speaking of families-

            The moment Dorian and Evangeline turn a corner, Dorian is almost pushed backwards by an incredible force – which turns out to be his own daughter, smiling up at him with small, iron claws out as she roars.

            “Oomph,” Dorian lets out, holding his daughter in his arms. “Look at you – no five-year-old should have such strength. Be careful with those nails now,” Dorian places her down gently. “And say hello to Evangeline.”

            At once, the claws retract and, what was once a playful, mischievous smile, turns excited and brighter than the sun itself.

            “LINA,” she screams rather than says the nickname the little witch herself gave Evangeline, waving her hands in the air before wrapping her arms around Evangeline’s waist.

            “Rhia,” Evangeline kneels down, wrapping the girl in her arms. “Oh, I missed you. Look at you – you’re so tall! Good Gods, what have your parents been feeding you?”

            “Have you come to play?” Rhia asks, eyes wide. “Papa says you came to stay with us, and I was oh so excited! Lina, you have to see Abraxos! Have you seen him? Kali gave birth two weeks ago and the wyverns have little wings sprouting already! Oh, you must come to our other home and see them at once!”

            The other home Rhia mentions is the King and Queen’s personal home, where they spend most of their time when they are not tending to their own respective kingdoms. It lies beyond Oakwald Forest – a wide castle in the middle of the mountainside.

            There is no longer a border between Adarlan and the Witch Kingdom. Nothing separates them except the icy mountains of the Ferian Gap and the dense forests. Witches and humans and fae alike live together in remembrance of those they have lost in the great wars. And although this was not an easy task to fulfill in the early years, Manon and Dorian came to a consensus with their respective peoples: no peace shall be had until all are accepted by all.

            Those had been Manon’s words.

            Evangeline had been there when the queen had proclaimed those words for the world to hear. She had been a child still, yes, but old enough to recognize what had shined in Manon’s eyes – growth.

            “Rhia,” Dorian chuckles, touching her daughter’s moon-white hair as she excitedly jumps up and down. “At least let Evangeline rest – she had a long, long trip.”

            “Is it true that you’ve finished your studies?” Rhia asks her.

            “Yes,” Evangeline smiles.

            “Papa says you have come to teach the children in Rifthold,” Rhia continues. “Have you come to teach me as well? I’m starting my own studies!”

            “Are you?” Evangeline says, wonder in her voice. “Well, I would be most pleased to have you as my student, Miss Rhia.”

            Rhia smiles wide, and opens her mouth to begin another clever ramble when her father tells her, “Rhia, is there any particular reason why you are wondering the castle on your own?”

            At her father’s remark, Rhia’s face falls. A guilty smile makes its way into her charming face.

            “I didn’t run away from mama, that’s for sure.”

            “Hm,” Dorian says. “I thought your mother told you not to do so. Did I not tell you something similar?”

            Rhia’s smile turns sheepish. “I do not remember…”

            Dorian gives her a smile full of mischief. “My daughter is such a forgetful girl, is she not?”

            “Oh, yes,” Rhia says, giving Evangeline a side-eye. “I am.”

            As if on cue, the Queen of Witches herself comes into view, and eyes her daughter with a disapproving look. Under her mother’s protective gaze, Rhia seems to shrink.

            Manon then looks up and a familiar half-smile graces her beautiful features as she looks at Evangeline with compassionate familiarity. “I thought I smelled a witchling somewhere.”

            Evangeline’s cheeks color in delight – this has been Manon’s greeting ever since Evangeline was a child, even if Evangeline was as far away from being a witch as humanly possible. But even then, she had been bold enough to get attached to a dangerous witch that never seemed to Evangeline dangerous at all. Manon was her family, too. Just as Dorian and Aelin were. The queen now gazed at her with a softness that had not been there a decade before.

            And then Manon’s eyes snapped to her daughter, who’d silently begun to slip away. Evangeline widens her eyes at how far the girl got before Evangeline even noticed she had moved.

            “Rhiannon,” Manon says calmly, imperiously. A mother and queen, indeed. “Where are you going?”

            Rhia stops, turns, and gives her a mother a clever smile. “I was going to help with Evangeline’s bags and lead her to her room.”

            Dorian fights a smile. “Rhia, don’t lie to your mother.”

            Rhia sighs, “I’m sorry I ran away.”

            Witches, Evangeline read once, are particularly protective over their young, and she can see that in the way Manon’s looks at her daughter – there is a calmness, a steadiness and an authority to the queen’s presence, and at the same time, Evangeline is no stranger to the slight apprehension she sees in her eyes that leads her to think that this has not been the first time that little Rhiannon has decided to make a little detour, scaring her parents half to death in the process.

            Manon takes her daughter into her arms. “Your father and I simply want to protect you.”

            “From what?”

            Manon does not have an answer. She only pushes her daughter closer to her chest and gives Dorian a meaningful look. Dorian’s eyes soften incredibly. Then Manon turns to Evangeline and gives a court nod, “Welcome back to us, little witchling.”

            Evangeline smiles in thanks and watches as Manon turns, taking her daughter with her. With a breathy laugh, she answers Rhia’s little wave with one of her own.

            “She is precious,” Evangeline cannot help but comment as Dorian takes her to her chambers.

            Dorian has a smile the size of the world on his face when he answers, “She is. They are…everything to me.” A pause, and then, “It suits her, does it not?”

            “What?”

            “Motherhood. Manon,” Dorian smiles to himself. “I think it suits me too, Evangeline. I was never sure it would, but – one look from that girl, and my heart bursts.”

            “It suits both of you beautifully,” Evangeline says, giving him a smile of her own, so wide it hurts her cheeks. “It is incredible.”

            It was Dorian’s turn to ask, “What?”

            “How far we have all come,” Evangeline says. “Ten years ago, all I knew was fear and abandonment. And now I have finished my studies, I am going to be teaching and I have a family that is so extensive it spans across the territory. I just…catch myself feeling so grateful sometimes, you know? To have Lys and Aedion, and you, and everyone else.” Evangeline pauses, a soft smile on her lips, a greater happiness in her heart. “I don’t believe I have properly thanked you for your letter.”

            Dorian shakes his head as they stop in front of the door to her new chambers. “Nonsensical, Evangeline. No need to thank me. We needed tutors, and you have one of the best minds I have ever had the pleasure of meeting. It’s true. I could not, for the life of me, let Darrow keep you in those dusty libraries sorting over documents if that was not what you wanted.” A pause, and then the king says, “Our conversation years ago was not forgotten, you see.”

            Evangeline remembers it too.

            “What would you be, Dorian?” Little her had asked. “If you were not a king?”

            Dorian had given her a soft smile, a little laugh, and then he’d said, “Well – I think I would like to be a writer. A storyteller. What about you?”

            Evangeline had struggled to find an answer. “I…I am not sure. I have not thought about it.”

            The truth is – Evangeline had never been given the change to wonder about such things. And now that the war was over and she had a lifetime ahead of her…

            “I like learning,” she’d told Dorian, after a while. “Maybe I would like to teach other children.”

            “A teacher,” Dorian had smiled. “I think it suits you.”

            Evangeline smiles. “Thank you, Dorian. Truly.”

            The king simply shakes his head once more – don’t mention it, says that gesture.

            Her chambers are too much – too large and too beautiful, and Evangeline is swallowing frogs the moment she walks inside. Walls of a soft cream envelop the room and the sunny parlor attached to it, while large windows let in the most delicious of sunrays for Evangeline to enjoy while reading a good book. The furniture looks all intricately made, with lovely carvings of rose bushes and twines and branches in the white wood.

            Before Dorian leaves her to unpack, Evangeline says, “What about Hollin? How has he been fairing?”

            Hollin, Dorian’s younger brother, is only two years older than her, but to this day, Evangeline has never seen much of him. At events, the youngest Havilliard refuses to meet her gaze, nor anyone else’s, let alone speak to her. From what she’s gathered over the years with their brief, yet slightly unpleasant encounters, Hollin is not a lovely person, and leaves much to the imagination of his court, since he rarely shows his face. The last words they spoke to each other were, “Good morning, Hollin,” and “Move.”

            It is not difficult to guess which remark belonged to who.

            “He’s…” Dorian sighs. “Well, he’s Hollin. He’s most certainly in his office preferring the company of his books over ours. But ever since father died, and then…” Dorian swallows painfully, the event still too recent. “And then mother…it took a toll on him.”

            Evangeline’s face falls. She had been in Orynth at the time when the Queen Mother had fallen very ill with a terminal decease. She had written to Dorian to say give condolences, and to Hollin himself despite not having been close to him. Dorian’s pain could be felt in each word of his thank-you letter, but from Hollin, Evangeline received only silence. She did not take it to heart. Neither does she now. It was a difficult time – for both brothers. And after all, each person deals with grief in their own way.

            “I’m sorry, Dorian.”

            “It’s alright,” Dorian smiles, a bit sadly. “Life needs to go on, isn’t that what they say?” A pause. “We all lost someone we care about one way or the other.” And when the king throws a glance to the door, Evangeline knows he is thinking of his wife, and the greatest loss she suffered.

            Evangeline nods in understanding. She also knows how much his brother’s coldness hurts Dorian, but it’s something that neither Dorian or herself will be able to solve. Maybe with time…

            “Maybe he will come around,” Evangeline says softly.

            Dorian gives her a smile. “You are too kind, Evangeline. I just hope you are right. I will keep trying with him. I will not give up on my own brother like I have done before.”

            And with that, the king bids his goodbyes, and leaves her to her own thoughts.

            Evangeline sits on her plush new bed. She must start drafting a letter for Aedion and Lysandra to notify them of her safe arrival to Adarlan.

            A glimmer catches her attention. Evangeline glances out the window from her bed, cocking her head to the side to see if she can catch the shine once again. She stares at the tower adjacent to the palace, and in the last story, that same glimmer catches through the small window. Like a sunray catching a mirrored glass.

            Curiosity tugs at her. She thinks of the cold prince she rarely ever talks to or sees.

            Evangeline decides it is time to go for an adventure.

***

 

            “Ferran!”

            Laughter rings in his ears. Rowan turns his head to see his daughter hit the soft grass, her hair spilling out around her like the sun itself has let go of its beams of light. And beside her, raising a triumphant fist in the air, is Elide and Lorcan’s oldest.

            Before Ferran can truly enjoy his victory, the princess of Terrasen tackles him down onto the grass with half a laugh, half a growl. The Lord of Perranth, however, is too stunned to do anything other than lay there. But then they are wrestling each other in the tall grass, while their parents look on.

            “Amara, careful,” Rowan calls.

            “Ferran,” Lorcan tells his son. “Don’t play too rough.”

            “Oh, leave them be,” Aelin chuckles, a lemon drink in hand as she lays back in one of the garden chairs. “As if you two never squabbled.”

            “I bet you almost killed each other once,” Elide adds, breathing a laugh. “They will be fine, Lorcan. They’re children.”

            “They can hurt each other.”

            “Dramatic much?” Aelin shoots at him.

            Elide breathes a laugh in agreement.

            In her lap there’s a baby boy barely a year old. Elide’s third born sits with a very unhappy face as he looks over at his brother and Amara.          

            “I think Ragnar is upset he’s not fighting too, mama,” Andrik says.

            Andrik, the second-oldest of the three Lochan boys, just six years old but already looking as dashing as any little lordling would, sips a strawberry milkshake as he sits with his mother.

            “Someday, little one,” Lorcan says, touching his youngest son’s cheek. “You will be as strong as your brothers. Hell, as strong as your mother.”

            Elide gives her husband a soft smile that comes with a softer laugh, as Lorcan leans down, placing a gentle, brief kiss on his wife’s cheek.

            Both Aelin and Andrik, confirmed partners in crime, make a similar face of disgust as they eye each other, shaking their heads.

            “Ferran, you’re not playing fair!” Says Amara, on the other side of the gardens as she runs, giggling as his chase for her never ceases.

            But Ferran is faster and seemingly never gets tired, so he catches up to the young princess soon enough. And when he does, he says, “Got you.”

            It sends Amara into a burst of laughter as she pushes away from him, even when he attempts to tickle her to the ground.

            “So,” Aelin starts, eyeing both Lorcan and Elide with a smirk. “Any chance you will come up with a girl now?”

            Rowan snorts a laugh. “Aelin, they just had a child.”

            “What?” Aelin says. “I’m a fan of the Lochan clan. I just want to see more girls in it.”

            Elide and Lorcan exchange a tired, happy glance. “I think we will stop at three, Aelin.”

            “You two are a bummer.” Aelin shakes her head. “And, in other news, how is immortality fairing for you?”

            Elide pauses. “I do not feel any different,” she says, giving his husband a glance. “I mean…the point was to spend my life with my mate. We still got that, didn’t we? Even if had the opposite effect of what we intended.” Elide raises her eyes to her husband, the love between them shining clear. “I do not mind a long life.”

            Aelin smiles softly before saying, “Boo, lovebirds.”

            “But what about you?” Elide argues, giving Aelin back her smirk. “Any more girls on the way?”

            Aelin chuckles, and glances briefly at her husband before saying, “Actually…”

            “Your Majesty, Your Highness.”

            It’s Darrow himself who approaches, a worried glance on his wary features as he bows. “Sir, my Lady,” he nods at both Elide and Lorcan, who promptly nod back.

            Aelin’s heart sinks at something she sees in Darrow’s eyes. There would be no need for the Steward to deliver news to the queen in person if it were not urgent. Behind them, the laughter continues, the children oblivious to what is about to be said here.

            “Love,” Elide calmly says to Andrik. “Go play with your brother and Amara.”

            “Mother, I don’t wish to get my clothes dirty,” Andrik frowns. “If you do not wish me to listen, just say so.”

            Elide gives her son a sigh as a response. “I have too-clever sons. Very well, please go. I will fetch you in a little while.”

            Andrik obeys, slipping from his chair and taking his milkshake with him.

            “Darrow,” Aelin rises. “What has happened?”

            “You will not like this,” Darrow says. “It seems the rebels have returned – their leader with them.”

***

 

            The tower is brand new.

She expects the stone staircase to smell of humidity, but it smells like spring and flowers. Square holes in the stone along the staircase open up the space, letting the chilly breeze in to play with her hair.

            At the top, she pauses momentarily in one of the square and glass-less windows. The view of Adarlan has always taken her breath away – the view of the cities and villages was a world in itself, going on forever. She sighs, resting her arms against that stone opening.

            When a noise from the door next to her sounds, Evangeline pulls herself away and stands in front of the dark wood, realizing it’s a room. Gently she opens it.

            And halts upon seeing a man sitting on a desk, scribbling furiously and surrounded by all types of scrolls and papers.

            “Oh,” she exclaims. “Apologies, I did not think anyone was here-”

            Her words come up short.

            Lifting his head to look at her, face scrunched up in furious annoyance, the prince of Adarlan presents himself. His silence is as stunned as she feels, as if he never expected to be found up here. It is then that Evangeline notices that this is the office that Dorian mentioned, the office where Hollin spends most, if not all, of his time. She guesses it’s the latter, for there’s a small bed in the corner of the small space, messy and undone.

            Evangeline is never at a loss for words. And right now, facing the prince, she cannot, for the life of her, find any to say to him.

            He’s…grown up. Quite a bit.

            Hollin’s eyes are a shade darker than his brother’s, rounder, more similar to what Queen Georgiana’s eyes had been like, and rimmed with dark circles. His ebony curls are unruly, ungoverned, falling over his forehead as he turns his head to face her. Where there was once baby fat on his face, is now a sharp, cruel jaw and crueler lips, their corners raising into a mean sneer. The prince is wearing none of the fancy outfits Evangeline has seen him use during events and celebrations – but a simple white shirt tucked into a pair of dark grey trousers. He looks like he’s just woken up, and yet, like he’s never slept before, all at once.

            “Leave,” Hollin says simply.

            She’s not seen him for years, and notices his voice has changed, too.

            “I’m sorry,” she says again, attempting composure. “I-“

            And then her eyes find something that interests her more than Hollin’s handsome face. She cannot help herself from drifting towards it, as if in a daze, hands reaching-

            “What do you think you are doing?” Hollin grits out, lifting himself up so fast his chair almost hits the floor.

            Evangeline’s first reaction is to take a step away from him. He’s taller than she remembered. In the end, she stands just as tall, looking at the telescope that is purposefully positioned next to the only window in the small space. Around her, bookshelves line the walls, so filled with books that it seems like everything might collapse at any instant. She is fascinated.

            “I have never seen one of these before,” she comments, eyeing the telescope. “I mean – I did see them. In picture books, you know. And, of course, I have read all about them.”

            Hollin looks both confused and utterly offended.

            “But seeing it in the flesh is quite fantastic,” she continues, turning her back to him. This must have been what Evangeline saw from down below; the sun must have hit the lens of the telescope. “Tell me, did you build it yourself? I hear nobody can buy one of these. Only great-”

            “I thought I told you to get out,” Hollin barks, his voice low and angry.

            Evangeline turns to look at him, taken aback by his tone. It seems Hollin has grown out of his tantrums, but the spoiled child is still lurking underneath all that handsomeness and light stubble.

            “I am merely making conversation,” Evangeline smiles, raising her chin proudly. “I have been taught that conversation is the ultimate ice-breaker, and this room is awfully chilly right now.” A pause as she giggles, waiting for him to get the pun. Hollin does not laugh. Her own laughter fades as she awkwardly tucks a stray piece of hair behind her ear. “I hope you are well.”

            “Why do you care?”

            Evangeline shrugs, “I care about everybody.”

            Hollin snorts a laugh that sounds nothing like a laugh to Evangeline, and turns away from her, messing with the papers in his desk. It takes a moment for her to realize that he’s covering them up.

            “Of course you do,” he mutters to himself angrily.

            Evangeline looks around the space. “You did not answer me.”

            “I am not asking you again-”

            “Did you build it yourself?” She asks softly, curiously, attempting to see beyond that angry façade he puts up.

            “Yes,” he admits, half-spitting the word, half-growling it. “I am working. Do you have a reason to be here, bothering me?”

            “No,” she says cheerfully.

            He eyes her for a few seconds.

            Evangeline notices that one of his hands trembles slightly. When he catches her looking, he closes it into a fist and hides it behind his back.

There is a slight discomfort to him. A nervousness. And some other feeling that Evangeline can’t quite understand nor quite shake off, either. It is as if Hollin is agitated with the presence of someone else in this room experiencing the sight of him with his precious belongings and interests – that seem to match her own –, and Evangeline wonders for one brief second whether the problem is that Hollin got too used to the loneliness to be comfortable with anything else, or whether his coldness comes from his selfishness in not wishing to share this part of his life with anyone other than himself.

She does not wonder for long.

Hollin walks to the door, opening it up, and gesturing.

Evangeline watches him quietly, a sort of ache beginning to stab at her heart.

“If you have not gotten the idea,” Hollin impatiently says, “I am ordering you to leave.”

Ordering?” She murmurs, the word slapping her in the face.

He looks up. “Know your place here.”

Evangeline blinks. “Your brother invited me to stay.”

“Ah, did he now?” He scoffed a laugh. “Dorian always had a charitable heart. Me? Not so much. Out.”

Evangeline stares at him for a few seconds, letting the words sink in. Dorian would have never done such a thing. She believed the king when he said he wanted her to come to Adarlan for her skills, and for her company, too. They were family.

She walks to the door, passing by him. And stopping before he has a chance to close the door on her face.

Hollin exhales through his nose, like a wild animal before an attack.

Evangeline asks, “Did I ever hurt you?” A pause, and she is met with silence and with a cold turn of his head. “Because if I have, know it was not my intention, and that I am sorry, Hollin.”

“I do not give a shit what you intend or who you are,” he says in her face.

Evangeline’s eyes search his own, watching the anger in them that does not seem quite fully human. “I think you are just reacting,” Evangeline says, and hates that she finds her voice slightly shaky. “I invaded a safe space, clearly, which I apologize for, and you are lashing out because of it-”

Hollin tries to shut the door but, for some reason she cannot name, Evangeline holds out a hand to stop him. She is sweating. She cannot stop speaking.

This boy has so much anger in him – she is almost afraid to leave him on his own in case he spontaneously combusts.

“It is called a defense mechanism,” she continues. “I have read about it. It happens when-”

“Do you know why my brother invited you here?”

Evangeline swallows. “Your brother cares for me. So does Manon.”

“Has my brother told you he loves you as if you were his own sister? His own blood?” Hollin laughs, cruel and humorless. “Has the witch bitch been kind to you?”

Evangeline feels a spark of her own anger rising at that. “Don’t you call Manon that-”

“You are here because my brother’s heart is soft, and you are a poor little girl he wishes to help. If it were up to me – you would be in the kitchens.”

“You are wrong, Hollin. Terribly so. You cannot see past your own anger, which is not fully directed at me, you know it-”

“Did you see all those people when you arrived? The way they looked at you?”

Evangeline did see Dorian and Manon’s court. Their helpers, their gardeners, their maids. They’d smiled at her when she’d arrived, and she’d smiled right back, believing them to be welcoming her.

“Everyone who looks at you knows perfectly well what you are and where you came from.”

That – that right there is a punch to the gut.

Because as he speaks the words, Hollin’s eyes fall to the scars on her face, hidden by her hair. He does not say it – but the implication is there. He is insinuating-

He’s talking about a past he knows nothing about.

Evangeline wants to speak, but Hollin has wrapped a rope around her throat, and is now pulling it, taking her breath away, her words with it.

“Maybe my brother will tire of you soon enough,” Hollin says. “And you’ll be going back to where you came from.”

The door is slammed on her face, and she remains planted there, in complete shock.

When Evangeline turns to the view of the tower, for that one second, Adarlan does not seem as beautiful as before.

***

 

            Aelin does not believe it.

            She does not want to believe it.

            “It cannot be,” Lorcan says, turning to Darrow. “I was there when the leader brought himself in. There were no more attacks.”

            “The person you imprisoned, Your Majesty,” Darrow says, addressing Aelin, “is a lie.”

            “Explain,” Aelin says.

            “My spies believe the leader of this rebel group is still out there, and the one who is still locked in your prison for the crimes committed against your people is a fraud – a man manipulated into taking the leader’s blame for his actions.”

            “What makes you so certain it is the same group?” The prince asks.

            “They have a mark, your Highness,” Darrow says. “An ocean mark, with waves that end in spikes.”

           

Water – to fight the flames. Her flames.

“And how do you know such a mark?” Aelin asks, almost afraid of the answer. “Where did you see it?”

            Darrow closes his eyes as if in pain. “There was an attack further north.”

            “What happened?” Lorcan demands.

            “The same as seven years ago,” Darrow says. “Three houses set aflame.”

            “How many dead?” Aelin gasps.

            “Thankfully, your Majesty, there are no numbers,” he says. “There was a woman with a burnt arm, but it is easily cured. The matter is-”

            “They are trying to frame you,” Rowan suddenly says, eyeing Darrow with a fixed gaze, but addressing his mate. “They are using fire to frame you.”

            Darrow solemnly nods. “I am afraid the Prince is correct. The whispers have started, your Majesty. And when one rumor starts, more begin spreading faster than any plague.”

            Elide, rising with her now sleeping babe to her chest, frowns at Darrow. “But if it is the same rebel group, why would they wait seven years? Even if their intent was to get to the Queen, why wait so long to do so? Why let her people forget about what happened?”

            “Because the people don’t forget,” Aelin murmurs.

            They all look to her.

            The Queen swallows. “Most of them fought with me in the war, and most of them are still alive to tell the story of the Queen made of fire.”

            “The rebels will use that against you,” Darrow nods. “To weaken your reign and your power, your Majesty. They will burn, burn and burn, until there is nothing else to burn. Until your people look your way. Until their fingers start pointing at you.”

            “That makes no sense,” Lorcan interjects. “She has not used her powers since the war. Aelin has lost them.” Then, to Aelin: “Have you not?”

            “It does not matter, I am afraid,” Darrow says. “If the rebels begin spreading rumors, and if those whisperings find the wrong people who wish you harm, they will rise up.”

            “They will rise up against a lie,” Lorcan says.

            “What reason do they have to do this?” Elide murmurs. “The people are happy. The lands are thriving. No one is going hungry in all of Erilea because of Aelin.”

            “Humans and fae have not always been in the best of terms, my Lady Elide,” Darrow says. “There are still those who suspect males like your husband, like our Prince, and there are those who still hold a grudge against our Queen. For her powers, or for the lack of them.”

            “Do they not remember her being human, too?” Elide says.

            Aelin is still silent, staring at the ground.

            “Those who refuse to see any other resolutions but their own will not understand,” Rowan says. “For them, what Aelin is now is enough. Enough to say she does not have the right to her throne, despite her lineage.”

            “They see a court full of powerful fae beings ruling over a people that is mostly human.”

            Lorcan lets out a low growl. “What does that have to do with anything?”

            “I am not agreeing with them, Lord Lorcan.”

            “So what the hell does that make me?” Elide says. “Aelin has numerous humans in her court by her side.”

            “You should exclude yourself, Lady Elide,” Darrow says. “You have not aged a day since being married to your husband. You are human, but no ordinary human. And one that gave birth to extraordinary children. Children who are still fae. They will all see you as something different.”

            “I thought we were past this,” Rowan says. “This kind of prejudice should have died in the past.”

            Darrow sighs softly, and gives Aelin a soft pat on her shoulder. “Your Majesty, it is your move. I am at your service.”

            What do her people think of her now? Surely she has supporters – most of her people would not simply abandon her. But how powerful is this rebel group? And what if their influence is enough to terrorize the people to look at her the same way? As a monster that has fits of anger and goes around burning people’s houses?

            How many people would get hurt?

            No – she will not allow such a thing.

            “What will we do?” Elide murmurs to her.

            Aelin takes a breath.

            And she has her answer.

The monsters take cover in her mind and, instead of letting them become her, she becomes the monsters. She will destroy those who threaten her people and her family. Who dare to come close to harming them. And she will be merciless.

            “If it is fire they want,” Aelin says to her court, “it is fire they shall have.”

Chapter Text

 

~A week earlier~

         “What will we do?” Elide murmurs to her.

         “If it is fire they want,” Aelin says to her court, “it is fire they shall have.”

***

~Present~ 

 

Lord Lorcan Lochan is, without a single sparkle of a doubt, up to something.

         And you, curious reader, might find yourself wondering how Elide Lochan has come to this conclusion. The answer is very simple: He. Cannot. Stop. Jittering.

         Elide takes notice of this during the morning. Lorcan has a different smile on his face as Elide relaxes into his chest during their bath. There is a devious glint to his onyx eyes. A mischievous tale writing itself in the way he bents down, letting his lips whisper against her shoulder. And, all at once, Elide feels a hurricane waiting to burst out of her skin and obliterate all her surroundings.

         “What are you up to?” She finally asks him, though she cannot help her distraction to show in her voice, for her eyes keep drifting back to the tips of his fingers, slowly dragging up her bare arms.         

         A breath of a laugh touches the spot behind her ear, and Elide is almost too tempted to arch her back. Or move her hips. Either would do.

         “Why do you think I am up to something, my beautiful wife?” His tone is delighted, high and cheerful. “Do I not shower you with love every single day? Is this really strange?”

         “I know you are planning something,” she accuses, turning in the bath slightly to look at him. Her hairs falls in front of her face, curling from the steam, and Lorcan catches a piece just to move it behind her ear. Elide is suddenly much more distracted.

         “Why would I, love?”

         Elide gives him a soft, short laugh. “Do you truly believe I have forgotten? It is our anniversary – and you are planning something. Tell me.”

         “Nine years, Elide,” he takes her cheeks, kisses each of them. “Nine years of having me as your husband, and you still do not wait for anything.”

         “No,” she agrees, her arms snaking around him. “Tell me. What is it?”

         “If I told you, it would not be a surprise,” he says, raising his eyebrows to make a point. “And I have spent quite a bit of time on this particular gift, so I do not wish to ruin it-”

         “Tell me,” she murmurs, leaning in to kiss the corner of his mouth, the other corner, and his cheeks, and his jaw, and his neck…

         “Elide,” he says, suddenly too aware of her body pressing against his, so fully, and so perfectly. “Elide, I have to go wake the boys.”

         “The boys deserve their sleep,” Elide smiles, letting her thumb drag across his lips. “And I deserve…”

         Her hand leaves his shoulder. Lorcan holds his breath as he watches that devious hand of her drag down his chest, her fingertips taking their time to trace every single scar she has already dotted with kisses. It goes past the center of his chest, his abdomen, his hips-

         Lorcan takes her wrist in his hand, so gently it feels like a caress, preventing her from touching him. “Elide,” he says, and it sounds like a scolding.

         The more she likes it.

         Her smile fills his once hollow chest of the brightest of suns, and Lorcan feels as if he could glow as his wife touches her lips to his, so gently, so softly, a simple brush of her mouth on his, and he is lost. Just as she is.

         Lorcan says against her lips, “Your sons are awake.”

         Elide pauses to listen, her breath entwined with his. Indeed – just down the hall she hears the pat pat pat of running, the gasp of breaths and, mixed right with that, the sound of Mrs. Orland’s urgent voice:

         “Boys! Boys! Please! Your clothes! Little lordlings!”

         “They sure are awake,” Elide laughs, shaking her head. She imagines Ferran and Andrik, finally not ready to gauge each other’s eyes out, going on with their usual morning shenanigans.

         Which definitely include running away from Mrs. Orland without any clothes on.

         Lorcan smiles at his wife, touching his nose to his. “Tonight.”

         “You really are descended from Hellas himself,” Elide breathes, biting her lip. “All this teasing might bring you another child – and you already have three.”

         There is a clear pause in Lorcan’s speech. Even in his breathing, which Elide ultimately notices.

         And ultimately realizes what it means.

         “What?” She asks him.

         Lorcan smiles. “I wouldn’t mind it, you know?”

         Elide pauses. “Another baby?”

         “It would be your decision, love,” he says, taking her hand. “After all, I am not the one feeling the pain of childbirth. But, in truth, I can’t say I would mind having another one – if that was what you wished for, as well.”

         The Lady of Perranth blinks. Would she want another baby? Three boys is a difficult trial – as much happiness and unbelievable joy that her children brought her, Elide and Lorcan could not deny that they had a lot to learn over the years.

         But-

         Another babe in her arms.

         “Ragnar is getting so big, so quickly,” she whispers to Lorcan, her shoulders hunching slightly. “He’s walking, and speaking. Last night he picked up a book and started looking at it as if he could read it.” She smiles, though it is a smile that is tinted with sadness at the edges. “Ferran is a grown boy, soon to be a man. Andrik is following quickly. And Ragnar…he’s growing up so, so fast, Lorcan. So fast. I cannot help but wish they could all stay this age and never grow up. Does that make me evil?”

         Lorcan touches her cheek. “No, my love. It makes you are a mother. A good one at that. And I think the same.” He pauses, smiles faintly. “Sometimes I look at Ferran with his practice sword, his love for sparring, and I get this ache in my chest. Then I might have Andrik cling to my leg whenever he’s scared, or Ragnar laugh when I make that sound, the brrr…yes, you know which one.” A soft laugh leaves him. “And I catch myself not wanting to let them go, ever.” That softness reaches his eyes as Lorcan sighs. “Sometimes I miss their wailing and crying and fussing. Ragnar rarely ever cries. Do you remember Andrik’s little silent tantrums? How he used to sulk about, but he would follow us around the house so we could pay attention to him?”

         Elide smiles at the memory. “Do you remember when Ferran was obsessed with the overalls you sew for him? And he would not take them off, even for a bath?”

         “Oh,” Lorcan laughs, deep and loud. “The blue overalls.”

         “With the paint stains,” Elide continues, shaking her head at the beautiful wonder that memory brings her. “Ragnar, too. He was always so tiny. And so smart.”  

         “He will conquer the world,” Lorcan murmurs. “All of them will.”

         A loving silence dawns upon the Lord and Lady of Perranth. It is a comfortable silence. Beautiful in its quietness. It is a silence filled with nine years of extraordinary memories – challenging, hard, sometimes sad, but perfect memories.

         “Nine years,” Elide whispers to him, squeezing his hand. “Is it not crazy?”

         “The craziest,” he says, kissing her hand. “I wish for many, many more, Elide. So many more.”

         Lorcan takes his wife into his arms, letting the feeling of Elide’s arms ease his heart. Her fingers brush out his hair, her lips at his forehead. It is everything – everything.

         “Someday,” she murmurs.

         “What?”

         “Someday we will have another,” Elide says, smiling to herself. “We have more than one lifetime, do we not?”

         “Yes,” Lorcan smiles up at her. “We have time.”

         “Maybe it will be a girl this time,” she laughs, touching his lips to hers. “Imagine another boy.”

         “Imagine twins,” he grins.

         “Lorcan, bite your own tongue,” Elide says with a chuckle, pointing a finger at him. “Twins…what a chaotic double those two would be.”

         “The best type of chaotic there could ever exist,” he smiles, brushing his lips against hers.

         “The best,” Elide echoes.

***

        

         The end of spring brings warm breezes and blue skies.

         Perranth is painted in bright colors. From flaming reds to soft blues, the blooming flowers and large shrubs line the gravel path leading to the edge of the woods. Elide breathes a sigh and smells the night approaching, hears the birds flying all the way back to their nests for a rest, and sees soft glimmering between the thick, ancient trees – the last sighs of the setting sun.

         “Not much further,” Lorcan tells her, fingers intertwining with hers, as he leads Elide to the entrance of the deep woods. Again – that same excitement shines in his eyes, and Elide is all too entranced to tease him about it.

         So she lets him guide her.

         At the end of the walkway, Lorcan stops her. Elide looks up, blinking, and does not get a chance to ask why they have stopped after only a minute of walking because it is in that moment that Lorcan decides he very much wishes to kiss his wife.

         And kiss her he does.

         It is as soft as all his other kisses, with just enough flames burning behind her to spark a fire deep within her chest. Elide melts against him, wrapping her arms around his neck to steady herself. There is a moment, just a simple second, where Elide completely forgets herself, and her surroundings, as well as the rest of the whole world.

         She forgets everything when he kisses her.

         Her mind erases itself, turning into a blank canvas that Lorcan paints with the warmest, most beautiful of colors to be seen. And when he pulls away, Elide is sure he can see those colors shining bright and loud behind her eyelids.

         “I love you,” he breathes.

         “I love you,” she says, dragging her arms down, her hands cupping his face.

         He smiles, eyes still closed, as if wanting to keep those words forever trapped in his mind.

         “I have waited the whole day,” Elide says. The jittering, it seems, caught up to her pretty fast. “I am not getting any younger here, Lorcan.”

         He snorts a laugh. “A human woman who will never age, and yet you are more impatient than all our three children combined-”

         “I have good reason to be impatient!”

         “I have waited five centuries to meet you. Surely you can wait five more to see your gift.”

         Elide smirks, and a roll of her eyes makes her husband grin. “I can tell you have – look at this weathered face, these wrinkles on these beautiful cheekbones,” she teases. “Oh, and how are your knees today, Sir?”

         “Making fun of my age is getting old, Elide.”

         “Pun intended?”

         He smirks back. “Of course not.”

         Playful, good-natured Lorcan. Nine years in the making, so it seems. However, as they smile at each other, Elide wonders if this male teasing her has always been, in fact, Lorcan. Even the Lorcan she did not know then. She wonders whether this male she loved had always been lurking underneath the harsh exterior Lorcan was made to wear.

         She does not wonder for long.

         “Do you wish to see it?”

         “Yes,” she smiles, tip-toing up to his height to smack a kiss on his lips. “Show me, husband of mine.”

         Lorcan steps away from her, and takes her hand.

         They take three steps, and Elide begins to see a shape between two oak trees, so tall that they appear to be reaching for the skies. Their branches partially hide Lorcan’s gift from view.

         She then stops in her tracks.

         A wooden cabin sits comfortably at the edge of the forest, sheltered by trees and woodland, flowers and tall grass. It is small and sturdy, like something out of a children’s fable. Planter boxes are placed all around it, with still growing plants – herbs, Elide realizes. He’s planted herbs, too.

         Two chairs wait for them at the front, facing the way they came. If she sits there, Elide will still be able to see their house. Right in front of that cabin, the garden where their boys play is in full view, green and lush, bathed in orange sunlight.

         “I am…” she shakes her head, out of words, out of breath. Out of her mind.

         “Happy anniversary,” Lorcan says softly, with a kiss to her temple.

         He wraps an arm around her side, and Elide is so very glad. She feels very unstable right now.

         “You built it,” she breathes. “All on your own. All those afternoons…”

         “I was helping with the newest village,” Lorcan smiles. “But they mostly needed me to lift the heavy things. Most of my time I was here.”

         “How long?”

         Lorcan says, “Take or leave two months. I was building it slowly. I wanted to make it perfect.”

         Elide turns to him, enchanted. “Lorcan, I do not know what to say.”

         “Say you will come here,” he tells her, pulling her close. “Say that, when things get hard, when you do not wish for anything else than your own company, say that you will use it.”

         She smiles, so wide, and so bright-

         “I know sometimes things are not easy, Elide. We are tired. We are exhausted. And you…you are a force of nature, my love. These nine years have been the happiest of my existence. I found you. I loved you, as I will continue to love you for as long as you wish me to, and for as long as Hellas will allow me to breathe. But I know these years have not been without hard times. You, most of all, have gone through a lot – between childbirth, the treatment for your ankle, discovering our predicament gave you my lifespan…your bravery never ceases to amaze me, love. The way you face your fears, the way you fight, the way you wake up every morning despite everything that happened – you, Elide, never need to be told this, but you are, without a doubt, the strongest woman I know. The woman I love. The woman I am so proud to call my Lady. My wife. My mate.”

         She touches his cheek, resting her forehead on his chest, right over his head, holding back her tears.

         He embraces her. “You are filled with light, Elide. But whenever the sun will not shine, whenever you need a break, you will have this. There is a fireplace inside. Copies of your favorite books and a few more that Aelin sent. The herbs are still growing, but, in a few weeks, you can make tea-”

         “I love you.”

         Lorcan stops, his words cut short, his heart hammering in his chest. Even if those words had been whispered to him countless times before.

         “I love you,” she raises her eyes to him, kissing his lips, so softly. “I love you, Lorcan. Thank you.”

         He shakes his head, nudging her nose with his. “Nothing to thank for, my love.”

         “I feel bad about only giving you that woodworking table,” she chuckles softly. “If I had known…”

         “Elide,” a kiss to her lips. “You have given me a life I have never deserved. A love I never believed I needed. You are the reason we have three amazing children running around throwing paint everywhere.”

         She laughs, further melting in his arms.  

         “I love you,” he says. “And I will love you for another five hundred years. More, if that is what we are given.”

         “I am willing to admit,” Elide says, breathing a laugh as Lorcan’s lips touch hers as she begins to speak, “that I am glad you made it a surprise.”

         “So I was…?”

         “Do not make me say it.”

         “Do it, love. Go on, Elide.”

         She sighs. “You,” kiss. “Were.” Kiss. “Right.”

         He grins, showing a full set of dangerous sharp teeth. “There you go.”

         “Will you not show the inside to me?” She smiles. “Or am I really supposed to enjoy this on my own?”

         “I will be here whenever you want me to,” Lorcan says.

         “Prepare to become even more familiar with it then,” Elide smiles.

         He opens the door for her.

         Elide almost gasps. Inside it is much more spacious than she could ever imagine – dark wood underneath her feet, each piece of furniture is mismatched and radiant, as if he has recently polished every surface. To her right there’s a small-sized kitchen with a cauldron sitting on top of chopped wood. A table by the window, fresh flowers sitting atop it. A bathroom with a tub just big enough for the two of them was built right next to a tiny bedroom containing one oak bed and a dresser.

         The living room has a couch of a forest green, seemingly brand new.

         “Did you go to the flea market?”

         Lorcan grins. “I sure did.”

         And the fireplace – beautifully built, with dark stone spreading over that one wall facing North. From the window next to the couch, Elide can see the ancient, magical forest.

         “I am in awe,” she declares.

         Lorcan wraps her up in his arms once more. “I am glad you liked it. I thought I could cook us some dinner.”

         Elide smiles, and then- “Oh, but the boys-”

         “I took care of them while you sat at that meeting, my love. Fed and bathed. And ready for bed when I left them. Well, partially ready. Andrik was sorting through his clothes again.”

         “But-”

         “I asked Mrs. Orland to take care of them and she very kindly – and very happily, it seemed – said yes.” Lorcan leads his hands up to her shoulders, massaging them. “So, you see, we have the whole night to ourselves.”

         Elide is very intrigued, indeed. “You planned it all, didn’t you?”

         Lorcan flashes her a grin.

         “You left me burning this morning on purpose,” she narrows her eyes.

         “Love, don’t be mad,” he coos, brushing back her hair. “After all,” his tone is honey sweet as he leans in, “I am simply giving you a taste of your own medicine.”

         Elide raises a brow, crossing her arms. “What I’m truly surprised about is having you here without controlling your children for three seconds at a time.”

         “I don’t control them all the time.”

         “Lorcan, you are protective.”

         “Of course I am,” Lorcan says, blinking. “Have you met your sons?”

         Elide laughs lightly. “I know this is difficult for you – being away from them, even for just one night. Even if we are right next door. Admit it.”

         Lorcan pauses. “I am trying.”

         “I know,” Elide’s eyes soften, but there is still that same humor shining in them as she wraps her arms around his torso. “It is difficult for me to. We’ll see this as an exercise. We know they will not even notice we are gone. They will be fine.”

         “Yes,” Lorcan smiles. “They will be fine.”

         “So,” Elide says, pulling away. “About that dinner?”

***

 

         “Aelin’s letter arrived today.”

         Elide is leaning against the window, watching as her husband stirs a very delicious-smelling soup, trying to stop her body from reacting to the way her husband’s shirt clings to him; the way the fire makes his bronze muscles more prominent.

         He finishes his dish, pulling out the fire with careful focus.

         Elide finds herself biting her own lip as Lorcan runs his fingers through his dark hair.

         “She, hum…” Elide clears her throat, feeling every hair in her arms stand up when he turns to look at her.

         Gods, she wants to rip his shirt off.

         And she is positive that Lorcan knows, for the corner of his mouth lifts just the tiniest bit.

         Still – Elide attempts to focus. “There were no attacks during this week,” she says, watching as Lorcan casually walks toward her, each time reverberating in her chest.

         “Hum,” he says, closing in on her, feeling – and smelling – the way her body has changed; the way it has answered to his.

         “But they cannot find who caused this,” Elide breathes. “Who is…provoking Aelin.”

         Lorcan bents his head down, marking his wife’s neck with a gentle kiss.

         Elide closes her eyes momentarily, just enjoying the feel of him so close. She missed this. Gods, she missed him. “But we know nothing else, only that-”

         “Elide,” he whispers against her skin. “I do not want to talk about the rebels right now.”

         She agrees.

         “I want you,” he breathes, desperately, hungrily, against her ear, pressing his body against hers. “I want you so much.”

         Elide can hardly breathe, but she manages to place a hand at his chest and say, “Bed.”

         Elide can walk so much better now – after almost a decade, Yrene Towers has managed to heal most of the broken bones in her ankle, as well as grow newer ones. The pains still get to her, but for the most part – she is healed. Despite this, her husband seems to prefer to keep carrying her places.

         Must be a habit.

         And that is the way that Elide ends up on the bed, with Lorcan’s expert hands unwrapping her and unlacing her with intent precision. She gives him a little smile as he does, spreading her arms to feel the soft furs beneath her palms.

         One lace, two, three.

         Her bodice falls apart, and Lorcan is quick to work on the buttons of her shirt.

         “I thought we were eating first,” Elide laughs as her shirt comes apart.

         Lorcan’s smile is not short of devilish. “I am.”

         Elide makes quick work of his trousers, pulling them down with her legs. The urgency of it makes them sloppy, and Lorcan – Lorcan, with his ancient coordination – almost trips at removing his boots right after Elide accidentally hit herself in the face while trying to remove her undershirt.

         It takes them a full moment. One full moment of staring at each other with that dumbfounded, awe-filled, loving gaze. Taking everything in – these last few years, their life together, the love that grew and keeps growing between day each day that goes by.

         And it is then that Elide realizes that there was never a time when she was frightened of the prospect of living for so long. As long as her family was there; as long as Lorcan was there…

         Nothing else mattered.

         But slowly, yet surely…Lorcan’s face begins to change. A darkness takes over his eyes as the sun says its goodbyes. And Elide knows. She knows.

         She knows that look he gives her. Knows what he is thinking.

         “What is it?” She asks him as she holds her, the warmth of him sweeping through her.

         Lorcan shakes his head. “Nothing,” he murmurs, kissing her forehead.

         Even with Elide’s thighs around him, even with every inch of her pressing against every inch of him, he hesitates. There is a sadness to him. And, as his eyes lower, of course she knows what is left unsaid. Behind all that happiness from before…

“I would not change it, Lorcan.”

Her husband looks up as Elide runs her hands through his shoulder-legth hair. His gaze could devour her with its softness, she thinks. The love she sees shining in the dark depth of his eyes could obliterate her.

And it has. 

So many times before.

“Were you really able to forget what I did to Aelin all those years ago?” He asks, and when he does, his face is closed, that love replaced with guilt, that softness replaced with self-inflicted pain. Elide has seen that look so many times - in nights when Lorcan’s eyes refrained from leaving her, as if his mind could not fathom that she was here, that she was his, and that they had created this life, this home, this family. As if he thought he was not deserving of it. Of her.

Elide’s heart breaks into two.

She pushes him over, propping herself on top of him, letting her kiss be her answer. She touches his face, dragging her tongue over his bottom lip before kissing him fully, deeply, with as much passion as her heart allows. With as much love as she is capable of feeling.

“I asked you to marry me nine years ago,” Elide murmurs against his lips, her lips spreading into a smile as his breathing becomes shallow. “I made three children with you. And nine years later, here I am, in your arms. What do you think?”

Underneath her, Lorcan seems at a loss for words, his eyes tracing every inch of her face. His eyes soften, his mouth relaxes. And then his hands come up to her waist, tracing her sides, up, up to her ribcage, his lips nearing hers-

Elide’s hands wrap around his wrists, peeling him off her just to pin his wrists to the mattress. Lorcan lets out a breath accompanied by a low, soft growl at the back of his throat.

She smiles, dark satisfaction washing over her as Lorcan’s body becomes rigid underneath hers.

“What do you think?” She says again, dragging her lips over his jaw. “Would I be tangled with you in these sheets if I did not want you more than I ever wanted anything else?”

Lorcan’s knees raise, delicately pulling his wife closer to where he wants her to be. Elide lets out a sultry laugh against his skin.

“Behave,” she says, touching his lips with the tip of her finger. “And answer me.”

Lorcan has no words in his mouth. Elide grins, leaning down to kiss him but letting out a gasp instead when, only a second later, Lorcan has her pinned to the bed. His kiss is the only answer she needs.

         “Not fair,” she says under her breath as Lorcan moves down her body.

         And even with her playfulness, with her reassurance, Elide knows that there will always be a part of Lorcan that doubts.

         So she makes sure he understands.

         Lorcan intends to go further down, but Elide squeezes her legs together, trapping her with her thighs. Her husband looks up, raising his brows slightly.

         Elide’s eyes never leave his.

         Not for one second.

         She drags her body down on the mattress, just slightly, and with a shift of her hips, Elide feels him at her entrance.

         Lorcan lets out a breath, arms straining on each side of her. And still, her eyes do not leave him. Not as Elide circles her hips, taking more of him in, inch by inch, slow, so slow, the scalding pressure of him making her moan.

         Her hands move down his back, every scar memorized, every imperfection loved, until they reach the small of his back. Elide drags her nails up, letting out a long breath as Lorcan trembles with the feel of her. With her thighs, Elide pushes him in to the hilt.

         Still – still now, the full length of him has her gasping out his name.

         All else lay forgotten – the rebels, Terrasen…the damn soup.

         “Lorcan,” she breathes, resting her head on the furs, looking up at the ceiling.

         Lorcan shifts, pulls his hips back, leaving her empty.

         Then slowly, too slow, he comes back in. And out. And in. All the way out, just to thrust all the way in once more.      

         Elide’s eyes flutter closed at the feeling, wanting more of him, each and everytime he pulls away.

         She is about to beg for exactly that when Lorcan pulls back completely. Trembling in his arms, Elide almost groans in frustration, but then his hands are at her sides, turning her to face the mattress.

         Elide rests her head down in anticipation, swallowing hard as his hands trace the shape of her thighs, her ass, her hips. She can feel his eyes on every inch of her, bared to him. And then she feels him leaning over her, his chest against her back, his lips against her ear.

         Elide arches her back into him, pressing herself against his hardness.

         “Oh so impatient,” he laughs softly, darkly.

         Elide does not have a voice to respond when Lorcan spreads her thighs and, with a gentle kiss on her neck, thrusts back in. Hard.

         She groans, burying her face in the furs, clinging to the sheets with her very last strength as Lorcan does it again, and again, and again. Hard, quick thrusts, sending her to the edge too fast.

         Elide lifts her hips to meet his, but Lorcan has none of that. Usually he would not oppose to her taking a bit of control – but he is taking the matters into his own hands tonight. So when she tries again, lifting her hips to meet his thrusts, Lorcan pins them down, digging his fingers into her skin and stealing the air from her lungs in the process.

         “Please,” she finds herself murmuring.

         If he simply guesses what she wants or if he gets an inkling from her increasing moans, Elide does not know. But a second later, his hand comes to her front, dragging down to where she wants him most.

         Hips slowing, but thrusts getting harder, Lorcan caresses her with small circles, soft and delicate, making her hips jolt her legs trembling.

         “Lorcan,” she murmurs, fisting the sheets. “Please, I can’t-”

         Breaking apart himself, Lorcan presses down with his fingers, rolling his lips one last time before he feels her shattering around him. Elide cries out his name the moment he spills himself in her, and trembles as Lorcan pulls himself off.

         Elide turns on the bed, trying to get as much air to her lungs as she can, and watching as Lorcan lies down in front of her. He pulls her close, seemingly just as shattered as she.

         “Never doubt me,” she breathes, kissing his lips.

         Lorcan nods, tracing her cheek with his thumb. No words are needed.

         For even in the night, Lorcan has never seen a brighter light.

***

 

         “Stop it,” she tells him, elbowing him playfully in his side.

         Lorcan very much enjoys the rosy tint to her cheeks as they walk back to the Manor the next morning. He enjoys it so much that, indeed, he has made it his personal goal to see it as many times as he can.

         This morning, for instance.

         Ever since they awoke, he’s been pestering his wife’s face with kisses, and whispering the filthiest things in her ear. And even as they return to their home, bright and early, with the spring’s sun shining down on them, Elide cannot stop grinning.

         “Oh! My Lady, my Lord! Back to early?” Mrs. Orland appears behind the entrance door, as if she has been there all along.

         “Thank you for taking care of the children, Mrs. Orland,” Elide says, hoping to the Gods the woman doesn’t see how truly flustered she is. “How are they?”

         “They’re still very much asleep, my Lady.”

         “Everything went well, I hope?” Lorcan smiles.

         “Oh, they are dears,” Mrs. Orland says, waving a hand in the air. “All was good. I was hoping to catch you this morning, my Lady, my Lord. A letter came.”

         “Oh,” Elide says, looking into Mrs. Orland’s face to see if it delivered bad news, but she found nothing. “Who is it from?”

         “It does not say, my Lady,” Mrs. Orland says. “I had believed it to be from your friend. The nice Lady. Oh, dear. My memory is not what it used to be…the nice, friendly, sweet Lady. The one married to our Prince Aedion…”

         “Lysandra?” Elide shakes her head. “I don’t believe it. I got a letter just yesterday from Caraverre.”

         “Who delivered it?” Lorcan asks.

         “I am not sure, my Lord,” she says. “You see, the letter was already in the parlor when I woke. I even asked our chef if she knew, but nobody has seen a messenger, it seems. I must ask Roy – he was tending to the horses this morning, maybe he knows.”

         Elide pauses, feeling suddenly anxious. She shares a glance with her husband, and sees her own questions reflected in Lorcan’s dark eyes.

         A letter – no address, no messenger.

         Mrs. Orland leaves the letter with Elide and Lorcan, just before taking off. Elide is quick to open it with trembling fingers, expecting the worst-

         And finding much, much worse.

         “Elide?”

         Lorcan’s heart is filled with sudden fear as his wife slowly removes the note from the white envelope. It seems like a bare piece of parchment. But then Elide shows it to him, her face stricken with horror.

         Lorcan reads:

         Your time will come soon. You unnaturals will not live to see another dawn.

         Be ready. We are watching.

         Below the words, a very simple drawing: an ocean mark, with waves that end in spikes.

TO BE CONTINUED

Chapter Text

The Prince of Adarlan is a tempest.

            All violent winds and angry rains, a whirlwind of quiet chaos walking through the sunny halls of the palace. Hollin’s cold marble features show nothing – no empathy, no worry, no regard for anybody gathered in the room. Even as he sits on his brother’s throne, a glittering crown atop his head, looking so fragile as if he is made of glass and yet, at the same time, looking as unbreakable as stone, the Prince has no emotions shining in his ice blue eyes. No emotions at all – but boredom.

            Dorian has been staying at his own private home with his wife and daughter for the past week. Their home is a key point in Adarlan’s politics, since it stands right in the middle of the joined territories of Dorian and Manon’s kingdoms. Evangeline has heard that just yesterday, Aelin herself has joined them both, so that they could come up with a viable plan to stop the attacks. This left the young Prince in charge until his brother returns.

Since the threats made to the Queen of Terrasen and her people, the kingdoms of Erilea have been on high alert, and with good reason. Not only is Aelin being framed for crimes she did not commit, but the people of Erilea are suffering for it. Random attacks thrown at innocent people, and flames spreading across forests are daily news arriving to Evangeline. Her letters to Elide and Lysandra are worried, but her friends assure her that everything will be alright, that with both Aelin and Dorian working alongside to ensure that nobody else in their kingdom is harmed because of a group of prejudiced, small-minded individuals who they have yet to find.

            This is what this meeting is for.

            Hollin is surrounded by advisors, and some of his people from Rifthold wait to give their testimony. For these attacks to spread all the way to Adarlan…

            “Let us begin,” Hollin gestures with a hand, as if to say, Get on with it.

            Evangeline attends the meeting as Dorian required, but she knows perfectly well that if that decision had been left for the Prince, Hollin would have never wanted her there.

            Her feelings are still terribly hurt by his words, by the way he’d faced her that day in the tower.

            “Did you see all those people when you arrived? The way they looked at you?”

            “Everyone who looks at you knows perfectly well what you are and where you came from.”

            Evangeline tries to swallow the tightness on her throat away, but it only makes her feel as if she cannot breathe. Still. She remains standing at the sides, watching, her back straight and her hair pulled back from her face.

            She tells herself Hollin was simply trying to push her away. Nobody is looking at her. Right?

            The Lord of Letters rises from his bow and presents the Prince with a letter. From the insignia, Evangeline knows it is from Dorian.

            She watches Hollin’s handsome jaw tighten as he reads the words, his hand tense as he holds on to the small piece of parchment. There’s a tick on his jaw, as if he is biting back words.

            “My brother, your King, has no new developments on the situation with the rebels,” Hollin informs drily. “He says it will take another week of negotiating with the Queen of Terrasen, as well as the King and Queen of Eyllwe, who have recently joined them in the King’s private home. He sends his regards to his people.” With that, Hollin folds the letter and puts it back on the Lord’s hands without much ceremony. “What else?”

            “My Prince,” his right-hand advisor says, “your people-”

            “Ah, yes,” Hollin sighs, gesturing once more. “Do talk.”

            Dorian’s Captain of the guard gently leads an elderly woman to the front of the dais. Evangeline instantly recognizes her, and a smile makes his way up to the young woman’s features. Evangeline teaches this woman’s granddaughter back in the city everyday, and always finds the older lady waiting at the school gates for the little girl. There is always such join in their faces-

            “Your Highness,” the elderly woman says. “It is an honor to speak to you, and a great delight to see that you are well-”

            “Yes. Talk,” Hollin says.

            Evangeline feels the need to glare at the Prince, but keeps her anger tightly in check. The woman, however, does not seem the least affected by the Prince’s short temper.

            “I have a granddaughter, Your Highness,” the elderly woman continues. “She is only six years old, and already shows a great skill for magic.”

            Hollin’s face is passive, dry as a desert.

            “She is the only person I have, Sir,” the woman murmurs, leading her hand to her heart. “And I am the only one that she has. She is obligated to attend school every day during the week, but with recent events, I come to ask if Your Highness would permit her to be home-schooled, only for a little while.” The woman looks down. “I am…very frightened of something happening to her. She does not know how to control her powers still, Sir, you see.”

            “What is the child’s magic, madam?” The advisor asks calmly, clearly sympathetic.

            “Water, Sir,” the woman smiles then, proudly and brightly. “She moves it, and plays with it. She is no danger-”

            “I was not implying such a thing, madam,” the advisor says. “But elemental magic, even if it is rare, it is noticeable. We would not want to place your granddaughter into any danger when it comes to these rebels.”

            The advisor then looks to the Prince, as if willing him to respond.

            Evangeline cannot understand Hollin’s face. Even if it is set in stone, there is a sort of glint to his eyes that was not there before. A sort of-

            Understanding, almost.

            She looks around at his advisors, wondering if any of them have noticed the small shift in the Prince.

            Hollin leans forward in the throne. A pause. And then, “She will be permitted to stay at home. I want reports on her. Do you have a personal instructor?”

            “No, Sir.”

            “Then I will provide one for you-”

            “I can do it.”

            All eyes turn to Evangeline. Her voice is small, but enough to be noticed. Brave at heart, Evangeline takes a step and says to the Prince, “I will gladly take two hours off my day to teach this little girl at home.”

            Hollin looks at her for the first time, his eyes dark.

            Evangeline wishes to crumble, but does not.

            The elderly woman advances toward her. “I cannot ask you such a thing, my Lady, you already do so much.”

            “Please,” Evangeline smiles. “It is a joy.”

            They both look to the Prince. “Very well,” he says, and turns his eyes away, all remaining sentiment whisked away.

            The second person moves to the dais – a man in his early forties or so, wearing blacksmith’s clothes. He speaks about what he knows of the rebels and the certain signs he’s spotted all over Rifthold – the missing people, the confirmed fae slaughtered in the streets, the symbol they keep seeing plastered all over the walls.

            Nothing of it makes sense to Evangeline. For a group of rebels intending to frame Aelin by using fire, they are simultaneously standing far away from that possibility by hurting magical beings. Why would Aelin hurt her own kind? Why would Aelin hurt anyone?

            No, Evangeline thinks. These rebels, whoever they are, are planning something bigger.

            After the man speaks, Hollin is silent for a little while, a hand underneath his chin as he lowers his eyes to the tiled floor. No one can predict what the Prince is going to say, and it is as if people are holding their breath, awaiting that storm to hit them.

            But it never really comes.

            Hollin simply sighs, and then says, “I want a guard on each quarter during the day. Two, during the night. I want reports from you, Captain, every morning, as early as you can get them to me. I will personally give you your guard’s shifts at the end of this day.” The Prince lifts himself up off the throne, as if he cannot stand being in it for one second more. He speaks to his court: “Every person in this kingdom will be safe – magical or not. Human or not. No one shall be harmed again. This meeting is over.”

            Evangeline blinks.

            Does the storm have a sunny ending, after all?

            The main advisor seems to be as surprised as she, for the man comments, as the Prince begins to walk away: “That was sincerely kind of you, Your Highness.”

            But Hollin sneers, taking off his crown and leaving it in the advisor’s hands. Before he walks past her, Evangeline hears him call out, “They are my brother’s orders. Not mine.”

***

 

            She was not wrong to be upset with him.

            But maybe…maybe Evangeline did cross a line that day, just over a week ago, by going inside his personal space. It should have been on her mind that Hollin was not used to people intruding or even defying him, so was it too much of a surprise when he lashed out? Not really.       

            In fact, Hollin should not have spoken to her in such a way, even if he did have his reasons. He was at fault. But Evangeline felt as if she had another apology to make.

            Though there is still a part of her, stubborn and angry, that wanted anything else than to march up to that tower, to that office of his, and apologise. A part of her that asked, Why should you have to apologise? Wanting to be friendly should not have earned you that reaction, that anger.

            But then again…was this really Evangeline?

            She needs to give him the benefit of the doubt still, because the man she saw today was not the man that spoke to her badly that day in the tower. And Hollin could say anything he wanted about it being his own brother’s orders, but Evangeline seriously doubted that Dorian would tell Hollin to go that far as to personally set up a schedule for the guards to keep the capital safe. His brother had surely told Hollin to take the necessary precautions, but the execution of that plan was entirely his. She knows it.

            So now?

            Evangeline feels tempted to show Hollin her good side once more. If she willingly goes to him, apologize for the way she had intruded on him before, maybe that would soften him a bit. Staying angry with him is not an option – not for her. She was never one to hold grudges.

            Yes, she is going to him. To show him that, despite his behavior, there are still people who care. People like her. There is always more to a person, and there is so much more to Hollin, more than she can imagine. She has to give him another chance.

            After all – nobody is ever truly lost, if there is still someone to find them.

            So she goes to find the boy with the tempest eyes.

            At the end of the tower, Evangeline is struggling for breath, clinging to stone wall as if she might collapse. Now she understands why the Prince chose this particular hiding place. It took lungs to reach him – lungs the regular human being surely did not possess. Reaching behind her, and resting against the cool, stone wall, Evangeline undid some of her laces of her bodice, attempting to loosen it just slightly. Breathing a sigh of relief, she stared at the door.

            She had felt brave before, and yet now…

            Evangeline shakes her head to herself. Nonsense. She was never frightened of storms, and she is not going to start being afraid now.

            Gently, she knocks.

            No answer.

            Maybe he is not in?

            She knocks again, and hears a very distinct Hollin-sigh. A paper brown bag in hand, Evangeline waits, putting her best smile on her face. Finally, the door opens to reveal those same ice blue eyes, and the dark rings around them. Hollin leans a hand against the doorframe, raising his eyebrows in pure, Hollin-like disinterest.

            “It is you again.”

            “It is me again,” she smiles. “Before anything, hello.”

            Hollin sighs in irritation, opening his mouth to send her away-

            “Look,” Evangeline holds out her free hand. “I know we did not get along right away, and I have reason to believe that is half my fault. So,” she takes a breath. “I am sorry, Hollin, that I made you uncomfortable the other day. I am sorry that you felt the need to protect yourself from me by lashing out. I am sorry that you feel like that. I would like to make amends,” she shows him the bag, waving it in front of his eyes. For that, her arm has to extend, for he is quite a bit taller, and she imagines herself looking quite comical. “I brought us lunch.” 

            He seems at a loss for words.

            And then: “What the fuck are you saying?”

            Evangeline raises her brows. “You have a very colorful language. So does Aedion, you know. It is quite funny, actually, I-”

            “What makes you think I want anything from you?” He asks her, crossing his arms against his chest. Evangeline is quite distracted by the motion, because Hollin, despite everything, has very…agreeable arms. “And what makes you think you understand me?”

            “I understand most people,” Evangeline says, raising her eyes to his, her smile kind, playful. There is something about irking him this way that makes her throw her initial plan off the window, and instead makes her want to simply anger him further for her own amusement. Maybe she is crueler than she thought. “I do not believe you have noticed, Sir, but I am quite smart.”

            “There is a line between smart and intelligent.”

            “Meaning?” She quirks a brow.

            Hollin looks frustrated and – oh, dear – quite flustered, indeed. A red tint has risen to his cheeks as his eyes flash. He does not expect her to be as quick-worded as he.

            “May I come in?” She asks. “This bag is quite heavy.”

            He blinks, like he’s never seen something quite like her before. But then, as he moves to let her in, Evangeline takes her chance. She speeds through, placing the bag in his desk, before saying, “I am not going to intrude further.” She turns to look at him, still completely at a loss for words at the door. “I just noticed that you rarely eat lunch, so I thought I would bring enough for two. If you do not want company, I will now go.”

            She waits for his answer, trying very hard not to peek at his papers on his desk. It seems he has tried countless times to draft a letter, but most of the parchment has ended up ripped off and thrown into all kinds of places. Mainly on the floor. He’s not a very neat Prince.

            “I do not like to eat with other people.” His tone is irritable still, but-

            It’s progress, she thinks.

            “Oh, I know quite a few people like that,” Evangeline says. “Me, personally, I don’t mind it at all. In fact, I really like eating with a table full of people. Maybe it is because I did not have that growing up.”

            “Do you ever shut up?” Hollin narrows his eyes.

            “Oh no, never,” Evangeline says. “I was quiet for too long, Sir, you see, and now I have grown to love the sound of my own voice too much. So no, I never intend to shut my mouth.”

            A pause. “Are you taking the piss?”

            Evangeline cocks her head to the side. “I do not know what that means.”

            “Leave, and take your food with you.”

            “Please.”

            “What?”

            “Say: Please leave, I do not wish for your company at this moment in time,” she says. “And you could also add: But thank you for the food.”

            Hollin laughs outright. And it is a sound so strange to her ears that it takes her a moment to recover from it. She does not know if she likes the roughness of his laugh, or if she feels very threatened by it.

            “I do not have to say a thing to you,” Hollin says to her, advancing. Evangeline blinks, watching him watching her.

            “Hollin,” she says.

            “I didn’t give you permission to say my name,” he says.

            “What does that mean?” She frowns. “It is your name, is it not? Or do you have another one?”

            “You have clearly never learned any etiquette, did you?”

            “Says the man that curses with every word he says.”

            “You never call a royal by his name,” Hollin spats.

            “I call your brother by his given name,” Evangeline crosses her arms. “It is only you that has a superiority complex, Hollin. No one else.”

            “Look at you and your big words,” he taunts. “You sure did come a long way since your brothel days, didn’t you?”

            Evangeline pauses. And smiles. “Will you throw that in my face everytime I touch a nerve, Hollin? Do you even know the whole story?”

            “I do not want to,” he says, close to her face. “I do not need to. Because I do not care.”

            “Too bad,” Evangeline says, looking at him up and down. “I am a teacher, you see – it is my job to educate. So let me educate you: do you know why I came here today?”

            “I. Do. Not. Care.”

            “I think you do,” Evangeline says, looking up at him. She finds herself cornered between him and the wall, with nowhere else to turn to. And still, she is ruthless. “That’s the reason I came here; because I think you need a friend. Because I think that you standing there, poised in your white tunic and brushed hair, claiming that you do not care about anybody else but yourself, is only a mask that you put on to hide the fact that, after all, you are the one person in this palace that cares most. I see that in you. And yes – I am loud, and I am happy, and I talk too much, and I make people food because I care about them. I have never learned to curse, and I get laughing fits often. I feed the ducks so often they have begun to follow me around the castle grounds. I love books, and everytime I am in here, I just want to read every book you own because I think they are all so interesting. I have a bad sense of humor. And I like you, and I care for you, and I would like you to have you as my friend. Most of all, I worry for you, because it freaks me out that you do not eat more than two meals a day.” A pause, as she breathes, each word becoming lower and lower. “And the reason why I was in that brothel in the first place was because my own mother put me there.”

            A longer pause, longer than she can bear. Still, Evangeline stands tall, watching the Prince as he watches her. Again, there is no way to read his features, or interpret the anger in his eyes.

            Evangeline’s breath hitches as he places his hands on the wall, on either side of her. Intimidating her to make himself feel big, is what he is doing. And Evangeline is not falling for any of it. Not at all.          

            Not even a little bit.

            He leans close, and she can smell him. Like soap and freshly washed clothes. Like tea leaves and something spicy mixed with it. Like parchment and dust. The smell of this room – of old books and wood – clings to him.

            It is a terrible thrill having him this close to her – to feel the heat of his body, to see the different hues of blue in his eyes and the freckles between his cheeks.

            “You think you can read me like an open book,” he says.

            “Some pages have been ripped off,” Evangeline says, trying, and failing, to keep her voice even. “But it is not difficult to understand what it is trying to convey.”

            “And what exactly do you think I’m trying to convey?”

            “You do not wish me to call you by your name because even that is too personal, right? Is it that strange that someone wishes to get close, Hollin? Is it that strange that someone cares?”

            He looks as if he’s been slapped in the face.

            “Pushing me away will only make me care more,” she says.

            “That is enough,” Hollin says, and Evangeline can feel his hands tightening on the stone wall beside her head. She almost wonders if he’s trying to leave his fingerprints there. “You don’t know anything. You think you do; all too clever Evangeline, lover of the world that loves her right back. You don’t know shit.” She flinches too much at the cruelty of the words, and feels her back press against the cold stone. “Now, let me do some analyzing of my own. I think you are all too scared to be on your own, are you not? You cling to people like you cling for air because at the end of the day, if you are left alone for five minutes, you are like a child crying for a mother. Is the world’s attention not enough for you? Of course not. Somebody does not fall at your feet, and your instant reaction is to persist until they do. You are just a scared little girl, afraid of the dark and the loneliness that awaits there. Tell me, how well am I doing so far?”

            Evangeline swallows against the thick rope he tied at her throat. She murmurs, “Maybe I need you as much as you need me.”

            Whatever he expects her to say, it is not that. Hollin pulls back slightly. “I do not need you,” he says. “I do not need anybody.”          

            “Everybody needs somebody,” she whispers.

            The world seems to stop spinning the moment he looks down at her. And like this, his head bent forward, his eyes shadowed by thick brows, ebony curls falling over his forehead, he looks as far away from the Prince Evangeline has come to know as humanly possible.

            His eyes drift down – to her scars. Faded now, but still very much prominent. Evangeline contains herself from squirming under his watchful gaze. She is not ashamed of her scars. Not one bit. These scars saved her life. These scars kept her intact. But there is something in the way he looks at them that makes her want to pull her hair back from her face and, at the same time, hide herself all together. She cannot comprehend the contradiction that is Hollin, and the contradictions that he sparks in her own mind.

            His eyes drift lower – to her bodice.

            To the loose strings. She’d forgotten she’d untied the last few strings outside. She cannot help but imagine that, if he were to tug that string down, all her bodice would fall apart.

            His eyes rise to meet her, and then they both look away from each other.

“Not me,” he says at last.

            “Is that why you are struggling to write a letter to the Princess of Eyllwe?”

            A pause. “You read through my things.”

            “They were out in the open when you let me in,” Evangeline says. “I just caught the one name.”

            He pulls back completely, the moment lost. “I need you to-”

            “I will,” Evangeline says before he can, pulling away as well. “I just – wanted to say that I apologize and that…if you wish, you have a friend extending a hand to you, whenever you wish to take it. And hum…” She points at the back left on his desk, clearing her throat. “Sandwiches. With strawberry jam. Your chef told me they were your favorite.”

            Hollin does not respond, and she does not expect him to. So she walks to the door, flustered and confused at her own thoughts and with prickling skin. Even if he did not touch her once.

            And then she stops at the door frame, something coming to her mind.

            She turns, “Wait. I have a deal for you.”

            “No.”

            “You have not even heard it yet!” She protests.

            “No.”

            “Hear me out,” Evangeline says, wondering, in the back of her mind, why the Prince keeps facing the window and not her. And he has the moral to comment on her manners… “I am good with words. If you are trying to charm the Princess for when she comes to the Winter’s Ball, I can help you write her a letter. I can see you need a hand.”

            “I don’t need your help, and I am not trying to charm anybody.”

            “It is pretty clear you like her,” Evangeline shrugs. “I can help you win you over. You know I can. Given this, I am not claiming to know everything about love, but I know a woman’s mind surely better than you do.”

            He turns to her, clearly offended, cheeks red. “I can know about a woman’s mind on my own, thank you very much!”

            “Please, Hollin, you run from all your desperate fans,” she smiles slightly. “It’s alright, we cannot be good at everything. So my deal: I will help you with the Princess, even give you lessons, if you will, and in return, you will teach me the stars.”

            “I will teach you the stars?” He sneers. “What the fuck does that mean?”

            She gestures vaguely towards his telescope. “The thingy. I do not know what it is called. The art of watching stars?”

            “Astronomy?”

            “Yes, precisely! See? You know so much!” She claps. “I know my basic maths, but I must say it is not my strongest discipline. So help me with numbers, with calculating the stars or whatever it is that you do, and I will help you win the Princess’ heart.”

            Hollin looks towards his letters with a sort of desperation that takes her aback. He really must like her, Evangeline thinks, if he is willing to even think about saying yes to this.

            “It will not hurt your pride to ask for a little help,” Evangeline grins. “Or it should not. It is only me, after all. Also, nobody will know about it. Your reputation as a cold hearted, I-Don’t-Let-Anybody-Touch-My-Books cruel prince will be kept intact and polished to the max. Deal?”

            He shakes his head at her. “You are certainly…bonkers.”

            “Oh,” she laughs. “You have seen nothing.” She extends a hand towards him. “Well?”

            Hollin looks at her hand as if he thinks it will hit him.

            “You shake it, Hollin,” she grins, touching his hand and leading it to hers. They both seem to jump at that, but Evangeline ignores it as she squeezes his hand with her fingers. “Like this.”

            “I am not saying yes.”

            “You are,” she says. “I see it in your eyes. You need my help, and I need yours.”

            “You do not need me,” he says, pulling his hand away. Evangeline watches him flex his fingers. “You could learn about this with any Astronomy book.”

            Evangeline shrugs. “I am terribly impatient, Sir. And I would bore myself to death all by my lonesome. So?”

            He sighs, looking away. “Alright, fine. Nobody knows about this.”

            “Fine.”

            “Not even Dorian.”    

            “Keeping things from your brother is messed up, but I respect you enough to agree.”

            “I decide when we meet.”

            “No, actually I do,” she smiles. “You see, I am not prancing in pretty jackets in this castle all day nor am I stuck at a dusty office scribbling away my love for a foreign princess, I do have a job, Your Highness.”

            “I should put you in the dungeons for speaking to me in such a way,” he grumbles, but it sounds like he very much wants to laugh.

            Evangeline says, “I would dare you to try, but I am not in the mood for a squabble,” she shrugs. “So, I am available as early as six-”

            “Five,” he says. “You are available as early as five.”

            Evangeline crosses her arms, giving him a dazzling smile. “It is too early in this relationship for me to be losing sleep over you, Hollin.”

            At her taunt, the Prince goes bright red, but quickly shakes it off as he says, “Well, you do need rest from handling all those…little devils all day. I am a compromising man, so six it is.”

            She would have never put Hollin and ‘Compromising’ in the same sentence, but each lunatic to their own, she guesses.

            “At evenings,” she says, “we can begin my lessons, since – and do correct me if I am wrong – we need the night to see stars.”

            “Now you really are taking the piss.”

            “I still have no clue what that means.”

            “Six until nine in the morning,” he says. “And eight until eleven in the evening-”

            “No, I sleep earlier than that.”

            “You will come to me at that exact time or no-”

            “I said no,” she says, raising her chin. “I like to retire early because I read before I sleep. So it’s going to be seven until ten. We can dine before.”

            He narrows her eyes, and Evangeline feels quite pleased with herself. It is not very often that you get to say no to a pompous prince, let alone irk him like this.

            “Our first lesson will be about taking a no,” she grins, and bows her head slightly before turning. “We start tomorrow.”

            “The day after tomorrow,” he grumbles, watching her leave.

            “Tomorrow,” she calls out, laughter in her voice, as she disappears.

***

            Hours later, Hollin Havilliard has his head in his hands.

            The tremors have not come to pass, as the healer said they would. And Hollin is…he is anxious.

            He had installed a small cot for him to rest in his office, for there were nights when he could not be bothered to go all the way back to his chambers, and now he sits there, trying to breathe, trying to keep the monsters at bay.

            But they watch, dark as night, terrifying as nightmares.

            “What is happening,” he murmurs to himself, feeling the beads of sweat cling to his forehead. “Stop. Stop it.”

            No one listens. No one ever has.

            His brother’s last letter sits on his desk, and Hollin is all too keen to cling to it like a child’s blanket. For one moment, for one single second, he feels like a child again, wanting to cling to his brother’s leg for comfort. But there is nobody else to turn to here. He is alone, truly alone.

            Even his mother has left him.

            A tremble goes through his body once more, and he thanked the Gods for the bucket he remembered to place beside his cot. He relieves the contents of his stomach there, bracing himself against the edges of the bucket. When was the last time he ate? Hollin did not have the guts to eat what the girl had prepared for him – he had been scared to enjoy it. One more step towards liking her.

            But she’d been kind, too kind. She seemed knowledgeable. More knowledgeable than that excuse for a healer he keeps around. Maybe if he explained the symptoms…

            No. No, he could not tell her. The girl would speak to somebody, or run away, or-

            Hollin sighs and wipes at his mouth, putting down the bucket. And that is when he catches a glimpse of what’s inside.

            A black liquid substance. Like that of-

            Hollin moves away from it, as if that might come to life and devour him. No, he must be seeing things, that is not possible.

            But what if it is?

            Or maybe he was truly ill.

            Hollin leans back against the stone wall where the girl had been pressed just hours ago. Could he honestly be feeling her warmth lingering still, or was he running a fever? He slid against the wall, his shirt clinging to his back with sweat.

            He’d been dying for her presence. Ever since she left that day, he’d been wanting…

            What, exactly?

            We all need somebody.

            Maybe I need you as much as you need me.

            Hollin shakes his head. It is the fever. It can only be the fever…

            Shadows sit at the end of the room, smiling at the moonlight. They want him, he knows that. They want to devour him. They want him to shatter this world to pieces. They call his name as sweet as a lover’s whisper, and the worst thing-

            The worst thing is that they have her voice.

            “Stop,” he rests his head on his knees, hugging his legs to his chest. “Please.”

            “Hollin…”

            They slither to him, quiet and cool, hands touching his face, soft as sunrise, gentle as spring, and lips kiss his tear-stained cheeks.

            “Leave,” he murmurs. “Leave me alone.”

            The shadows writhe like water. Spreading across the room. Waiting their time to strike.

            “Hollin…”

            “Hollin…”

            “Stop. Stop. Stop.”

            “Hollin…”

            “STOP IT.”

            Parchment is flying everywhere, a wave of air pushing the books out of their nooks and aiming them at the stone walls. The wind bites at his face, cold as ice, angry as a tempest, whirling around in the small office, until chaos reigns.

            Hollin closes one shaking fist, and everything stops.

            And falls to the ground.

            A choked breath leaves him. The Prince of Adarlan curls into a corner, closes his eyes, with only the demons in the shadows for company.

Chapter Text

 

            The skies were her home.

            When she lost sight of herself, Manon Blackbeak took to the skies. Abraxos answered her silent call, and there she would be – soaring away, letting the cold wind wrap its icy fingers around her thoughts, and let them drift off to a wherever she did not care to know of.

            When the blood stuck to her hands and the aches of her body aimed to tear her down, the witch closed her eyes, and breathed the mountain air. The wind carried everything away – who she had been, who she was, what she had done, and what she had still to do.

            Well. Not everything.

            Even if she wanted to, not even the cruelest of winds would not carry away the thirteen names carved upon her heart. Wouldn’t – because she wouldn’t let it.

            She still doesn’t.

            Her kingdom is peace.           

            Witches look up to the darkened summer skies to see the familiar wyvern and red colors fly by. They salute to her – to their Queen, their protector. The heir of two clans, now joined together.

            Blackbeak and Crochan.

            “Abraxos,” she says, leaning forward over the neck of her wyvern.

            Abraxos does not have to hear the rest. More than ten years join the witch and the wyvern, and their minds are as inseparable as their souls. He understands her command, and promptly turns his wings downwards, bringing them below to the mountain tops.

            When they set foot on the ground, Abraxos’ nose turns to the furious clouds, his dark eyes narrowing. A storm brewing. The wyvern’s wings tremble before they fold neatly behind his powerful body. After Manon dismounts, Abraxos turns to the witch, giving her an impatient look.

            “I know,” the witch says to him. “We will return shortly.”

            But he is not happy.

            Huffing, Abraxos lets his snout bump Manon’s back, as if to tell her, Hurry up, then.

            “Hush,” Manon orders, eyes overlooking the edge of the woods.

            They have landed in one of the steep mountains of the Witch Kingdom facing the western territories. To the East, beyond this range, surrounded by blue rivers, cocooned by endless hills, is her home.

            Her home.

            Yes – yes, the skies are still her home. But now, Manon and Abraxos have a true place to come to. A hearth to rest on. Arms to hold them. Their second home. Their most precious home.

            Manon’s instincts tell her to be cautious. Her chin raises slightly, her ears listening to every little twig and animal and leaf and branch. Every movement caught by her eyes. Until the very witch she came to see makes her away to her, seemingly appearing out of the darkness between the trees.

            The fair-haired witch touches her knee to the ground, head bent low. “My Queen.”

            “Alma,” Manon says. “Tell me.”

            Her right-hand all these years since her kingdom received its Queen, Alma is a witch as reckless as she is loyal; as deadly as she is clever; and as ruthless as she is kind. In truth, Manon is reminded of her cousin everytime she sees Alma’s wild eyes, everytime she informs Alma of a mission and witnesses the unwavering determination in that iron gaze. It is one of the reasons why Manon chose her to be her Second, as hard of a decision as that was; that, and Alma’s unconditional love and devotion for her country.

            Alma’s back straightens. “There have been no attacks since we last spoke, Manon.”

            “And have you done what I told you to do?”

            “Every sentinel on every house. Each witch has been informed of the new threats. We have taken every necessary precaution, rest assured.”

            Manon says, “Whoever these rebels are, they will not cross my territory, and I want that to be very clear to you. Any sign, the smallest there is, you will let me know as soon as you sense it.”

            Alma’s eyes flash like steel gleaming in the sun. “Yes, of course.” And then a pause, as the witch considers what she is about to say next. At Manon’s questioning look, Alma continues: “If you allow me to comment, Manon, it appears to me like these rebels only wish to target the Queen of Terrasen, whatever their reasons are for it. There has not been a witch that has been targeted in their war for blood. The houses burned, the families destroyed…it is a human war waged for the fae and those with their powers. Do you not find that strange?”

            A muscle ticks on Manon’s jaw, which does not go unnoticed for the witch facing her. But Alma’s spirit does not allow her to be silent when there are doubts in her mind, and even now, Manon is thankful for it.

            “You think I am getting into a war that does not belong to us,” Manon states.

            Alma lowers her head. “I am not even sure we can call it a war. It is a bunch of mortals hating themselves for their own mortality and wanting to take it on their best target – the long-lived ones. Though I must admit, for mortals, they are surely stepping up their game if they have not been discovered yet.”

            “The fae have no reason to turn against Aelin Galathynius,” Manon says, calm despite the storm forming in her own mind. “Besides, we already know some of her mortals are opposed to her reign, and have been since the beginning. Maybe it is like you said – just mortals playing at being gods. But imagine if it is not. Do you think it is wrong for me to take precautions in my own kingdom? To protect my own people?”

            Alma blinks, and promptly shakes her head. “I did not mean it that way. I would not doubt you concerning anything, Manon. Much less when it comes to your kingdom. I think we do well to protect it, even if we do not know the extent of this threat.”

            “You are my eyes and ears everytime I leave. I know this kingdom is in good hands,” Manon says. Alma bows her head in gratefulness. It is true – since their home was built, a bridge forming between the Witch Kingdom and Adarlan, Alma has been not only Manon’s general, but her spy, her commander, even her voice, everytime Manon is with her family.

            “You do not leave often enough for me to be praised in such a way,” Alma says. “And what I am saying is – we need to thread carefully through the mess that is brewing in Terrasen, Manon. I think it is smart to protect our people. But, like you said, should this become a bigger threat than some mortals playing the fae, I believe we should be prepared for it. So should your husband, the King.”

            Her husband. Dorian. Since they know practically share the territory between their countries.

            The ache in her chest is very much real. Thinking of Dorian makes her think of her daughter. And since Manon has been overseeing the recent threats, making sure they have not reached her own people for the last week, the absence of those two has been making the skies particularly rainy on her part of the world. Witches, in particular, are very much attached to their witchlings. For the first few months of Rhiannon’s life, Manon could barely put her daughter to sleep, and it took Dorian peeling the little babe out of her arms and assuring Manon that he would watch over for her to sleep.

            Even now, being away from her…

            It is the pain of being a Queen and a mother. A wife with a crown of her own.

            “If they are targeting fae and humans alike,” Manon says, “they could just as easily target witches. Ours. Adarlan is protected. And our own Kingdom will be, too. It is a promise I make you all.”

            “Any new developments?” Alma asks, though she already knows the answer.

            “In a day we will be speaking with the rulers of Erilea.” Something which Manon is not particularly looking forward to. All those fae and humans in her own household. Ugh. “Aelin has gathered her court, and from her last letter, it seems they have found useful information. We will see.”

            “Alright,” Alma says. “In the meantime, do not worry, no harm shall come to your people.”

            Manon is tempted to look behind her – as if she can almost see her home, and the two people waiting there for her.

            Alma smiles, compassion shining behind those ruthless yellow eyes. “Go to your daughter, Manon. You have done enough here.”     

            “I will patrol the skies once more.”

            At that, Abraxos lets out a dramatic huff as if he is grumbling under his breath, and Manon looks behind her with a brow raised, expecting him to stomp next. Indeed – a mother of a five-year-old witch, and a grown wyvern.

            “A storm is coming,” Alma shakes her head. “You have done enough. Do not make the mistake of tearing your heart in two, Manon. You have served your people. Your daughter needs you, too. And you need her.”

            Manon turns her face upwards, to the raindrops already touching her cheeks. “We will see this resolved tomorrow, Alma. Or my name is not Manon Blackbeak Crochan.”

***

 

            “MAMA.”

            Dorian is almost not quick enough to place his daughter down. The moment Manon walks through those doors, soaked through her clothes, Rhiannon is running into her arms, running so, so fast, she is practically soaring, flying. Outside, through the tall, clear windows, Dorian sees a very happy Abraxos making himself comfortable beneath the stables, his massive head peaking through the opened doors. The horses no longer pay much attention to the flower-eating wyvern.

            “My heart,” he hears Manon whisper.

            Dorian turns to see her pulling Rhia into her arms, squeezing the girl to her chest. The resemblance between them is uncanny. Even miles away, even if you did not know them, anyone would instantly recognize them as mother and daughter. The same hair, the same eyes, the same mischief in their smiles.

            “I missed you,” Rhia says, her small arms clinging to her mother.

            “I know,” Manon murmurs, not wanting to let go. Each feature on her face shows relief. “I know. I missed you.”

            Dorian steps close, breathing a sigh of relief himself.

            They have been lucky – him and Manon. Over the years, the peace has allowed them both to build a life they were comfortable with. A place that stood between their kingdoms, so neither of them would feel shackled. This is the marriage they had both agreed on – one of understanding, one of alliance that goes much, much further than politics. An alliance of truth and love. Of trust.

It is still the same between them, Dorian thinks. Only now he gets to wear a pretty ring.

And, best of all, he also has the greatest gift he could ever ask for.

“Rhia,” he smiles, giving his daughter a look full of hints. “Are you not forgetting something?”  

“OH,” Rhia says with a clap of her hands, still in her mother’s arms. “That’s right!”

Manon looks between the two, her eyes lingering on Dorian a moment too long.

“Look, mama,” says her daughter.

Manon turns her eyes to see Rhia’s open mouth – and a dainty little tooth at the side. Silver. The Queen’s eyes glimmer. “Your first iron tooth.”

“Da otha fe’out,” Rhia says, open-mouthed.

“Did it?”

“Papa said to put it under my pillow,” Rhiannon chuckles.

Manon spares her husband a glance. “And did you not tell your father how silly that was?”

“Silly,” Dorian repeats. “But effective.”

“Yes, mama,” Rhia gestures. “But a cookie was there the morning after. Papa said the little folk had left me a present for my tooth. And I said, Why did they want my tooth? And papa said, They are building a house with it, and I said, Well, that is disgusting, and where did they make this cookie? And papa said-“

“Sweetheart, we should let your mother at least change clothes before you tell the whole story,” Dorian grins at his daughter. And then at his wife: “It goes on for a while.”

Manon puts her daughter down, and the force of energy that is Rhiannon runs straight to the big, opened doors.

Manon starts, her instincts urging her to wrap her daughter in her arms once more. “Rhiannon, where are you going?”

“To see Abraxos, of course! He misses me terribly.”

“Be careful,” Manon warns, watching her daughter go. “Rhiannon, stay out of the rain. And come right back home-”

Two fingers at the bottom of her chin, turning her face to the blue eyes that made her heart stutter in her chest all those years ago. Still do.

“She will be fine,” Dorian smiles softly, touching his wife’s cheek. There is more than love in his gaze – reverence. Relief. Joy. Quiet, gentle joy. “Hello, witchling,” he coos.

            Manon lets him guide her into his arms, his hands pressing at the small of her back. She is drenched from the tips of her hair to her toes, and yet no cold enters her bones the moment she feels her husband’s body pressed against hers.

This. This is bliss. This is what it feels like to come back home.

            Dorian kisses her, and it is like the first time she soared into the open blue skies. The sizzling under her skin, her blood slowly boiling with adrenaline, the touch of phantom hands over her cheeks, her arms, her waist. That kiss is like the harsh wind – it steals the air from her lungs.

            Manon is the one to pull away, only briefly. Her eyes are hooded, dark gold. “Hello, princeling.”

            He smiles at the nickname, nose touching hers – just a gentle bump. Only a heartbeat later, Manon does the same to him, the tip of her nose brushing his. And it is a gesture so loving and tender for the witch, that it makes Dorian’s heart swell in his chest.

            “Terrible weather, I presume?” He takes her in – her hair, her wet cheeks, the water still dripping down her chin.

            “A bit of light rain never hurt anyone.”

            Dorian’s answering chuckle came deep and low from his chest.

            “I missed you too,” Dorian says to her, forehead touching hers. Their hands find each other, even with their eyes closed. “And, if you are wondering, I made those cookies – not the little folk – and they were delicious.”

            “I was not wondering, Dorian.”

            Dorian breathes another laugh, joyous and as beautiful as that smile of his, before leading his lips back to hers.

 

            “Mother.”

            A hand tugs at her leg. Manon and Dorian both look down, and her husband actually jumps out of her arms at the sight of their daughter who seemingly appears to have popped out of the air.

            “Rutting gods,” he whispers, leading a hand to his heart. “I can never get used to her doing that.”

            Manon hides her grin, tearing her eyes away from Dorian. “Yes, my heart?”

            Rhia scrunches up her nose, placing both hands at her waist. “When were you two going to tell me that my friends were going to come here tomorrow? Ellowyn just told me when she was tending the horses!”

            Dorian blinks. “We don’t have to tell you anything, we’re the parents.”

            “My friends are visiting and it’s my sixth birthday tomorrow,” Rhia gestures angrily at her father. “It was disrespectful to hide that from me, father.”

            “Where is she even learning these words,” Dorian mumbles.

            “Maybe we wanted to surprise you,” Manon raises an eyebrow.

            “Terrible excuse, mother. I am going to put myself to bed tonight,” Rhia waves a finger. “No story for either of you.”

            Manon and Dorian watch their daughter flip her white hair over her shoulder and march away, as if leading an angry army behind her for battle.

            “Did she ground us?” Dorian wonders out loud.

            “No one can deny she is your daughter,” Manon crosses her arms.

            “I don’t know what you mean.”

            “Please,” Manon gives her husband a sly grin. “Did you see the pose? The dramatics? She’s learned that from you.”

            “What about the arrogance? She learned that from you.”

            They return their gazes back to their daughter as she walks up the grand staircases, pride and joy gleaming on their faces.

***

            Manon almost closes her eyes when they reach their room and the scent hits her nostrils. The windows are closed to the stormy night, but the doors to the balcony are opened just the tiniest bit, letting in the scent of the trees. But it is not the familiar forest scent that makes her body melt – it is Dorian’s scent, oh so very present in the sheets, in every corner of this room.

            Mixed with her own, of course. But after being away for a whole week, it is enough to leave her mind foggy, to make her body react a certain way.

            “I sent a letter to Hollin today, and he should have gotten it by now,” Dorian is saying, quietly closing the door behind him. “I will let him know where we stand with the others tomorrow after the meeting. How did it go, in the Witch Kingdom? Did you-“

            “Let us not talk about this tonight,” Manon murmurs, turning to him.

            Dorian takes her in. The way her body stands, the dark glow of her eyes against the black night outside, the wet skin of her cheeks against the warm light of the candles. Desire courses through his veins at the sight of her.

            He allows himself a touch.

            Phantom hands glide towards her, and Dorian’s eyes flash the moment he feels the sharp contours of her body against those cold palms of his. The curve of her waist, her elbow, her shoulder, her neck. Simple touches that make Manon’s lips part on her own. There is an impatience to her, an urgency sizzling just under the surface of her skin and he knows it. He loves it.

            “No politics tonight,” she says, taking a step toward him, two, and three. Until she is pressed against him, watching the way the shadows move over his face. “Nothing but us.”

            Dorian gives her a smile – hauntingly beautiful. Painfully, so. “Agreed, witchling.”

            They know each other well enough by now to understand one another’s mind. To know what the other wants. Craves. Needs. And what Manon needs right now is her clothes on the floor, and his lips on her skin.

            A week. A whole week.

            In truth, there were times when they were apart for longer. The moment they began truly seeing each other, right after the war, they were both too busy rebuilding their kingdoms to truly enjoy each other’s company every other day. Sometimes a month went by without his touch, and Manon found herself – her whole self, not simply her body, but mostly her mind and the wretched thing that was her heart – craving him. It went beyond desire; she knew that even back then. It went beyond anything she had ever known, and wanted. It broke all barriers and it contradicted everything Manon had ever been taught.

            She had wanted Dorian body and soul back then.

            And ever since she realized it, Manon has not gone back.

            And neither has he.

            Dorian leans in, touches his lips to the skin of her neck. It has not truly dried yet given her still wet hair clinging to it. He glides his mouth over the moisture, his real hands and phantom hands covering her body, moving in gentle touches, provoking and teasing her.

            “Was it just as agonizing for you this time?” he murmurs against her skin, lips moving up her neck.

            Manon is still, eyes closed, simply enjoying his touches. The Witch Kingdom and its skies are her first home, indeed – but Dorian’s arms do not stray far away from the term itself. It is not like Alma said – her heart does not have to be torn. Whenever she needs to, she puts on a crown. But whenever that crown leaves her head, Manon has another home to come back to. A home that is just, if not more, as important.

            “Yes,” she says, her mouth dry.

            “Because for me,” Dorian continues, tilting her head back, each word whispered across the skin of her throat, “I woke up in the middle of my nights, wondering where my Queen was. Why I did not feel her next to me.”

            Manon’s breath hitches as she feels Dorian’s teeth skim the base of her throat. Only for him – she will only bear her throat for him.

            She has no words to respond the moment he kneels, the moment he looks up at her, his real hands drifting over her wet leathers. With careful intent, Dorian begins unlacing her boots, removing her sash, her riding vest, her gloves.

            Her clothes, on the floor. Her heart, on the floor.

            There are no words needed as Dorian slowly unbuttons her trousers, pulling them down her legs. Manon steps out of them with very inhuman gracefulness, watching him as he’s watching her. Nothing feels as intimate as the way they look at each other in these moments. He could be fucking her into oblivion, and what would send her over the edge would be those eyes, and the way they were gazing at her.

            “How do you want me to love you tonight?” He asks – a simple question, free of tricks, and yet Manon feels her tongue glued to the roof of her mouth. A week for her is nothing. A blink of an eye compared to the life that she has lived. And yet – when it comes to being apart from him-

            An eternity and more.

            “Slowly,” she says, at last, surprising even herself with her answer. “I want to feel you. Every inch of you.”

            Dorian smiles as he peels away her undergarments, leaving Manon in her undershirt. He leans in, caressing her legs, each touch gentler than the previous. A kiss placed on the top of her thigh. He looks up.

            Manon’s eyes do not leave him as he lifts one leg and places it over his shoulder. Gentle, he’s so gentle. His eyes are a still ocean.

            He kisses the inside of her thigh, and Manon’s fingers move over the thick, rich curls of his hair in anticipation. Normally, he would like her to beg. He would like her fingers demanding and pulling on the strands of his hair, guiding him to where she wants him. But not tonight – Dorian kisses her slow, watching as her head tilting back, her eyes fluttering shut.

            As he tastes her, he gets the beautiful view of his love quivering above him, the way her mouth parts the moment his does, as his tongue licks her center – slow, so slow, just like she asked for.

            Still, even with his gentle kissing and sucking, he knows by the way her hips shift and jolt that Manon is not going to last long. And the thrill of witnessing her fall apart after all these days is enough to make his trousers feel too tight.

            She lets out a shaking breath that is followed by a soft moan, a whisper under her breath that catch his attention. His hands squeeze her backside as he devours her, and as Manon approaches that delicious edge, her fingers tighten on his hair. Dorian is intent on making her unravel with only his mouth, and from the sight of her, it appears that he is not doing that bad of a job.

            He pulls away, just briefly, placing a kiss just below her bellybutton. “That is what I like to hear.”

            “Do not stop,” she breathes, choking on the words, her jaw tight.

            “And that,” his laugh is sultry, as filthy as his tongue.

            She is close, so close. A few flicks of his tongue and she will be done for good. But that is not good enough for him.

            Dorian’s phantom hands on her hips make her jump slightly, and he bites his lip in concentration as they move up her chest. Over her undershirt, he palms her breasts, letting those cold tips of his ghost fingers slide over the hard peaks, thumbs pressing just the right amount at the undersides.

            He cannot stop looking at her.

            She is a thunderstorm herself, a wonder of nature. Unbreakable. And here he is, breaking her apart as he touches her, marveling at the way her body extends beautifully as Manon takes in a sharp breath, then another. He never gets tired. Never wants to stop this. Making her feel like this is, in its own way, his greatest satisfaction.

            He takes the opportunity of her watching him again to touch his lips to the inside of her thigh again. With a smile, he kisses the skin, just before taking it between his teeth. He bites hard enough to leave a mark, and tenderly enough to make her fingers clench around his curls. At her moan, Dorian moves back to his favorite spot.

            Two licks is all it takes her. Manon gasps first, and then his name is out of her mouth in the form of a whispered moan. Her mouth is left open, like she might cry out. Slowly, he puts her leg down, phantom hands at her sides and pulling her to his chest the moment he stands.

            Manon rests her forehead against his chest, silent.

            Iron nails find their way down his torso, and Dorian feels the slight pressure beneath his shirt, making him dizzy with want. Despite the storm outside, it is hot, too hot, and he can barely breathe-

            Silently, she lets a nail drag down the front of his trousers. The laces are ripped, one by one, slowly, and they both watch as Manon continues. His trousers begin to fall apart, and when she’s satisfied with the damage she’s made, Manon’s nails retract, and she’s sliding a cold hand down his underpants.

            Dorian trembles with the feeling, relieved to be free of the constriction of his trousers, but simultaneously out of breath when Manon cups him in her hand.

            He catches a devil’s grin on her mouth.

            And then he feels her nails again – iron gently moving across his sensitive skin.

            He almost chokes. “Manon.”

            No man with a right mind would let any witch with iron nails anywhere near his balls.

            No man – but the King of Adarlan.

            “Did you miss me,” she whispers against his mouth, running a hand up and down his shaft.

            He simply lets out a trembled breath, for he can barely speak. Dorian feels the sweat gathering in his forehead.

            “Answer me.”

            “Do you want me to beg?” Dorian chokes out. “Is that it?”

            “I do like hearing that word out of your pretty mouth,” Manon muses, kissing the line of his throat. Her tongue darts out, and Dorian is all too aware of the too sharp nails at the tip of his cock. She laughs – a low sound, not entirely of this world.

            It snaps something in Dorian.

            He takes her wrist, and Manon’s eyes show brief surprise when he pulls it out of his undergarments. His eyes are dark, darker than she’s ever seen him, and her mouth goes suddenly dry. She has never wanted to get on her knees as badly as she does now.

            But Dorian seems to have other plans. He removes his shoes, and steps out of his trousers, letting his undergarments fall on the floor, forgotten. Before Manon has any time to process it, he is taking her in his arms, his lips on hers.

            She claws at his back, though a part of her brain is constantly attentive to her strength. His white shirt is left in shreds, falling to the floor in pieces. He bites her lip, and she bites his, and when Manon expects the mattress underneath her back, Dorian walks them to the balcony.

            Cool rain slides down her hair, her back, making them both slick. The shock of it makes him gasp, and Manon is smiling half-deliriously, pulling his wet hair back so she can see his face. Her legs wrap tightly around his waist, and Manon can feel him – hot and ready, at her center. Dorian pushes her against the wall, the rain heavy and refreshing on their slick bodies.

            With just one adjustment of his hips, he is inside her.

            They both gasp at the contact, at the contrast of the warmth of being pressed against each other with the cold water pouring down on each of them. Thunder bellows. Dorian holds Manon against him, and they are both unmoving, staring at each other like wild animals.

            She kisses him, so softly.

            Dorian’s eyes fall shut. “I love you,” he murmurs against her lips.

            She pulls back to look at him once more, at those electric blue eyes.

            Ten years.

            And each time he says it, her heart cracks in two. She falls apart.

            And each time she says it, Dorian sees a bright light at the end of the storm.

            “I love you,” she says back, wrapping her arms around him, pulling him close, breathing him in, as their hips begin to move. The next time she repeats the words, she moans them.

            Slowly, he thrusts into her. Each time he goes deeper, harder, and Manon lets her head fall into his shoulder, her lips buried on the crook of his neck. Nothing should ever feel like this – nothing at all.

            “Give me everything,” she finds herself saying in his ear, before lightning strikes somewhere far away. She is burning, all over, fighting against that warmth spreading at the bottom of her belly.

            “I thought you wanted slow,” he teases, but he’s breathless.

            Manon licks a line up his neck. “I lied.”

            The next thing she knows, Manon is only seeing spots in her vision, her world becoming blurred as each thrust sends her falling again, and again, and again. She indeed cries out this time, the sound of her voice muffled by the skin of his shoulder. Pressing her harder against the wall, Dorian rolls his hips against hers, watching her face as she shatters, before allowing himself to fall into that precipice with her.

            It hits him in waves, that pleasure. Hard at first, almost knocking the living daylights out of him, and then it spreads throughout his body, making it harder to breathe, to see. Manon’s body falls limp in his arms, and they stay there, for maybe a few minutes, or a few eternities, neither can tell.

            Manon tilts her head back to the sky, letting the rain kiss her face. And she laughs.

            The sound makes him raise his head, his eyes, to his queen.

            He smiles wildly, because there is no other way to face a laughing Manon but with the wildest sort of happiness.

            They trade kisses in the rain, and Manon slides down Dorian’s shaking arms, but she is not free for long; when she tries to slip inside, Dorian is right there behind her, pulling her close, attacking the back of her neck, her shoulders, with kisses – and bites – of various kinds.

            They fall into bed, dripping water everywhere. Neither begin to care.

            Manon crawls on top of his chest, seeking his warmth, her body sagging with exhaustion. Dorian is silently staring at her, in that quiet wonder of his, and Manon contemplates him, too. The smile on his lips, which she traces, slowly, with her own mouth. Then the light in those blue eyes, bluer than she’s ever seen them. Two strong arms envelop her, keeping her close. Her home in the midst of a storm.

            She is combing his wet hair back, which has begun to curl already, when Dorian says softly, “Rhia is turning six years old. Can you believe?”

            Manon shakes her head. “I thought the same when I checked on her sleeping, just before.” The witch pauses. “Do you miss it?”

            Dorian’s eyebrows quirk slightly as he smiles. “What?”

            “Having a babe in your arms.”

            “Of course I do,” he says. “I am more excited to see her grow up, more than anything.”

            “She is a miracle,” Manon says, almost to herself.

            Indeed – and a surprise, too.

            It is still difficult to this day for witches to bear children. And for it to happen to her and Dorian, when they never expected it to-

            The King is quiet for a bit, watching his wife. And then, slowly, he begins to untangle her thoughts, to figure out the labyrinth in her eyes. And so he kisses her shoulder, and murmurs, “I think Rhia needs a sister.”

            Manon gives him a meaningful look. A pause. She says, “Your daughter would disagree.”

            “Would you?”

            Manon sees the question hidden in his eyes. She finds herself smiling. Silently, it seems, they have come to a decision. With a kiss to his chin, Manon whispers, “We will see.”

***

            Fenrys is the first to speak.

            “My Queen has sent me on a three-week mission to the deep woods of Terrasen. During one of those days, I met a young female-“

            “We are not here to discuss your conquests, Moon,” Aedion shoots his friend a very Ashryver-like smirk.

            Fenrys points a finger at Aedion, though a smile glows in his eyes. “I will not let you live through one more of those.”

            They are gathered in Manon and Dorian’s private office. Aelin and the Cadre, even representatives from Antica and Eyllwe sit with them, looking extremely confused at the lack of formality between them all. Manon notices that these scrawny little humans expect to see divided courts – but instead, they see something very different.

            They see a family.

            “You both need to focus,” Lysandra sighs.

            Aelin, despite herself, is forced to agree. After the Queen nods, Fenrys continues:

            “This female told me about – Dorian, not you too, please – told me that she knew a young human couple living just at the edge of the Tar River that had recently commented on a very strange presence in the area.”

            Dorian composes himself, letting go of the joke he was going to make as he asks, “What did they mean by strange?”

            Fenrys looks at his Queen, and Manon knows this is not the first time Aelin is hearing of this. “Sudden storms approach the area, lasting only minutes, and then go away. The river is dry one morning and full the next. The clouds gather quicker than a hare fleeting a wolf. This is not the work of fae magic.”

            Chaol is sat by Dorian’s right side. It is the first meeting they have had without Yrene, who has stayed behind in Anielle for work. He looks between them all as he says, “Fae are the only ones to control that type of magic, though, right? Elemental magic?”

            “Not quite,” Aelin interjects. “You have seen humans being gifted with this type of magic. It does not reach the power of a grown fae, I don’t believe, but they are still stronger than ordinary mortals.”

            “Like Dorian?”

            “Dorian’s powers come from the Valg blood passed onto him – like his immortality,” Manon shakes her head. “Even some witches possess extraordinary gifts. Maybe some humans are, indeed, gifted. But have you thought of another reason for some having gifts that surpass the normal human’s? Have you considered the possibility that maybe we did not eradicate all the Valg?”

            “Are you saying some might have lived through Yrene’s blast?” Lysandra faces Manon, and then the rest of the group. “It is not completely off. Think about it. If one drop of Valg blood survived, meaning the type of Valg Erawan controlled, it could be passed on.”

            “They could have reproduced,” Elide mumbles, shrinking in her seat.

            Aelin visibly tenses. Rowan touches her hand over the table, squeezing once. “What else, Fenrys?” The Prince asks.

            “My friend agrees,” Fenrys nods. “This theory is the best possible one. Only the Valg would have a war to rage on Aelin. On all of us.”

            Manon feels Dorian’s blood go ice cold next to her. She feels the warmth leave him. She touches his knee beneath the table, and, on top of her leg, she feels the comforting touch of his hand.

            The other diplomats representing Eyllwe and Antica stay absolutely quiet as they write on their parchment. They listen.

            “I need to write to Nezryn and Sartaq,” The Queen of Terrasen murmurs to herself. “To let them know.”

            “What else did you discover on your travels?” Manon speaks, looking at Fenrys. “Did you scent any Valg?”

            “That is the thing,” Fenrys says. “You cannot smell any. Not a whiff. Rowan knows, and so does Lorcan. They were there when I discovered this.”

            Lorcan, with his wife next to him, frowns in deep thought. “It is more complicated to wade through if we cannot smell them,” the Lord of Perranth says. “But it is still the most legitimate possibility – the Valg having survived.”

            “If they managed to reproduce, if that magic got passed on,” Aedion chimes in, “then the blood surely weakens through the generation, right? Even if Valg blood has always been stronger than a human’s – you mix them together, and the human may overpower it. Specially if it not the dominant blood.”

            “But – wait,” Chaol holds out a hand, looking between Aelin and her court. “If they are Valg who survived, why would they wait more than ten years to strike against you again?”

            There is a long, long pause. No one in the room speaks. Outside in the gardens, they can hear their children playing. Lysandra and Aedion look at each other, their faces rid of smiling now; Lorcan moves closer to his wife, their youngest child – Ragnar – asleep in Lorcan’s arms; even Manon and Dorian trade wary glances.

            And when Aelin answers, it chills Manon’s blood to its very last drop: “It is because they needed time to raise an army. An army for another war.”

Chapter Text

~before~

Shadows sit at the end of the room, smiling at the moonlight. They want him, he knows that. They want to devour him. They want him to shatter this world to pieces. They call his name as sweet as a lover’s whisper, and the worst thing-

          The worst thing is that they have her voice.

          “Stop,” he rests his head on his knees, hugging his legs to his chest. “Please.”

          “Hollin…”

          They slither to him, quiet and cool, hands touching his face, soft as sunrise, gentle as spring, and lips kiss his tear-stained cheeks.

          “Leave,” he murmurs. “Leave me alone.”

          The shadows writhe like water. Spreading across the room. Waiting their time to strike.

          “Hollin…”

          “Hollin…”

          “Stop. Stop. Stop.”

          “Hollin…”

          “STOP IT.”

          Parchment is flying everywhere, a wave of air pushing the books out of their nooks and aiming them at the stone walls. The wind bites at his face, cold as ice, angry as a tempest, whirling around in the small office, until chaos reigns.

          Hollin closes one shaking fist, and everything stops.

          And falls to the ground.

          A choked breath leaves him. The Prince of Adarlan curls into a corner, closes his eyes, with only the demons in the shadows for company.

~now~

The darkness calls him, with a melody as gentle as a songbird’s. But the moment Hollin answers that strange, ancient call, he is pulled to the hard ground with claws pressing against his throat, cutting off his breath, his life.

           And when it happens, he does not know how to get back up.

***

 

           “Hollin.”

           “You are not real,” he says.

           “But I am,” she says, dark and vengeful, wanting to sink her claws into his throat once more, make him hers. “You know I am.”

           He faces that darkness at the corner of the room, waits for it to move, to respond. But it stays quiet, watching him. A faceless eternity, but with a voice that is all too familiar. A voice his mind always remembers in the deep nights, when the stars are hidden from view, and all he has is the darkness to wrap around him with cruel arms.

           His room, or his office rather (he’s spent so much time in this tower he’s forgotten he has actual chambers in the palace adjacent), is flipped upside down. Hollin thinks the bookshelf must have fallen over, though he can’t actually see with the blur in his eyes. His vision burns, and he sees fire behind his eyelids. A fever. The fever continues.

           “Hollin,” the darkness says again.

           The young prince sinks into his corner, looking away.

           “Look at me.”

           “No.”

           “Hollin,” the shadows dance to him, taking shape. “I can take your mind as I see fit.”

           “What are you?” He breathes.

           “I am you. I am your heart. Your aching, black heart. The heart nobody wants.”

           A shiver runs down his body. Is the voice in his mind? Is she – is she actually in the room with him?

           He hears distant laughter, bubbling with excitement and joy. It is such a beautiful sound. It eases his aches; it cures the deepest sadness coursing through his veins. It wakes him. And yet that laughter is never for him.

           “You have her voice,” Hollin says, shrinking further away. The shadows move, disappear just to reappear.

           “That is because I know your heart,” it says. “And your heart knows this voice best.”

           The shadows wiggle as if they’re water and he’s thrown a stone at them. They’re sparse now. And then they reunite. They reunite to form the shape of a person.

           The shape of a girl.

           Tall, with wavy hair that shines red and gold. Black eyes face him, black as death. Black as his heart. But it is her smile – the smile he’s seen so many times before, the one he remembers best: a smile that appears at the end of a laugh. The last remaining hint of happiness.

           He stares and stares and stares.

           Then turns his face away. “Her eyes are not like that.”

           The shadow blinks, and it is almost like the same rippling motion of water once more. Evangeline’s eyes face him now. Light-green. Citrine. So bright that sometimes it hurts to look at her, at the beauty of her.

           But, as much as his heart aches at the sight of her, it is not the girl he knows. No, he can see past the trick the darkness is playing on him, even with the fever. This is a girl made of glass and paper. There is no depth to this thing. No life.

           There are no scars on her face.

           The creature is suddenly ugly to him, horrifying. Hollin closes his eyes, and when he opens them again, it is gone.

           And he is left in a room turned upside down, all his work left on the floor like it all means nothing. His telescope lies broken on one side of the room. The Prince of Adarlan does not have the energy to care.

           So he closes his eyes again and, against the cold wall, he sleeps.

           Tonight, the stars do not shine.

***

 

           He dreams of snow.

           That laughter does not leave his mind, and now it echoes. Hollin is smiling, too. He does not know why, but he knows that he has reason to.

           “Come,” someone says.

           Evangeline is standing there when he turns, scars and everything, real as the snow beneath his feet. She takes his hand, and he looks down to see gloves.

           “Hello? Hollin?” She laughs, waving a hand in front of his face. “Let’s go! You said you would show me the stars.”

           Hollin knows something is wrong. The snow is too deep. The world too grey. Evangeline smiling at him.

           “What?” He asks her.

           “Show me the stars,” she says, coming close. Snowflakes fall on the tip of her nose, but Hollin is too frightened of her closeness to do anything about it. Although a part of him wishes to wipe at her nose, her cheeks. She has freckles, and they look like constellations. Her scars are the lines that connect them. He wants to kiss a pathway over her face.

           “I can’t,” he says to her.

           Her face falls slightly. Somewhere far away, he hears music. “Why not?” She asks.

           A pause. The world begins to change. The snow falls harder. Evangeline blinks up at him, eyes as black as gems. Hollin shakes his head, and then that light-green color is what he sees again.

           “It is daytime,” Hollin murmurs. “Not the time to see the stars.”

           She pulls her hand away.

           “Wait,” he says.

           But then she’s turning away, and never looking back. When Hollin tries to touch her hand, Evangeline erupts like a cloud of smoke – shadows – and when there was once music, is now only the sound of thunder filling his mind.

***

 

           “Wake up,” she murmurs. “Oh, goodness, please, Hollin, wake up.”

           His cheeks are cold. Everything is so cold in here.

           Evangeline feels as if there is no air left in the world. Either that, or her lungs refuse to take in any. The Prince of Adarlan is sitting on the floor, hunched against the wall, and his office has frozen over.

           There is ice coating his books. His papers are ripped. What happened?

           “Hollin?”

           She should call somebody. But the thought doesn’t enter her mind.

           Evangeline shakes her head to herself. Can he be warming up? Seconds ago, he was ice-cold. How long has he been like this? And who did this to him? The rebels? What, and who-?

           Evangeline is prepared to shout for help, but then she feels his cheeks heating. Or- could it be? This is not possible. Maybe it’s her own hands-

           She leads her lips to his forehead so as to check his temperature. The moment she touches her mouth to his skin, Hollin breathes a sigh. She pulls back, eyes wide.

           “Hollin?” She whispers, hands at his cheeks. “It’s me. It’s Evangeline.”

           Maybe she should give him space, but there’s nothing she wants less than to let him go – Evangeline thinks he might shatter if she lets go.

           Hollin’s eyes slowly open.

           Evangeline’s heart drops the moment she sees them. The blue eyes – the slightly darker blue of Hollin’s eyes are bright and frightened. The color brightens before it dims, before he’s back to normal.

           He breathes hard, like he’s run miles upon miles upon miles.

           “Hollin?” She says again, almost in tears. “What happened? Why are you like this?”

           Hollin is simply looking at her. “What are you?” He says, and his voice frightens her the most. She has never heard a single hint of fear from him – but now it is all his voice is: fear.

           “What do you mean?” Her thumbs run over his cheeks, her heart hammering in her chest. “I’m Evangeline. You know me.”

           A pause, where he simply stares at her. And stares. And stares. His breathing begins to calm, his body begins to settle, and Evangeline notices that his cheeks are no longer warm, or cold, but just the normal temperature. He’s alright.

Gods above, he’s alright.

           “Are you alright?” She asks him when she feels like he’s calmed down.

           For a moment it seems like she’s gazing at somebody else – a stranger. But now, watching her with a perplexity she doesn’t understand, is Hollin. The prince she’s known all her life.

           He pulls away as if her hands burned him.

           Hollin looks around, and Evangeline follows his gaze. Slowly, as if by magic, his room begins to transform: the ice moves in the stone floor, crawling even. Evangeline gets up, stepping away, and lets her gaze silently follow the water. It moves as if it is bound for Hollin, and when the particles reach him, they disappear, like smoke. Like they were only smoke and shadows, and nothing more. Nothing real.

           As if time is being turned, Evangeline watches his books move on their own accord back to the shelves. Her eyes widen. She’s seen magic like this once – objects moving seemingly on their own accord.

           With Dorian’s magic. His phantom hands. He’s used that trick on her countless times before. He used to send flowers floating to her to make her laugh.

           This is like that, only – only bigger.

           Everything moves, all of a sudden. Papers flying around her, and pens going back to their rightful places, notebooks being flung this way and that only to end resting on the cluttered desk, and ornaments of every kind – paper weights and figurines depicting planets and stars – sit themselves around the room.

           Evangeline turns to Hollin. His eyes flash, a muscle ticks in his jaw. At the other corner of the room, in front of the only window, his telescope is put back together, the lens fitting back together like it has never been broken.

           “What…” she murmurs to herself.

           Hollin slowly gets up, a hand on the wall and another on the desk to support himself.

           “Wait,” Evangeline says, though her voice seems to fade and get lost. She does not know what to think. She touches his arm. “Let me help you.”

           He pulls back, flinching. “Get away from me,” he says, though it has no feeling in it.

           “Stop being like that,” Evangeline spats.

           That makes the prince look up at her. She’s surprised at herself too – it is not like her to speak in such a way.

           “Let me help you,” she says, a bit softer this time, with a hint in her voice that argues that he has no choice in the matter. “Sit here.”

           Evangeline helps him sit on the cot and, to her utter amazement, Hollin does not say a word of protest. He does not say anything at all as he wipes the sweat at his forehead. The girl stands there, hands at her hips, looking around in amazement. The ice is all gone. There are no traces of what happened in here. It is as if she imagined it.

           “So,” she says, letting a long, perplexed sigh escape her. “You can do magic.”

           Hollin makes a face, and doesn’t respond. He seems to be back into himself, but Evangeline is still quite frightened at what she saw on his face.

           “Hollin,” says Evangeline gently. “I just need to know that you’re alright, because I feel as if I might fall over if you tell me you’re not.”

           He looks at her like he’s ready to scream. “What?”

           “Tell me you’re alright, damn it!”

           “I’m alright!” He shouts.

           “You don’t look alright!” She shouts back. “You made snow. And ice. You moved stuff? With your mind?”

           Hollin sighs, rubbing his face. “Can you give me a moment alone?”

           “What if you die?” She asks, and when Hollin looks up he realizes the question is totally serious.

           “I’m not going to fucking die.”

           “Watch your language with me.”

           “I am not one of your students,” he growls at her. “Do not talk to me as if I’m a child.”

           Evangeline crosses her arms, tension in every bit of her body. “You are certainly acting like one. And don’t scream at me, I am not deaf.”

           The prince puts his head on his hands, breathing hard. And Evangeline is still standing there, not sure what to do.

           “Shall I call for a healer?” She asks tensely.

           “No.”

           “Do you want anything? Besides throwing me out the window, that is.”

           Hollin looks at her – and it is that same look he always seems to give her when she tries to make a joke to ease the tension: like he does not quite comprehend how such a creature like her could have ended up existing in the first place.

           “Right, alright,” she says, shaking her head. “I…can we please talk about what happened?”

           “Take your worry elsewhere. I do not need it.”

           “Hollin, you were ill. Let me at least check for a fever!”

           “Do not touch me.”

           Evangeline makes a face. “You have your brother’s powers. Only different?”

           Hollin closes his eyes. Maybe he believes responding and giving in will make her leave him alone. “Yes.”

           “But Dorian does not know this.”      

           “Nobody does,” he says between clenched teeth.

           “Why?”

           “Why do you think?” He says, a bit too aggressive for her liking. “I break things. And people already look at me the wrong way enough as it is.”

           Evangeline murmurs, “People only do that because of your attitude, Hollin.”

           He gets up, and Evangeline is tempted to run. But more tempted to stay. So she keeps herself planted, watching him tower over her.

           “Then tell me you were not afraid when you saw what I did,” he says in her face. His voice is rough, like a growl. “Tell me you did not want to bolt out of that door. Tell me you are not afraid now.”

           Evangeline keeps her eyes on his, stubborn and unrelenting. Her fire fighting his. With a quiet pause, she then says, “I am still here, aren’t I?”

           “Why?” He accuses.

           “Because I am not afraid.”

           Hollin blinks. Evangeline raises her chin.

           “And I told you,” she says, eyeing him crossly. “The more you push me away, the less I will be tempted to go.”

           Hollin seems to shrink at that, and Evangeline begins to wonder why. Why, and why, and why.

           “Sit down,” she says then, compassion blooming in her heart for him, despite everything. “I will get us both some tea.”          

           Evangeline does not give the prince time to answer before she goes out the door.

***

 

           Hollin sighs. He froze the whole fucking room.

           With one look out the window, he notices that the storm from yesterday has gone, and the early morning rays shine through, painting the room in a pale orange light. He feels too calm. It bothers him.

           Hollin touches his finger to his forehead, frowning to himself. What is he going to do now that the girl knows? Would she tell Dorian? How would his brother look at him then, knowing what he can do? Knowing his younger sibling is out of control?

           I cannot control this.

           I don’t even know if it’s safe for her to be here with me.

           Would he have ever woken up if Evangeline hadn’t come?

           His skin is prickling, just remembering her touch. He wants to scratch at his cheeks, but all he does is trace them with his thumb – the same places her thumb touched.

           He should have pushed harder at her to go. He should have been meaner, clearer.

           But what is the point? She still saw what she saw. And it could not be erased.

           Before Hollin can think more on it, the door opens, and he is blessed at the sight of her again. She carries a tray of hot steaming tea, smelling of chamomile and honey. Hollin reminds himself to change his face and wear his best frown.

           “I don’t know what tea you like,” she says.

           “This is fine,” he says.

           Evangeline sits on his cot, facing him, and very unceremoniously places the tray between them. He takes the tea without opening the pot of honey, and sips. He finds Evangeline staring at him weirdly.

           “What is it?” He says, irritably. Then he sighs, “Right, thank you.”

           “It’s not that,” Evangeline says. “You forgot the honey.”

           “I do not drink it with honey,” Hollin replies.

           Evangeline frowns harder, and it almost makes him laugh. Almost. “What kind of lunatic does not sweeten his tea?”

           “This lunatic,” he drily says.

           Evangeline looks at him, her eyes growing compassionate again. Dear gods. “Hey,” she says, but he doesn’t look her way. “It does not make you crazy, you know?”

           “Then what do you call what you just saw?”

           Evangeline begins with a spoon of honey in her tea. Two. Hollin looks down, and she’s still going. “You’re out of practice?” She tries, giving him a soft laugh.

           That laugh.

           Three. Four. Five spoons, until she’s satisfied. And sips.

           “What?” She says, noticing him watching her.

           He scrunches up his nose. “That is too much sweetness.”

           “There is no such thing,” she argues.

           A pause, where neither dare to speak. He knows she’s watching him. He knows it. Hollin fights it, but then he looks at her too. No, he thinks. The shadows did not do her justice.

           “How old are you?” She asks suddenly.

           “That is a rude thing to ask.”

           “I reckon you are either my age or older,” she says in a tone of conversation, sipping her tea. “I don’t see you as being younger.”

           He wants her to shut up. Mainly because he cannot stand the way her voice makes his heart clench and turn and shake.

           “Nineteen,” he says.

           “Ah,” Evangeline says. “But when’s your birthday?”

           “Why are you asking me these things?”

           Evangeline shrugs. “Maybe I want to get to know you. As friends do.”

           “We are not friends.”

           “But we could be,” she says. “Imagine that, having a friend. And me, out of all. What a blessed day you are having, Hollin Havilliard, being offered my friendship.”

           She is unbelievable.    

           She holds her tea with both hands, and Hollin has never seen anybody at court do that, ever. And then she crosses one leg under her, and he cannot fathom sitting that way and not having his mother shout in his ear for him to straighten his back.

           “July 14th,” he says at last.

           Evangeline beams. “We are only a few months apart, you and I.”

           “Alright.”

           “Eat a pastry.”

           “I don’t want to eat.”

           “I’ll eat then.”

           He watches her munch on a tiny pastry she’s brought in the tray. To his horror, she dips it in her tea.

           “What?” She asks at the way he stares at her.

           “You never dip food in your drink.”

           “Are you really going to give me a manners class?”

           “It’s called etiquette,” he says. “Learn it.”

           She’s smiling. His blood boils. Hollin can feel her mocking him from where he’s sitting.

           “You have to try it once in your lifetime, Prince,” she says, giving him his own pastry. When he refuses, she dips in his tea. Hollin gives her a look when she puts the pastry near his mouth. “Go on!” She chuckles. “I promise it’s good.”

           He frowns, but just to get her to shut up, he bites a tiny bit off.

           “So?” She waits for the verdict.

           “It’s soggy,” he complains.

           “You have to have some sweetness to your tea,” she says. “You should try that with toast.”

           “No, thank you.”

           “Your loss.”

           They stay quiet as they finish their tea, and Hollin is surprised at how much he does not wish to run from her. This is…nice. Sort of. Her company is rewarding him with a kind of calm he has not felt in years.

           It frightens the shit out of him.

           “So,” Evangeline says as she places her cup back in the saucer. “I reckon you will want me not to talk about what happened with anybody.”

           He looks at her, suddenly afraid she will threaten to tell the whole world about his monstrosity. But she just waits for a response, quietly nibbling on his own pastry that he left behind.

           “Yes,” he says. “I want you to keep silent about it.”

           “Then that is what I will do.”

           “You- wait, what?”

           Evangeline raises her eyes to him. She swallows her food, wipes at her mouth, and then says, “Look, Hollin. In my opinion, I think you should at least tell your brother what is happening to you. There is no shame in what happened. I was simply scared because you looked as if…” she does not say the words, but Hollin can guess. “It was frightening, Hollin. You did not see yourself. But I did. And for a moment, I thought you were not going to come back.”

           Hollin cannot bear to look at her. He looks at the patterns on the saucer plates, finding them abhorrent.

           “Your brother would understand.”

           “Because you know him better than I?”

           Evangeline sighs. “I am simply saying-“

           “I tell him when I want to tell him,” Hollin says. “And that is final.”

           Evangeline bites the inside of her cheek, but she ends him nodding. “Alright, fine. If that is what you want, I shall respect your wishes.”

           A pause.

           And then she says, “Right, about your first lesson-”

           “Are we still doing this?” he sighs.

           “Of course we are,” Evangeline says. “The Winter’s Ball is in a few months, and we shall waste no time to get you the Princess of Eyllwe’s heart.”

           Hollin frowns. “Fine, get on with it.”

           “This first lesson will be about your face,” she smiles. “You’re a handsome lad, no need to always be frowning about. You should know how to smile by yourself, so do that from time to time. Girls like a man that is approachable.” And then, a little provocative smirk. “Not a prick.”

           Hollin feels his blood boiling again. “Strange, I’d thought you were keen on this prick, the way you insist on being around.”

           She does not take his bait. “My preferences will not be discussed.” She gives him an amused smile, and says, “Also, try not to avoid her. If you want to dance with her, do not wait around to see if she asks you. Take the initiative.”

           “You’re telling me things I already know.”

           “Then why have you not put them to good use?”

           Well.

           She’s got him there.

           Evangeline smiles. “Let me give you a few ice-breakers to start a conversation.” Then her eyes snap to him, and there’s a laugh building in her throat. “No pun-intended.”

           Hollin rolls his eyes.

           He fights that urge to smile so hard.

***

 

           For hours, he sits and listens as she explains ways to appropriately approach a girl. He rarely comments. One, because her voice is smooth and she looks pretty when she’s explaining things. Two, because he knows if he interjects, his voice will sound broken and rough, and he does not want her to try and figure out why.          

           She asks him what she likes about the Princess, and Hollin begins to shrug, because he does not have a definite answer.

           “She just caught my eye,” he says.

           And that is that. He does not wonder for to long about such a thing, because then Evangeline is talking again, and he does not even remember that this is supposed to be a lesson, and that she is supposed to be the person he pushes very far away, as far away as he possibly can, and not the person he wants close.

           He tries to forget it in vain.

           At the end of it, when she looks at the time in the portable clock placed neatly on his desk, Evangeline tells him she has to go.

           He is almost too afraid to let her go, which is dumb, and irrational, and he has never been neither.

           “Tonight, will you show me the stars?” She asks.

           And Hollin feels like breaking.

           “Hello? Hollin?” She laughs, waving a hand in front of his face. “Let’s go! You said you would show me the stars.”

           “Hollin?” She says.

           His mind comes back to reality, the cold sweats running down his back. He says, absent-mindedly, “Yes.”

           She seems happy enough. “I will see you soon, then.”

           And when she leaves, Hollin can still smell her perfume in the room.

***

           Evangeline knocks on his door with a smile on her face.

           And when he opens the door, Evangeline almost falls over. She was not expecting the sight of him, did not prepare for it.

           He’s just showered, and his ebony curls are wet and unruly, pushed back as if he’s run his fingers through his hair just moments before. He wears the simplest clothes she’s ever seen him in. Well, simple for Hollin. The white shirt still looks as soft as satin, and the trousers the most comfortable cotton there is, tinged black.

           Night begins to fall, even if the summer days extend. His office is lit with small candles, making it cozy and warm. She cannot get over the way his eyes glow in the candlelight.

           With a start, she realizes she has been blatantly staring at him for a few moments, unresponsive. She coughs into her hand and manages a, “Hi.”

           “Hello,” he says grimly.

           “You look better.”

           “I am.”

           A pause. “May I come in?” She asks.

           Hollin opens the door, and Evangeline steps into the warmth. The telescope is where it has always been, but now it seems to gleam, as if calling to her. Evangeline tries to sustain the bubble of excitement brewing inside her chest, filling her heart, but it almost too impossible to do so.

           She sees some letters on the desk, and she thinks they must be for Dorian.

           “Any update on the rebels yet?” She asks as a way to break the silence.

           “The meeting was only today,” Hollin responds, sitting himself at his desk. There is a chair prepared for her that was no there before. And, she notices with slight surprise – teas and sandwiches. “My brother must not have had time to write yet.”

           “Are those for us?” She points at the food.

           “Who else?”

           She shrugs.

           Hollin says, “Did you not just got back from teaching at the school?”

           “Yes?”

           “Then are you not hungry?” He says.            

           “I am?”

           “Why are you answering like you’re questioning me?” He demands.

           “Pardon me if I find your thoughtfulness a motive for surprise,” she says.

           Hollin pauses. He sighs, gesturing. “Eat.”

           It does not seem like he has touched his own food. Nor that he will.

           But Evangeline sits with him, eating in silence. “Thanks, by the way,” she says.

           He doesn’t respond, and goes back to writing whatever letter he was writing before He has terrible handwriting. Not ugly, but just incomprehensible. It is long and barely seems to contain any letters at all, only elegant strikes of his pen.

           It is strangely comforting watching him like this. In his own space, Hollin does not look like the pompous prince he pretends to be, or the hateful man hiding himself from his court. He looks normal. Calm.

           Handsome.

           His voice snaps her out of her thoughts. “Have you eaten? Let’s start.”    

           She hasn’t finished her tea, but Evangeline is quick to move to the telescope. He arches an eyebrow, and she arches one back at him.

           “What are you doing?” He asks. “Come here.”

           “I thought you were going to teach me about the stars.”

           “I am,” he insists, eyeing her, then the chair, then her. “First, you need numbers.”

           She sits down, and Hollin smacks a paper with numbers in front of her. Exercises.

           “You are just being cruel now,” she says to him.

           “Do that,” he says.

           “I don’t know these equations,” she frowns.

           “Yes, you do,” Hollin says, and it’s with such confidence that it takes her aback slightly. “Go on. Let me see where your knowledge stops.”

           With a sigh, Evangeline gets to work.

***

 

           It takes her a while, almost a full hour, but after those long initial moments, she manages to finish. She grins proudly when she shows him the page, and Hollin is all too tempted to smile at the way she finds joy in the simplest of things.

           He looks at it, and frowns.

           “What?” She asks. “Do not tell me something is wrong.”

           Hollin pauses, a hand underneath his chin as his eyes sweep across the numbers. “Have you done this before?” He murmurs.

           “No,” she says. “Well, that one,” she points, “was the smallest one. So that one was easy. But no.”

           He pauses again, and then says, “Hum.”

           “What?”

           “You did well.”

           She gasps dramatically. “A compliment? For me?”

           “Right,” he sneers. “Calm down-“

           “Little old me? Receiving a compliment from the Prince of Adarlan? Oh, my lords. I might faint.”

           They look at each other. Her, smiling. Him, narrowing his eyes.

           “This,” he points at the last equation, pushing the paper back to her. “You made a mistake. Fix it.”

           Evangeline looks across the page, and Hollin watches as she frowns slightly. Her eyelashes touch her cheeks, and Hollin almost gives in and raises a hand to push away those strands of hair hiding her face from him. With a slight blush, he clenches his hand into a fist and shoves it underneath his chin for good measure.

           “I don’t see where,” Evangeline looks at him. “Tell me.”

           “No, see for yourself.”

           “But-“

           “You will only truly learn once you realize the missteps you took,” Hollin simply says.

           So, with a frustrated sigh, she goes back to the numbers.

           And Hollin goes back to trying his hardest not to ask her for him to kiss the frown off her face.

***

           A couple of hours later, true night falls. Dark, unrelenting night.

           He turns the lens of his telescope, and once again feels her eyes on him. Hollin is too bothered with how unbothered he is with her attention being solemnly on him.

           “There,” he says, pulling away from it. “You can look through.”

           She does, tilting the telescope this way and that. Hollin sighs, and turns it to where he wants her to look. Her gasp comes as no surprise, and he grins slightly to himself.

           “Oh, my,” she breathes. And looks up. “They look so…bright. The stars.”

           Hollin watches her as she goes back to looking through the lens with the excitement of a child. It fascinates him almost as she is fascinated with the sky. The sky already knows better than his own palm.

           “Hollin,” she says, and his name sounds more wonderful each time she says it. “How many do you think there are?”

           “Stars?” He scoffs. “More than we can imagine. There is no count. They are infinite.”

           “But it has to end somewhere, right?” She says, pulling back. The candlelight makes her hair look truly red. It takes his breath away for a moment. “The universe. The stars. It has to have an ending. Everything has.”

           “Not everything,” he says.

           Evangeline looks at him, and they are suspended in this non-moment that stretches out as infinitely as the stars. Then she takes a breath, and he looks away, and she looks away too.

           “It is getting late,” she says. “I should probably go.”

           “Yes,” he says.

           She smiles, and he only knows because he dares to look. He cannot help himself. He looks back at her and cannot seem to take his eyes away.

           “What is it?” says Hollin.

           “You look different,” says Evangeline. “Unguarded.”

           You’ve already seen everything, he wants to say.

           Well.

           Not everything.

           He does not have an answer, so he does not speak. But he wants to. Something inside him urges to keep her in his company, only for a little while more. He realizes that something is his loneliness biting at him. He drowns it in the empty ocean of his mind.

           But it always ends up swimming to the surface, and biting at him again. And again.

           “Thank you for today,” she says. “I hope we can continue.”

           He wants to shrug, and mumble his feigned disinterest, but he finds that-

           That he cannot.

           So Hollin just gives her a brief nod.

           “My birthday is November 30th,” she tells him.

           “Why are you telling me this?”

           She smiles, and it lights up the whole room. “So we are even now. You know mine, and I know yours.”

           He does not understand her. Her joy, her happiness. But he wants to.

           He really wants to.

           And the realization bites him harder than loneliness ever could.

           “Right,” he says.

           “Goodnight, Hollin,” Evangeline says, giving him one last smile, before moving to the door.    

           And maybe it is because he is lost in thought that he lets go of: “Goodnight, Evangeline.”

           She stops.

           “You never said my name,” she says.

           Hasn’t he? He must have, surely.

           But he realizes that no, he has never said it out loud before. Not like this.

           They look at each other. Two stars suspended.

           “Sleep well,” she murmurs, and leaves.

           Hollin turns to the window.

           Tonight, the stars shine – brighter and brighter.

***

           The darkness calls him, with a melody as gentle as a songbird’s.

           He ignores it.

           The lips he kisses are tender and sweet. Evangeline turns in his arms as if she has just woken up. Lazily, with her eyes still half closed. And Hollin marvels at her face, the way she buries her face in his chest as if to hide herself from the morning light.

           The darkness calls him, with a touch as gentle as a morning breeze.

           He ignores it.

           “Hi,” she says to him, her voice muffled by his clothes, still embraced with sleep.

           “Hello,” he smiles.

           “Did you sleep well?” She asks, at last looking up at him.

           He finds eyes of citrine shining up at him. Happy, she’s happy. And it is because of him.

           “I did,” he says, taking her chin in his fingers.

           Softly, he kisses her.

           Evangeline opens her mouth to him, and she tastes as sweet as autumn apples. He’s hoarded moments like this in his mind, lots and lots of them, a coffin of memories he visits once in a while in his dreams – only to wake up and find himself next to her.

           She smiles against his mouth and he smiles back.

           Her hands trace his collarbones, his chest. They stop at his middle, wrapping around. He feels her caressing his back, and her warmth seeps into him.

           “Evangeline,” he chuckles when her devilish hands move underneath the shirt, her touch cold on his back.

           She breaks the kiss just momentarily, though her smile never leaves her. “You never said my name,” she says.

           He gives her a funny laugh. “What are you talking about?”

           Evangeline shakes her head. With a smile, she touches her lips to his once more. It’s breaking him apart, those kisses. The more she gives him, the more he craves.

           The darkness calls him, with a smile as beautiful as a sunrise.

           He ignores it.

           Hollin pulls away, and touches his lips to her neck. The softness of her skin makes his hands tremble, his eyes flutter shut. She is intoxicating. Her laughter as his hands move down her sides fill his ears and fill his heart. He wants to bottle that sound and carry it with her all his life.

           Her cold hands move up on his back, and Evangeline pulls him in, atop of her.

           Hollin starts, pulling away from her neck. He blinks.

           The darkness calls him, with a kiss as loving as a lover’s embrace.

           He tries to ignore it.

           But her touch is not supposed to be cold.

           One of her hands move out of his back and she grabs his chin, turning his eyes to her, demanding. She kisses him, urgently, desperately. Hard.

           Hollin gets lost in the feeling. Her soft skin underneath his hands. Her breath changing as she kisses him, as she, too, gets lost in him.      

           Her hand on his back clings tighter to him, until he feels nails on his skin.

           He breaks away from the kiss, gasping in pain. “Evangeline,” he says.

           But she digs her claws into him anyway.

           The darkness calls him, with nails as sharp as spikes.

           He cannot ignore it.

           “Stop,” he says.

           She disappears.

           Out of his arms.

           Forever.

           He stares blankly at the sheets. When he looks up, faceless shadows stare at him.

           Hollin stares right back.

           “We will strike,” they say as one.

           “Who are you?” He asks. “I am not afraid.”

           “You are afraid. You will always be afraid. I am your heart. And you cannot contain your heart, Prince.”

           “What do you want?”

           The faceless shadows seem to grin. No faces. And yet he can sense that terrible joy coming from them. They want to twist him; they want him to do their bidding.

           But he will not.

           “Hollin,” they – it says.

           “What do you want?”

           The shadows gather before they disappear. And he knows he’s dreaming. Because when they speak, when it speaks, it is in his mind, and the Prince is opening his eyes to see his office, the new morning light, and Evangeline truly gone, because she was never there at all.

           He can still hear the shadows.

           “What do you want?” he’d asked.

           The darkness in his mind repeats the word the shadows had murmured over and over like an enchantment. At first, it is almost incomprehensible.

           And then he understands, as clear as day.

           They say, “Revenge. Revenge. Revenge.”

 

Chapter Text

            ~before~

Lorcan, with his wife next to him, frowns in deep thought. “It is more complicated to wade through if we cannot smell them,” the Lord of Perranth says. “But it is still the most legitimate possibility – the Valg having survived.”

           “If they managed to reproduce, if that magic got passed on,” Aedion chimes in, “then the blood surely weakens through the generation, right? Even if Valg blood has always been stronger than a human’s – you mix them together, and the human may overpower it. Specially if it not the dominant blood.”

           “But – wait,” Chaol holds out a hand, looking between Aelin and her court. “If they are Valg who survived, why would they wait more than ten years to strike against you again?”

           There is a long, long pause. No one in the room speaks. Outside in the gardens, they can hear their children playing. Lysandra and Aedion look at each other, their faces rid of smiling now; Lorcan moves closer to his wife, their youngest child – Ragnar – asleep in Lorcan’s arms; even Manon and Dorian trade wary glances.

           And when Aelin answers, it chills Manon’s blood to its very last drop: “It is because they needed time to raise an army. An army for another war.”

~now~

            Minutes later, they are looking at each other in complete silent.

            Ragnar begins to cry.

            Lorcan pulls his son to his chest, gently swaying the toddler in his arms, a grave expression on his face that matches everybody else’s.

            Antica’s representative looks like he’s sullied himself.

            “It can’t be like last time,” Aedion speaks, a murmur between his lips that get lost in the high ceilings of Manon and Dorian’s meeting room.

            Nobody answers. The memories come back, angry and turbulent, like a great wave destroying everything in its path. The Queen of Terrasen does not shrink in her chair. Instead, Aelin Ashryver Galathynius looks to the Queen at her side, just a few feet away. Manon Blackbeak Crochan looks the Queen of Terrasen in the eyes, and they seem to come to the same conclusion.

            They have another fight to prepare for.

            And it will be bloody one.

            Ragnar cries louder.

            “Give him to me,” Elide is saying, moving out of her seat to take her son in her arms. “He is probably just hungry.”

            “What is our first move, Aelin?” Fenrys asks, arms crossed over his chest.

            Aelin looks to her friend and without a heartbeat’s pause, she says to him, “We will scan the woods, the seas and the skies. The villages and the cities. We will leave no path left untouched.”

            Fenrys nods once. “I am on it.”

            “So am I,” Lorcan says.

            “No,” Aelin says softly.

            Lorcan looks to the Queen of Terrasen, a frown gracing his features. There’s a pause between them, with Aelin daring him to argue.

            “I will go,” Lorcan says, almost a warning.

            But Aelin shakes her head. “I need you to do me a favour, Lorcan.”

            Elide turns to the Queen, her son in her arms, and it is as if Elide knows exactly what Aelin is thinking of, just by meeting her friend’s eyes. “We will do it, Aelin.”

            “Your telepathy is truly incredibly, but do let us incompetents in the matter in, if you please,” Lysandra says with a bite.

            “I need them to keep Amara safe,” Aelin says softly. “Me, Rowan and Fenrys will have a lot to do in Orynth, and right now it is the most unsafe place for her to be at.”

            “We understand,” Lorcan says. “Perranth will be the safest place in Terrasen. We will take her in.”

            “Hey,” Aedion steps in. “What about me and Lysandra? We could-”

            “Amara will be lonely in Caraverre, Aedion,” Lysandra says, placing a hand on her husband’s shoulder. “Even Evangeline is in Adarlan.”

            “At least in Perranth she will have children her age,” Lorcan says.

            Aedion lowers his eyes, and bites back his tongue.

            “She will hate you for it,” Manon mutters to Aelin. “We can fool ourselves into believing that they know nothing of what is going on. But they do.” She pauses. “I know because mine will hate me too.”

            Dorian gives his wife a look, waiting to meet her eyes, but the Queen of Witches keeps her eyes to the front, unstaring.

            “Maybe,” Aelin says. “But at least they will be safe.”

            “Children will always want to be part of this fight, but they will never know what it is truly like,” Fenrys says. “But you are right. Both Amara and Ferran are too smart for their own good. And the little witch might as well be smarter than all of us combined. But it is for the best.”

            A pause. Elide faces Manon. “Let us keep Rhia for the week, too. If they are together, there is less chance for them to be in danger. And Perranth is guarded.”

            Manon chews the inside of her mouth, and even though the Queen leaves no space in her features for fear, Aelin sees it hidden in those yellow eyes. The fear they share. The fear of a mother being parted from her child.

            The witch only gives Elide a brief nod of thanks, turning her eyes away to the window.

            They all do.

            Outside, through the tall, wide windows, they see the children play with sticks fashioned from old, fallen tree branches. Amara, among them, the widest smile on her face.

            Rowan forms a smile, despite everything.

            “So it is decided,” Aelin says.

            “There is one more thing you are not thinking about,” Chaol interjects.

            “Do tell.”

            “What will you do afterwards?” He asks Aelin. “When you find those humans contaminated with the Valg blood. Will you kill them? Imprison them?”

            “Depends on their willingness to kill my family,” Aelin says coldly.

            Chaol shakes his head. “You don’t mean that, Aelin.”

            “Don’t tell me what I do or do not mean, Chaol,” Aelin spats. “They are parasites. They are threatening my people and my child. They are after anyone that is like us. And I bet you my life that when I find the ones that burned those villages and killed those people, there will be humans among them. Humans of flesh and blood and soul. Humans like you.”

            Chaol closes his eyes. “I did not mean it like that, and you know it. Do not draw a line between me and you.”

            “That line was always drawn,” Aelin says. “It always will be.”

            “Aelin,” Rowan begins.

            “Don’t you think I know?” Aelin snaps her eyes to her husband. “Don’t you think I see, and hear, and feel? Half of the world might never accept that they have a queen like me on the throne. It has been this way since the fae ruled Terrasen.”

            “You are generalizing,” Chaol says. “Not all humans-“

            “Not all humans,” Aelin spats, bringing her hands down onto the oak table. She stares the Captain down, lowering her voice to a whisper: “But quite a few of them want our heads and our children’s to go along with them.”

            Lorcan and Elide lower their eyes. Because they know. They felt it firsthand what it was like to be discriminated against by some of the people of their land, when Lorcan first began helping the villagers rebuild. There was gratefulness, yes, from a lot of them. So many of them loved them. But then there were those who did not. Who would never accept Lorcan, or Aelin, or Rowan, or Manon, or any being like them. And that hate would soon be brought down to their children.

            How long until those hateful souls joined the Valg? How many already have?

            Dorian looks between his friends, and he breathes a sigh, “I think we got a little off-track here.”

            “Do you?” Aelin sneers.

            “Aelin,” Dorian says. “It is true what you are saying. But Chaol does have a point. We saved humans the last time – we can still save them now.”

            Aelin closes her eyes, her fingers closing on the table. She breathes a sigh through her nose. “Do you think I want to kill my own people, Dorian?”

            “The most important thing is trying to find who is behind this,” Elide says.

            “Cut the weed by the roots,” Lysandra adds.

            “There can only grow more,” Aelin murmurs to herself.

            Rowan is silent, watching. He knows the change in Aelin too well – he knows what she sees, the pain and the blood and the chains. He knows what is forming that hate in her heart.

            Everything was going right.

            For ten years, everything was going right. The sun was shining.

            And now there is a cloud hanging above them, the chance of rain constantly hovering.

            “Hollin is keeping the ropes tight in Adarlan,” Dorian says after a pause. “I trust him to keep me informed if anything happens. In the meantime, I think I should stay here, oversee that the borders are safe.”

            He glances at Manon, and his Queen swallows hard. The thought of leaving her daughter behind again…

            For a moment, Manon glances at Elide. And the Lady of Perranth gives the witch a reassuring nod, almost non-existent, but Manon catches it all the same.

            She says to Dorian, “I will be with the witches, then.”

            Dorian gives her a painful nod.

            “I will write to Nesryn today,” Rowan says. “Her and Sartaq should know.”

            Silence.

            “So we are done?” Aelin mumbles. Nobody answers, so the Queen of Terrasen begins to leave.

            “Where are the kids?” Chaol says suddenly, with just a peak of urgency.

            They all suddenly look to the windows.

            The plains are empty.

            No laughter.

            Aelin’s heart stops in her chest. Without thinking, she moves to the oak doors of the meeting room, moving them aside and stepping into the back gardens of Dorian and Manon’s palace. The witch is next to her in a flash.

            Their children have disappeared.

***

~moments before~

            “You are not playing fair, Amara,” he laughs.

            The small dove at his shoulder seems to chuckle in response, before her beak tickles the place behind his ear. “Stop,” he says, swatting gently at her. “I won’t shift now.”

            “You can’t understand what she says,” Andrik says, following right behind his older brother. “Can you?”

            Ferran suddenly stops, and poor Andrik almost bangs his nose into his brother’s back. “What?” Ferran looks over his shoulder. “You don’t understand her?”

            Andrik looks between the dove’s eyes and his brother’s. “Of course not. She is just making sounds.”

            Ferran looks genuinely confused as he shares a look with Amara. “Uh.”

             Amara flies off his brother’s shoulder, and suddenly Andrik is staring at the Amara he recognizes, her shoulder length blond hair wavy and with a few leaves attached to it.

            “It is strange,” she notes, looking between them. “Your brother understands me fine.”

            Andrik shakes his head, confused. “It’s like you two speak your own language.” And then he kicks a small rock, his hands in his pockets. “I always feel left out.”

            “I’m sorry,” Amara says. “We never wanted to make you feel like that.”

            Andrik shrugs. “It’s okay.”

            But it’s like Ferran isn’t listening. He reaches out, and begins removing pieces of small leaves out of Amara’s hair, his whole attention on the princess of Terrasen. Andrik thinks it’s quite odd; everytime Ferran and Amara play together, it is like they create a world of their own. One Andrik can never be part of.

            In truth, Andrik knows that they do not mean to push him away. It’s just the way their playing has always been. Andrik is always around, but Amara and Ferran are always in their own bubble. One moves, the other does, too. Weirdos.

            “Let’s play in the lake!” Amara says suddenly, pointing to the near spot of water, circled with rocks and ivy and lilies. “The storm has gone, and it is too hot to be in the sun.”

            Ferran begins to agree, but it’s Andrik that says, “I don’t wish to ruin my clothes.”

            “You and your clothes,” Ferran says. “Also, it’s better if you don’t. Mama wouldn’t want you to.”

            “Why?” Andrik says, quite offended.

            “Because you’re too young.”

            “We are only two years apart.”

            “Three years apart,” Ferran says.

            “You are two and a half years apart,” Amara corrects, looking between them.

“You’re eight,” Andrik crosses his arms at his brother, feeling himself pout. “I’m almost eight.”

            “You’re six,” Amara smiles.

            “I’m six and a half,” Andrik says to her.

            “Some would say that’s too young to swim in a lake,” Ferran taunts, chuckling.

            “I’m going with you.”

            “I thought you didn’t want to,” Amara raises her brows.

            “Well,” Andrik says. “I changed my mind.”

            And so they make their way to the small lake, and Amara counts lilies, reaching for them. Ferran always holds her arm, his brow furrowed, telling her that she was going to fall into the deepest part if she was not careful.

            Andrik rolls his eyes. He could fall into the deep part and his brother wouldn’t even care.

            “That lake is awfully dirty, you know.”

            They turn at the familiar voice, and it is Amara that runs to Rhiannon. The girls hug and jump and scream and Andrik is all too tempted to run and leave. It is not like he doesn’t like Rhiannon.

            It’s that he likes her too much.

            And sometimes he doesn’t know how to deal with it.

            Well, alright – he never knows how to deal with it.

            What can he say? She is terribly pretty.

            “I hear there are sharks, too,” Rhiannon makes a disgusted face, pulling away from Amara’s arms.

            “It is a stupid way to die on your birthday,” Amara grins at her.

            Rhia nods in agreement. “Eaten by a shark, what a terrible death.”

            Andrik gives the lake a look. It does look very dark in there. “There are no sharks, are there?” He asks, his voice leaving him. “You are joking.”

            Rhiannon smirks. “No, there really are sharks.”

            “I thought sharks mostly lived in salt water,” Andrik murmurs. “It is what that book said. Right?”

            “You can have lake sharks,” Rhia says, very seriously. “And they eat little boys raw.”

            Andrik frowns. “I’m not little.”

            Rhia gives him a look – up and down. Andrik feels like blushing in embarrassment. He forgot to wear his nice trousers today.

            “Really? I am taller you,” Rhia taunts, hands at her hips. The sun makes her hair almost translucent, and Andrik feels compelled to see for himself if it is as soft as it looks. But he stays right where he is.

            “Give me a few years,” he answers, but his voice comes out awkward and embarrassed and so, so not like he wanted it sound. “I will be taller than you, then.”

            Rhiannon’s yellow eyes flash, and a smile spreads across her lips. A smile that does not seem entirely good. “We will see,” she says.

            “Hey,” Ferran says. “What’s that?”

            They look to where he’s pointing, and Amara narrows her eyes. “A tree?”

            Ferran says, “Look what’s carved in it. It’s strange.”

            They move in unison, closer and closer to the tree next to the lake, the tree with the large, crooked branches and leaves so big they seem to weight more than the wooden twigs they’ve sprouted from. Ferran touches the bark, pushing away the moss. It’s so little, they have to get closer to see what is drawn there.

            “What is it?” Rhiannon says, craning her neck up to see. “Ferran, what is it?”

            “It’s a mark,” he says, backing away slightly to let her look. “I feel like I have seen that before.”

            “I don’t know what that is,” Andrik says.

            “Wait,” Amara says, stepping back. “It’s a wave. Look! Look at the shape. It forms a wave.”

            Rhiannon gives her friend a look. “So?”

            “You have not seen it,” Amara looks to Ferran. “But you’ve heard about it.”

            Ferran shakes his head in confusion. “I don’t get it.”

            “Don’t you see?” She says, touching the tree trunk, her fingers tracing the mark. “I have heard my mother and father speaking of this with Darrow. They talked about…rebels.”

            “The rebels?” Ferran blinks. “This is the mark they have been talking about?”

            “What do you think this meeting is for?” Amara murmurs, realizing that same thing herself.

            Rhia looks around, feeling the forest quiet. Too quiet. “The air,” she says suddenly. “Does it smell strange to you?”

            They sniff at the air.

            “I bathed,” Andrik says. “If that’s what you’re wondering.”

            Rhiannon gives him a look with narrowed eyes, and Andrik wants to make a hole on the earth and stay there forever.

            “Smells like…” Amara does not continue, for she does not have the words for that smell.

            “I think we should go,” Andrik says, but no one responds.

            Instead, Rhia begins to move through the plain, looking at the few, sparse birch and oak trees. They never noticed how quite the forest beyond was until now. The witch moves to the next tree, and the next, with Ferran and Amara following right behind.

            “Maybe we should go,” Andrik says again, louder, looking around nervously. “They told us not to stray far.”

            “We’re not,” Ferran assures him.

            Rhiannon stays at the front, looking from tree to tree. It looks like she is hunting for something – for someone. Suddenly, Andrik feels it is very wrong for her to be the youngest and the bravest, so he puffs out his chest, breathes a grand breath, and moves past his brother and Amara, putting himself right next to the witch.

            “This is a bad idea,” he is saying to her. “We have already gone too far. If this thing of the rebels is true-”

            “Of course it’s true,” Rhiannon says, giving him that same look. “Why do you think they are all so worried for us?”       

            “Maybe they have reason to be?” Andrik says matter-of-factly. Does he always have to be the responsible one?

            Rhia simply gives him a mocking smile and keeps going. Ferran, behind him, stops suddenly.

            “What is it?” Amara murmurs to him.

            Rhia stops too, and given her face, she felt exactly what Ferran did. Whatever it is, it seems to have escaped both Amara and Andrik.

            “What?” Amara touches Ferran’s arm, tugging on his sleeve.

            And then it hits them.

            Ferran widens his eyes, and in the same second, he puts Amara and Andrik behind him. “Rhia,” he barks. Above them, an osprey circles the skies, its great wings forming shadows above and around them.

            Her yellow eyes flash, turning from side to side, half a sneer, half a growl forming on her features.

            They smell blood. Putrid, spoiled. Like something out of another world.

            “Rhia, we need to go,” Amara says, pulling her friend back by her arm. “We-”

            Another scent is carried to them by the breeze, and the children look to their right in the same instant. Andrik is the first to see. He is the first to scream.

***

~now~

            The moment Manon runs, Aelin is right beside her – as well as the others, screaming the children’s names as loud as they can. The Queen of Terrasen looks up as a shadow forms on top of them – Abraxos descends, his wings blowing her hair back.

            “Rowan,” Aelin calls, and her mate is right beside her in an instant, panic written all over those pine-green eyes. “Her scent-”

            “They are still close,” Rowan barks.

            The witch – Aelin has never seen such a look in Manon’s face.

            No, no. She has.

            When the Thirteen-

            Aelin and Rowan watch as Abraxos settles down, and immediately, as they all run through the plain and into the forest beyond, Manon sends her wyvern the command: “Find them.”

            Abraxos does not need to be told twice before he’s taking the skies again, his snout in the air.

            They push past bushes and trees, following the familiar scent and-

            “Manon,” Aelin cries.

            Because they both recognize the scent. They both know what it is.

            Dorian says something behind them, and Aelin can sense Lorcan and Rowan murmuring to themselves. But she hears nothing past the noise in her head.

            Amara. Amara. Amara.

            They move quickly through the empty spaces between the trees, half-running, half-jogging, and Manon looks up to the skies as Abraxos’ screech sounds like thunder coming down. The moment Aelin sees the wyvern lower his wings and make for the ground a few steps away, she is momentarily relieved.

            And then she smells the blood.

            Rotten blood.

            And-and-

            “Aelin,” Rowan tries to speak, but she hears nothing. She wants to hear nothing.

            A distinct male scent hovers there, just at a distance, but-

            Clear enough for a growl to etch on Aelin’s features.

            “Wait, Aelin-“ Fenrys’ voice is but a murmur, like he has seen a ghost he believed to be long gone.

            “It’s not possible,” Lorcan begins to say.

            A scream is heard.

            “ANDRIK,” Lorcan shouts in desperation as they round a particularly round oak tree. And then they see them.

            Safe. Safe. Aelin breathes, “Amara.”

            It was nothing but a whisper, but still her daughter pulls herself away from the others and runs to her mother. When she has her daughter in her arms, Aelin almost falls to her knees. “Oh,” she says, breathing in the scent of her daughter’s hair. “Never do that to me again-“

            “Aelin,” Rowan murmurs.

            The Queen looks up.

            Ferran and Andrik step away, moving close to their father. Even Rhia is pulled back by Dorian’s hands.

            Aelin’s instinct is to push her daughter behind her and show her teeth.

            But suddenly that male scent they’d detected before is all too familiar. It seems like a lifetime ago, but…but it is still in her memory. Mixed with that gods-awful putrid smell of blood-

            Abraxos lands on the ground, and the sound of twigs breaking underneath his feet and wings follows. He stands protectively over Manon and her family – his family – and looks right where the others are looking too.

            At the male that appears – holding the neck of another creature. A creature with that putrid scent.

            They all stop breathing.

            But the first one to react is Fenrys.

            He takes a step forward, and blinks at the male standing in front of him. “Vaughan,” Fenrys breathes.

***

            “Vaughan?” Aelin says.

            Lorcan and Rowan stay where they are.

            “What is going on here?” Manon growls, fiercely standing in front of her husband and daughter. “Who is this?”

            Fenrys’ eyes linger on Vaughan. The male sports short dark hair and the darkest eyes Aelin has ever seen. He’s not dressed in any finery, simple dark clothes to fit someone who is used to not being seen, or someone who is particularly good at hiding himself away.

            Fenrys, without taking his eyes away from Vaughan’s, says, “An old friend.”

            Aelin notices something sparks between them as Vaughan’s dark gaze turns back to Fenrys. She does not understand if it is longing, but it looks like something very close to it. Suddenly the term Fenrys used does not seem to fit at all.

            And then they look to the lifeless body Vaughan drops to the floor. His hands are painted red. Amara seems to shrink against her mother’s body.

            “What is this.” Rowan says, his jaw tense.

            Vaughan looks uninterested.

            Bored.

            He looks to Amara, and the girl glances back at him. “That your kid, Whitethorn?”

            Aelin narrows her eyes. The silence spreads.

            Vaughan’s voice is rough from disuse. “She has your face.” Then he looks to Lorcan, eyebrows raised. “Salvaterre. You’re not dead.”

            “I could say the same for you,” Lorcan spats. “Ah, wait. Of course your ass managed to stay alive. You were not there.”

            The words seem to hit Vaughan hard, for a few walls break down as the male gazes back at Lorcan. He does not respond, but Vaughan looks at the Queen of Terrasen. She remembers him well – the arrogance, his unwillingness to help her back in Wendlyn.

            “You,” Manon says.

            The trees themselves seem to still as the Queen of Witches approaches the male. Slow, powerful steps. Aelin is forced to hold back a smile, for Vaughan seems to actually shit himself at the sight of the witch.

            “These are my lands, and you just murdered in my lands. So,” she says. “speak. Before I twist your neck.”

            Vaughan gives the witch a scanning look and then his eyes cross over to Dorian. Lastly, as if connecting the dots, he looks at the little witch standing by her father, watching him as intently. The same look her mother has.

            “Interesting,” Vaughan says.

            At the same time, Manon and Abraxos give a growl. “Speak,” she orders.

            “What are you doing here, Vaughan?” Fenrys says.

            Vaughan seems to have a hard time to look Fenrys in the eye. Aelin filters that information, saving it for later.

            “Saving your kids’ asses, as it appears,” he says, frowning. “This parasite was roaming around. I have been following it for days, seeing where it led me. I was actually hoping he would show me his den or lead me to his little friends. Instead, he led me to his food.”

            Amara trembles as Vaughan’s eyes turn to her. Aelin pulls her closer.

            “He killed him.”

            Manon turns to her daughter as she steps out of her father’s arms. Rhiannon moves to them, but Manon holds out a hand to stop her, not wanting her daughter any closer to Vaughan.

            But, to Aelin’s eternal surprise, something kind crosses Vaughan’s face when the little witch speaks. Even if that same disinterest marks his features.

            “He killed the…the thing,” Rhia says. “To protect us.”

            Manon snaps her eyes back to Vaughan.

            “He was not going to hurt us,” Ferran calls.

            Lorcan watches his son carefully.

            “That’s what I’ve been saying,” Vaughan says in a sing-song voice.

            “Shut it,” Manon growls.

            “You owe me a thanks, witch,” the male responds, throwing the witch a glare.

            Manon steps forward, and it is as if Abraxos does the same. “I owe you nothing. You are in my territory.”

            “And I just saved your daughter’s life,” Vaughan spats.

            Manon raises her chin.

            “He is right, mama,” Rhia says quietly.

            “Manon,” Dorian says from behind them. “He saved our daughter.”

            “Why did you?” Aelin says, her voice raw.

            Vaughan gives the Queen of Terrasen a look of disdain. If he cares about how long they both came since they met, if he cares to know her real name, he does not show it. “Do you think I would let children be hunting prey for some Valg shit?”

            “Hunting?” Fenrys says. “You said it was hunting?”

            “Of course it was,” Vaughan says. “What do you think they do?”

            So Vaughan knows about the Valg. Aelin notices that he seems to know a lot more than he says.

            “Why have you returned?” Rowan asks him.

            “Why not?” Vaughan provokes.

            “Don’t you look like a smug son of a bitch,” Lorcan sneers. “Tired of hiding like a little rabbit, Vaughan?”

            The male ignores him, and faces Rowan. “I stayed far away. I did not think it was my war to be part of.”

            “It was everybody’s war,” Rowan says to him.

            Something flashes in Vaughan’s eyes. “I know that now. I apologize for the way I thought back then.”

            “You haven’t answered,” Fenrys reminds him.

            “I returned because the Valg pieces of shit have returned too,” Vaughan says. “That good enough for you?”

            Fenrys seems hurt, but doesn’t say anything.

            “It seems we have a lot to discuss,” Dorian says. “We should go back. Talk to Aedion and Lysandra about what happened.”

            “Wait,” Aelin says. “Did you discover where his little friends, as you called them, hide?”

            Vaughan faces the Queen again, sighing. “Do you think I would be here if I had?”

            “But you want to make up for what you didn’t do back then,” Rowan says. “So now you’ve returned to ease your conscience?”

            “What if I have, Whitethorn? What I did today gave me the chance to at least be heard, no?”

            “So lets go,” Aelin says coldly, eyeing the male. “Let us hear you.”

***

            “What,” Aedion murmurs to Lysandra when they are back, sitting at the round oak table in Manon and Dorian’s room. “Is that really him?”

            “I can still hear you,” Vaughan says to him.

            Aedion is wide-eyed. “I…yes, sorry. It’s just…I didn’t think we’d ever meet you.”

            “So, you want to help us,” Rowan says to him.

            Aelin notices there is no warmth in her husband’s voice.

            “If that will kill these pieces of shit faster, then yes. I want to help you.”

            “Why?”

            “Why?” Vaughan asks, as if there is not one question more absurd than that one. His dark eyes are full of strange secrets – a past lived, and probably forgotten. But for what reasons? Aelin wonders. “Because I found a village in the far north. I lived there most of the time I was gone, pretending to be looking for Lorcan. And then the bond faded. I woke up one morning and I felt like I could breathe for myself. The shackles were off. I didn’t have to fight anymore. I could do what I wanted. So damn right I was not going to ruin that by going into a war led by an assassin turned Queen.”

            Rowan growls, “Careful.”

            “She is what she is,” Vaughan says to him. “You know the female you married.”

            Aelin places a soothing hand on her husband’s thigh. “Continue,” she says harshly.

            “So I stayed in the village. I grew my own damn food. I had peace of mind.”

            From the corner, Lorcan actually snorts a laugh, which is, once again, ignored by Vaughan.

            “Until I started seeing that things were changing. People were not getting out of their houses. Ancient symbols, wards against evil, had been carved into their doors. Children going missing. Strange storms. The whole fucking lot.”

            “Then what?” Fenrys asks.

            “Then the village fucking burned to the ground, that’s what,” Vaughan says. “I go out one morning to hunt, and I come back to fire.”

            The village up north that Aelin visited – one of the villages. It must have been that one where Vaughan had been all along. Fire had erased his scent. Fire had erased everything.

            “I knew it was them,” Vaughan says. “People whispered about a raging spirit or an angry god. And then one man said the Queen of Terrasen’s name with hate on his lips.”

            Aelin swallows hard.

            “But he had a glazed look in his eyes. Like whatever was beneath that bag of meat and bones was…nonexistent. Empty. Hollow. So I followed him too. Even his scent was strange.”

            “But that’s the problem,” Aedion says. “We can’t smell the difference between the Valg and the humans. We think the Valg that were left behind after the war simply found new hosts. I don’t know – progressed. Evolved.”

            Vaughan snorts. “They didn’t progress or evolve.”

            “What is your theory?” Lorcan asks. “Enlighten us.”

            Vaughan leans back in his chair. All the information he was holding back – Aelin knows he is about to reveal it.

            And he does.

            Vaughan says, “What you met down in the plain was no ordinary Valg. That is why you do not smell them. They are not like the ones you met during the war.” He pauses, looking around the room, and then he says what everybody else already figured out: “This is a new species of Valg.”

***

            Two days later, Aelin is standing in her robe, in her home, in her chambers, looking over the balcony she stood in every other night.

            The cold lives in her bones.

            Even when her husband slips his arms around her, Aelin cannot defeat the winter born in her mind. Can’t.

            “Our daughter is asleep,” Rowan murmurs against her shoulder.

            The Queen of Terrasen cannot find her voice.

            Rowan rests his chin on top of her head, staring at the quiet night. “Do you want to talk, Fireheart?”

            She shakes her head slowly, sighing softly. “I want to forget.”

            He holds her tighter, his hands moving up and down her arms, to warm her. “You know it will be alright.”

            After their meeting, Vaughan had begrudgingly come to Terrasen with them. No one had spoken on the way back – not even Amara. Not even Fenrys. They needed to win a war before it began, and the weight of it is tearing Aelin apart.

            “I know,” she lies.

            He catches that lie, of course he does. But Rowan is kind enough not to mention it. Her husband holds her for a little while, and then he murmurs to her, “Do you wish to be alone, Aelin?”

            She does. She wants the hollowness of this room to fill her. Her mind is so loud.

            Briefly, she nods.

            Rowan kisses her head, and makes his way to the parlor attached to their chambers. The door closes softly behind him.

            Aelin looks to the night skies.

            What scares her most is not the threat itself, but the fact that they know practically nothing about it. Even with Vaughan’s instructions, they are still not sure how this new species of Valg work. What they do. How they kill. And not knowing what to expect is the worst thing of all.

            In a few days, her daughter will be going to Perranth. In a few days, Aelin will meet with Dorian once more, and Adarlan and Terrasen will be scanned from beginning to end.

            Even then, Chaol’s words do not leave her.

            “What will you do, afterwards?”

            Aelin closes her eyes, and breathes.

            It will be alright, she thinks to herself, even if she knows it is a lie. It has to be.

            Suddenly the room is too cold.

            And Aelin does not want to be alone any longer than she has to.

            She spent too many years in loneliness.

            Before she knows what she intends to do, she is opening the doors to the parlor. There, she finds Rowan sitting in one of the cream couches, a book opened in his lap. His feet are crossed on the coffee table.

            He removes them once he sees her, opening his mouth to ask her-

            But then he sees the look in her eyes.

            Aelin stands in front of Rowan.

            Fireheart, I am here, his eyes say.

            I know. I know you always will be.

            Come here. Aelin, come here.

            His throat bobs as Aelin removes her robe. The satin material falls to the floor. The straps of her nightgown are pulled down, off her shoulders, off her arms, and down to the floor it goes. It leaves her bare in front of him.

            Aelin stands there, letting his eyes travel over her breasts, her stomach, and lower. Every bit of her that was once cold is now sizzling.

            His moon white hair is still wet from his bath, and Aelin runs her fingers through it as he coaxes her closer, and closer, until she is standing between his opened legs, and he has his forehead pressed against her stomach, pestering soft little kisses to her skin.

            Aelin feels his hands move down to her ass as his kisses move further down. Each one at a time. But before he can go any further, Aelin kneels.

            Rowan’s breathing stops as Aelin moves her hand over his chest, down, down, down to his cotton trousers. She palms him over the fabric, and feels him hardening fast underneath her touch, his eyes fluttering shut as she gently squeezes.

            “Aelin,” her name leaves his mouth, and it is the only thing she wishes to hear for the rest of the night.

            She rips off his trousers, and claws at his shirt.

            Once he’s bare, Aelin drags her hand over his shaft, down, and up, all the way to the tip, and then back again. He’s slick and hot, and she wants him in her mouth.

            Rowan’s face is contorted in pleasure as makes him ache and burn with her hand. He places two fingers underneath her chin, making her look at him. Pine-green eyes. How she loves those eyes. She hopes he knows how much she loves them.

            I know, his eyes seem to say.

            He leans down, and her head cranes back slightly before he touches his lips to hers. Just a brush that leaves her aching and burning all the same. Rowan’s hair falls over his eyes as he pulls back to watch her, his face full of love and tenderness and desire.

            Aelin bents her head low, and takes him in her mouth.

            Rowan hisses, fingers moving to her hair as she licks his tip, before moving her mouth down onto him again, and again. The deeper she takes him, the deeper he groans, and Aelin is all too keen to hear him sing.

            She hollows her cheeks, desperate to feel his fingers tightening on her scalp. The taste of him wipes her mind clean of the last week, and when she finds a steady rhythm, the way he moans her name obliterates everything in the world except this.

            Aelin takes him deeper, and hums when she feels his fingers pull at her hair. His hips shift, and her mind goes foggy as she loses herself in the feeling, in the taste of him.

            Then she pulls back.

            Rowan’s eyes are wild and ravenous. If he looks like this, then she cannot imagine what she must look like to him as she licks her lip, wanting to enjoy as much of him as she can. Rowan then pulls her up, and Aelin climbs onto his lap. She finds him easily, ready and hot at her entrance. All she does is sink down, and the delicious pressure against her walls makes her see stars through cloud-filled skies.

            She is all too eager to have him. Her hips move and shift and circle even before she has the entirety of him buried inside her. The urgency to have him makes it all the more thrilling. Rowan’s hands settle on her hipbones, bringing her closer and closer, watching as he thrusts in to the hilt. Aelin bites her lip, and Rowan catches her mouth with his with a searing, desperate kiss.

            Aelin almost cries when they begin moving together, just at how good it feels. It is almost unbearable. She leans back, hands on his knees, each one of her thrusts meeting his with equal strength. At her begging, Rowan fucks into her long and hard, watching as she throws her head back, biting her lip so she doesn’t scream.

            But he wants her to scream.

            He pulls her closer, and touches his lips to her breasts, teeth scraping the small hurt before kissing it, so gently. There’s a pause as she undulates her hips slowly, back and forth, her breath coming out in short puffs. Then Aelin gasps as Rowan turns them, pushing her onto the couch’s pillows.

            Her legs are thrown over his waist, her arms gripping the pillows as Rowan hovers above her. He places a kiss to her lips, and two, and three, and a fourth one. Then he adjusts his lips, pulls back, and it is like he knows exactly what she needs before she tells him.

            Aelin is left without words, without the ability to breathe as Rowan, thrust after hard thrust, sends her closer and closer to the edge. Her fingers move to her swollen clit, thumb gently pressing down before stroking, and she is gone for good, her whole body shaking with the pure strength of his thrusts.

            She mewls into the pillow, gasping when he moves out of her at the last wave of her high. Aelin opens her eyes to see him terribly hard, and so close. She knows he has it in his mind to finish himself off, but his wife will not have that. Aelin pulls him down for a long kiss, sweet, but with the bite of desire right in the surface. Rowan moans against her mouth, his tongue tasting hers, but when he tries to move his hand to his member once more, Aelin stops him, gripping his wrist.

            He looks up at her. Aelin looks up at him.

            Then Aelin turns in his arms. Her face rests on the pillow, her arms around the soft fabric. And at seeing her presented like that, Rowan almost comes undone just at the sight alone. Still, he hesitates.        

            “Aelin-”

            But Aelin pushes her ass up, into him, biting her lip not to moan. Her body is still trembling, but her skin is also prickling up at the thought of him being inside her again. Rowan leans down, his chest against her back, and at feeling him so close, Aelin closes her eyes, laying her head down when his lips touch the back of her neck. Then his teeth, marking her before he parts her legs.

            In one quick thrust he is inside her again, moving at a hard, fast pace.

            “Oh,” Aelin groans into the pillow with each smack of skin on skin, fingers leaving rips on the pretty fabrics. Rowan slips a hand around her, and she feels two of his fingers stroking her lips as he moves inside her. She murmurs a soft, “Yes,” into the pillow.

            It is too much, all of a sudden.

            Aelin feels him shattering, and the way he bites at her shoulder is enough to make her cry out, the sound muffled by her hand. She thinks she does indeed cry this time as her body falls into the couch, limp and trembling. Rowan removes himself from her, lying with her close. Aelin turns on the couch, in his arms, watching him.

            He struggles to regain his breath, and still he kisses her, sweetly and tenderly, one hand at her cheek, thumb caressing the soft skin.

            “It will be alright, Fireheart,” he murmurs to her. “It will be alright.”

            “It will be,” she says back just as softly, just as Rowan begins to trace her face with soothing fingers.

            I know, his eyes seem to say.

TO BE CONTINUED.

Chapter Text

 

         No one has ever looked at her quite like Hollin does.

         Evangeline feels the blush creep into her cheeks, that soft pink spreading along her skin as he smiles down at her, with a certain pride in his eyes. She knows he enjoys what he does, because his hand reaches out to her, and Evangeline allows him to run the back of his fingers along her scarred skin, every touch bringing her closer and closer to him, until they are millimeters apart, and seemingly nothing in the world could get between them.

         “Do you enjoy it?” He asks her, his voice still rough, but that roughness is embraced by loving softness, each word sending a spark of desire through her. Embarrassingly enough, Evangeline is all too tempted to let that show in her gaze, as she looks up at him.

         “What?” She murmurs to him.

         “Do you enjoy bringing me to my knees?”

         Evangeline stops, shaking her head up at him. “What do you mean?”

         Hollin’s face hardens, and his hand falls at his side. “You do, do you not?”

         “I don’t understand, Hollin.”

         Any desire to hold him is whisked away as Hollin pulls back from her. A terrible chill enters her bones. Evangeline realizes he has frozen the room once more. He’s coated every inch of this room in ice and snow.

         But then – fire. Blazing fire erupting from his hands.

         Evangeline steps back, unable to stop her flinching.

         And Hollin smiles. A horrible smile. A smile an executioner might give you before he has the pleasure to cut off your head.

         “So you are scared,” he says. The softness in his voice scares her more than anything he could ever do. It is a softness that is contaminated with pure hatred. “You were always frightened, were you not?”

         “Not of you,” she murmurs. “Never of you.”

         But she is. She is terribly frightened.

         The ice melts. The room is burning.

         Hollin creates flames as dark as a night sky, and smoke pounds at the ceiling, wanting to be set free. At her feet, blood red fire dances.

         “Hollin,” she says. “Stop this.”

         But he smiles wider.

         And when she looks up, it is not the ice blue eyes she is so accustomed to seeing – but deep black, the sort of black that envelops everything. The blackness of unstarry skies. The blackness of emptiness. Even that soothing black density of his shadows that reminds her of the gentle night is turned into something malicious and angry. And it is aimed at her.

         “Why?” She asks him.

         “Because I can,” he responds. “Because you are mine.”

         She blinks. Through the window to her left, sunshine begins to creep in. He follows her gaze.

         “Do not be blinded,” Hollin says. “I can still destroy you, Evangeline.”

         “Evangeline.”

         “Hollin.”

         “Evangeline.”

         “Evangeline.”

         The sudden jerk of her body as she wakes makes her hit her head on the bed post. Evangeline hisses, pushing the tangled mane of her hair off her eyes, and soon begins blinking at the bright sunlight kissing her cheeks. Morning is here. Summer is here.

         And it had all been a dream.     

         “Are you alright, Evangeline?”

         Evangeline jumps once more, not planning to see Iris so close to her.

         “Oh, goodness,” she murmurs, a hand at her heart. “Iris. Good morning.”

         “I am so sorry to wake you, Evangeline,” her friend says, touching her shoulder kindly. “But the Prince is calling for you, wondering where you are.”

         Evangeline rubs the sleep off her eyes and stares at Iris’ gentle face. She had already left Evangeline’s clothes at the end of the bed, and a basin with lukewarm water is poised on top of her cabinet, with white towels neatly folded alongside it.

         “The Prince?” Evangeline asks, confused.

         “Yes,” Iris says slowly. “You seemed to had an awful dream.”

         Well, Evangeline thinks to herself, feeling quite ashamed. Some parts were pleasant.

         And then she realizes…some parts were pleasant.

         Evangeline closes her eyes, a “Oh no,” leaving her mouth.

         Iris folds her arms across her chest. She is only a couple of years older than Evangeline, but she has been working at the King’s palace for longer than Evangeline can remember. For someone so young, however, Iris has a sort of motherly nature about her, and as she stares down at Evangeline, the girl feels quite compelled to shrink under that gaze.

         “What were you doing saying the Prince’s name in your sleep?” Iris whispers.

         “It was a bad dream.”

         Iris raises her eyebrows. “It did seem like such a thing at the end. You were practically twitching, I thought you were going to start crying. So, I woke you.”

         Evangeline has to response. She slowly gets up, washes her face, and as she rubs her cheeks with the soft towels, she feels Iris’ eyes firm on her.

         “What do you mean he is calling for me?” Evangeline mutters.

         “For your-”

         “The lessons,” Evangeline gasps. “I have to get dressed! Oh, what time is it? Eight? Iris, why did you not wake me sooner?”

         “You’ve never needed anybody to wake you-”

         Evangeline runs to the bathroom, but then runs back to get her clothes, and then runs back to her comb, just to finally shut the door. Iris finds herself with a smile on her face, shaking her head to herself.

***

         “You are late.”

         Evangeline smiles sheepishly as she enters the humid office. “I brought tea, though.”

         Hollin turns in his chair, frowning at the two cups of tea she carries with her. On top of his desk, two cups already sit, completely cold. Evangeline blinks at the thoughtfulness.

         It has been a week since their daily morning and evening lessons began, and Hollin had only grabbed tea for her once. Excluding this time. It takes her aback everytime he does something like this. Even though she knows he is physically capable of kindness, she cannot help but admire this simple thoughtfulness.

         Today, however, it seems the Prince of Adarlan is in a much fouler mood than all those mornings they have spent together.

         She sits next to him, placing his cup of tea in front of him, while she sips hers delicately. “I’m sorry – I fell asleep.”

         They hadn’t had their lesson yesterday evening, for the sky had been way too dark to see that stars, so they’d both agreed to schedule it for today. So Evangeline had stayed awake for half the night, unable to think about what to do with herself. So her thoughts had strayed to the Prince.

         It is a hard task not allowing her cheeks to tint pink once more, at the thought of her dream. The way he touched her, the way he smiled. It is torture, she thinks, pure torture to have a dream such as this. And so confusing. She does not need to begin having dreams about the Prince of Adarlan and his grumpy face, his rough voice and handsome eyes.

         She does not need to think of him at all.

         Still.

         Evangeline still notices the way he is dressed – simple linen shirt, navy blue, carefully folded sleeves up to his elbow, black trousers and dark boots for the still chilly summer mornings. His hair is curly, which means he washed it this morning. He pulls the fringe back, off his eyes, and when they turn her way, Evangeline finds herself thinking that he would be a lovely subject for a painting.

         “What?” He asks, quite harshly.

         “Nothing,” she murmurs, sipping her tea. “You look well-rested.”

         “Do I?” Hollin shoots back, a slight mockery gracing his tone.

         “Yes, actually,” she says.

         “You, however, do not,” he says, his tea untouched. He rests his elbow on his desk, something Evangeline has never seen him do (a Prince resting his elbows on a table? Unheard of), and a muscle in his jaw ticks when he adds, “Any nightly adventures?”

         “None of your business,” she remarks, raising her eyebrows at him.

         She sees him bite the inside of his cheek. His eyes do not meet hers, and they are hard and firm and unblinking, staring down at his notebook. “Thought perhaps you would be delighting in the presence of your new friend, the stables boy.”

         Evangeline quirks a brow. “Jorn? He is not a new friend; I have known him since I was a child.”

         Hollin looks even more upset by that information.

         Evangeline suddenly puts her tea down. “You are jealous.”

         The Prince looks horrified. “Am not.”

         “Are too!” She laughs in his face. “What? Why would you be jealous?”

         “I told you I am not jealous,” he says, his cheeks red.

         “Do not worry, my Prince,” Evangeline pats his hand, and Hollin pulls it away quickly, like she burned him. “I have only eyes for you.”

         He snorts, as if that idea would be preposterous. “You think yourself too high in my esteem.”

         “I do not think myself as being too high in your esteem,” Evangeline says. “I know I am very high in your esteem.”

         She knows she is simply provoking him, and the banter makes her smile, but there is the smallest part of her mind that wonders-

         She wonders whether the Prince is truly jealous, or simply looking at things to pick on, since he is in a particularly sour mood.

         “Sure. Whatever you say.”

         “Hey,” Evangeline chuckles. “You are the one that asked. Also, you told me a week ago that you wanted nobody to know of our time spent together, and yet I am late for twenty minutes-”

         “An hour and a half,” he sourly comments.

         “-and you go and call my maid right away. Is that concern for me, I detect? Oh, dear gods above, does Hollin Havilliard actually care?”

         “You are crossing a line,” he says to her, eyes blazing.

         “It is okay to care, you know,” Evangeline says, stealing a sugar cookie from the glass display. “It is what friends do.”

         Evangeline usually got very hungry during their lessons, either because they always went for three hours or more, or just because she liked to snack. So she brought a whole jar of cookies for them to bite on, ignoring the Prince’s “You will not leave this here,” and, “If I get ants in this room, you will clean them all on your own,” leaving it there for their daily encounters.

         Days later, the Prince does not seem to mind at all.

         “I don’t,” he says, watching her eat.

         “Eat a cookie, Hollin,” she says, giving one to him. “I promise every sour morning can be cured with a little sweetness.”

         He rolls his eyes, taking the cookie out of her hand and throwing it back on the jar. “Let us just start.”

         “I think this is the first time you don’t deny that we are friends,” she smiles. “I call that progress.”

         “You give me headaches.”

         “No, you give yourself headaches, I only give you reasons to smile.”

         “Let. Us. Start.”

         “Fine,” Evangeline smiles, sitting cross legged on the chair, facing him completely. “So we know that the ball is in a few months-“

         “I haven’t forgotten it.”

         “Good. We ran through all the introductory lines,” she counts with her fingers. “We talked about conversation starters, the ways you can seem friendlier…alright, so flirt with me.”

         The Prince seems to choke on his own saliva. “Excuse me?”      

         Evangeline rolls her eyes, “Oh, please. Pretend I am your beautiful Princess, the one you are so crazy for. Try to flirt. Let me see your charm.”

         “That is very awkward, I do not wish to do that at all-”

         “How do you plan to flirt with her, then?” Evangeline says, matter-of-factly. “There is so much dancing you can do to charm a woman, Prince. Her feet are going to get tired after a while. So how about you start by saying something nice about…her eyes? And we will go from there.”

         “So, you will essentially be pretending to be her?”

         “Sure,” Evangeline shrugs.

         Hollin sighs, shaking his head to himself, as if saying, This is a load of bullocks. With a pause, he begins: “You have beautiful eyes.”

         “Wow,” Evangeline says drily. “So much feeling put into that.”

         “Well, what do you want me to do?” He says, frustrated.

         “Try something that applies to her; that is not so vague. Everybody has beautiful eyes. What is something you truly like about her?”

***

         Hollin is having a very hard time.

         He tries to picture the princess in his mind, her dark skin, glowing in the sunlight, her hair, twined in exquisite braids that flow down her back…and yet, nothing major comes to his mind. Sometimes he can barely remember what she looks like.

         And right now, he is struggling to imagine something past the bright eyes that are facing him. A color he has never seen before. Bright, joyous, always so joyous. And that hair – he can never figure out if it is blond or red, or a strange mixture of the two.

         “I like your hair today,” he says.

         Evangeline nods in encouragement, and puts on a brighter smile, straightening her back. He notices she is trying to sit like a royal, but he knows that Evangeline has terrible posture. It is strange seeing her sitting like that – he half-expects her to slump her shoulders or lean against the desk. “Why, thank you, Hollin,” she says, her voice too high. “It was way too hot to wear it down today.”

         He does not even know if the Princess ever wears her hair up. He cannot remember. Evangeline, however – she almost always ties it half-up, half-down, as if she cannot be bothered to do anything else with it. And it always looks so messy, and absolutely enchanting.

         Today, however, she wears it in a hurried bun, curly stray pieces falling over her face, like she ran a whole fifty miles before coming here. He imagines her waking up, hurrying over her basinet and just flinging her hair up, not really bothering with how it looks.

         Hollin realizes he’s been silent for a long time, and his eyes begin to focus again, just to see Evangeline say, in a hint-like voice: “I am making conversation.”

         “Right,” he says. “Well, uh – it always looks good, no matter what you do with it.”

         “Nice,” she says to him. And then goes back to the Princess’ voice: “So does yours. I have always liked your hair. I like the way it curls.”

         Hollin’s heart smiles at that. He orders his face not to show it. “Do you?”

         “I do,” Evangeline says, in that high voice. She gestures slightly. “It’s so dark, also. Like ebony.”

         Hollin stares at her, unable to look away. “I can never brush it,” he admits.

         “Oh,” Evangeline laughs. “Neither can I. Because of the-”

         “The frizz,” he completes.

         She nods in agreement, chuckling to herself. “It is the worst. I swear mine doubles in size if I ever comb it completely through.”

         “I would like to see it,” he says. “All frizzy and matted.”

         “No, you would not, trust me,” she says, shaking her head. “It is like a lion’s mane. Worst.”

         Hollin shrugs. “It would look good either way, I reckon.” A pause, as he swallows. “Frizz or no frizz.”

         “Thanks,” Evangeline smiles, and he notices she’s dropped the high-pitched voice.

         And Hollin notices that they’ve completely dropped the act, too. They have been talking to each other all along, in reality.

         The realization hits them both, and their faces turn away in an awkward, silent moment. Until Evangeline clears her throat and says, “Well, that’s good. See, you can keep up a conversation after all.”

         He does not respond.

         “Right,” she says. “I should probably get to the school, it is still quite a walk.”

         “Take a carriage,” he says, not really knowing why he’s suggesting anything to her at all.

         “It’s fine,” she shrugs, smiling. “I like walking.”

         He makes a face.

         “You don’t like walking?” She asks, eyebrows raised. “But, it’s so peaceful?”

         “It is tiring,” he argues. “Why would I ever walk anywhere if I have a carriage right there?”

         “Because nature?” Evangeline gestures to the window.

         “No,” he shakes his head. “Horrible.”

         Evangeline shakes her head. “Sometimes I really struggle to understand you, Hollin.”

         “Sometimes I struggle to understand you.”

         “So,” Evangeline laughs. “We will just keep going through life not understanding each other, I guess.”

         He shrugs, and she copies him, shrugging back.

         She smiles, and clears her throat once more. “So, at evening?”

         “If you are late, do not bother coming. I won’t wait for you.”

         Evangeline grabs her bag, lifting herself up and making her way to the door. “Of course you will,” she calls back, before disappearing out of his vision.”

         And what makes him terribly angry is that-

         Is that she is absolutely and unequivocally right.

***

         “Do we have to stay inside all night?” She asks later that day, when the night is close to falling and the twilight paints the skies light and dark blues.

         Hollin overlooks the exercises he left for her to do, quirking a brow at her. “What do you mean?”

         “We could go to the fields.” Her eyes suddenly light up, too beams of light amongst the darkness. “Near the village, past Rifthold! There are absolutely no lights there, and you can see the stars as plain as day.”

         Hollin scrunches his nose, hating the idea. “It is too far.”

         “Oh, please – it is a thirty-minute walk at most.”

         “No.”

         She smiles at him from the desk. “It will be fun, come on. We have spent the entire week watching the stars from afar. Come with me.”

         Come with me.

         Hollin’s breath suddenly hitches, but he is all too aware of that hand on his desk, so close to his that he does not notice that he’s stopped breathing for a few moments. He is all too aware of her smiling face, and the light in her eyes, and the beautiful pale dark dress she is wearing.

         “I am not leaving my palace this late,” he says, “to watch some stars. I have a bloody telescope, for fuck’s sake.”

         “But it will be an adventure,” Evangeline says, touching his arm. “And I can show you how pleasant walks can be. Have you ever, in your life, taken a night walk? It is enchanting.”

         “It is dangerous, is what it is,” Hollin corrects, eyes glued to that hand on his arm, his insides turning into a billion butterflies aching to get freed.

         “Please?” She asks him.

         Hollin sighs heavily, a headache forming above his brow.

         His selfish brain begins pondering this, wondering greedily if he will get to spend more time with her if he does this one crazy thing. Maybe she will keep the horrible dreams and the shadows at bay if…if she stays for a moment longer.

         Evangeline has not once asked about his powers or what she saw during that morning, a week ago. She has not flinched with fear everytime he lifts himself up, or everytime he raises his hand to get his quill. He thinks she is avoiding the topic on purpose, maybe to spare his feelings, and Hollin has an inkling that every part of her is desperate to ask him about it. That annoying, selfless part of her that wants to care for everybody in this world is probably dying to check if he’s alright, and that makes him feel-

         He does not know how it makes him feel.

         The Prince finds himself looking down at a letter of his brother. The dangers that lurk in the night. Would he risk endangering her for his own selfishness? If he indulged her in this…what if something happened to her? And he could not protect her?

         “Is that a letter from Dorian?” She murmurs softly. “Lysandra and Aedion wrote me a week ago, too. Talking about the meeting, what they found.”

         Hollin does not respond. If what his brother told him is true, then…

         What a world to be living in.

         And to think that his very own blood, as well as his brother’s, is contaminated with the evilness of the Valg…it makes him sick to his stomach. It makes him want to tear his skin out.

         “I know you must be worried,” Evangeline say, her voice still gentle. “But it will be alright. I promise.”

         Hollin looks over at her. “Are you not frightened?”

         Evangeline pauses slightly. “Yes. I am. But I will never let fear rule my life ever again. If it takes over…then what else is left of me?”

         The question dies in the silence of the room.

         But Evangeline smiles again, touching his hand. Her touch almost makes him flinch. He cannot remember the last time someone actually touched him, and it drives him wild with both need and shock. But he cannot move his hand away. Won’t.

         “So?” She says, tugging at his hand. “Will you come with me?”

         Hollin gives her a warning look.

         “Think of it as…teaching purposes,” Evangeline smirks.

         “What you will see in the fields is what you can see right here, from this room – where it is warm.”

         “Do you not own a coat?”

         “Yes, but-”

         “So do I. We will bundle up, and it will be an adventure.”

         Before Hollin can reply, Evangeline has already lifted herself up, and takes his hand with her, tugging him up. “Come on,” she says, pulling at him. “You lazy Prince. Let’s go have the adventure of our lives.”

         “Sit in a field and watching the stars?” He barely budges. “That’s your idea of an adventure?”

         She looks irritated now. He wants to touch that nose of hers and make her irritation go away. Or provoke her further. Hollin is not sure which one.

         “Well – what is your idea of an adventure?” She asks, hands at her waist.

         He can think of a few, but they all involve her, and some would not be very polite to say, so Hollin shuts his mouth.

         “That’s what I thought,” she grins. “Now, Hollin Havilliard, let us go have the time of our lives.”

***

         She has dragged him outside.

         The earth is wet and the woods are cold and empty and Hollin is pretty certain they will either get murdered or get eaten.

         Evangeline laughed herself hoarse when he suggested they take guards, and then laughed even more when he said, “You expect me to walk out of my palace without guards? And in the fucking nighttime?”

         Hollin really does not know how he’s managed to sneak out of the palace, with this girl next to him. He does not know how he agreed to be walking in the middle of the Adarlan woods and into the city beyond. He wears a warm cloak around him, and so does Evangeline, and it is so strange watching his people laugh at the doors of taverns, drunken men and women dancing, some singing at the top of their lungs. The cobbled streets are cold, but dim lights float around here and there, illuminating the face of a man who sticks his head out his window to yell at some couple passionately kissing against the wall of his house.

         Hollin shrinks in his cloak, not wanting to be recognized. But, in truth, he is not bringing any attention to himself at all. Dressed as they are, both him and Evangeline look like a regular couple making their way back home after a long day’s work. He doubts any of his people would know what he looks like, anyway.

         Evangeline holds on to his arm as they walk, like they have always done so, like she is comfortable enough to do it. And Hollin-

         He is dying on the inside.

         And at the same time, it feels…pleasant.

         He can forget who he is like this. And he can pretend he is, indeed, a normal man and she is a normal woman and they are simply a couple walking home. He can pretend that when she looks up at him it is with a lover’s admiration in their eyes, and not with a “I told you this would be fun,” sort of look.

         They make their way out of the streets and into the plains, where the buildings become tiny houses, and tiny houses become sparse cabins, and then, a few minutes later, all he sees is small hills and short grass, fields of grain and, in the far distance, trees with ripe fruit ready to be picked off by the farmers living in the cottages near the lakes.

         From here, his world looks so different.

         They stop in the darkness. Hollin keeps looking around, half-fascinated, half-entranced, and all too keen to take everything in. He does not even notice Evangeline’s eyes watching him, and the small smile she forms on her lips.

         “Nice, is it not?”

         His eyes snap to her. “I never saw this part of Adarlan.”

         “I take this route when I go to the school, back in the city,” she says. “During lunch, I usually come here and read.”

         Hollin pauses, looking down at her, feeling hot all of a sudden.

         “Here,” she says. “Sit with me.”

         They do, and Hollin hates the way the grass feels underneath him. He thinks of the stains it will leave on his clothes and he squirms. But then Evangeline is looking at the sky, and he is looking at her, and every other insignificant thought is gone, obliterated forever, because he can think of nothing past the glow of her eyes and the gentle smile on her face and how beautiful her freckles are.   

         He wants to trace every little dot. With his lips.

         She turns her face, watching him watching her.

         “So,” she begins. “What is that constellation?” And points.

         Hollin looks up. He squints. “Aquila,” he murmurs.

         Evangeline follows his gaze, and in the grass, their pinkies brush. He does not make a move to pull away, because she doesn’t, either.

         “See how it looks like a bird with spread wings?” He says to her, pointing out the shape.

         “Oh, I see it,” she murmurs. “But why the name?”

         “It is an ancient language, I believe,” he says. “It is supposed be the translated word for eagle.”

         “I have never seen such a bird,” Evangeline says. “Do you see any right over there?” She points to his right side.

         “There,” he says, smiling slightly, “Is the northern cross.”

         “A cross? I cannot see it. It just looks like a cluster of stars to me.”

         “It’s right there,” he says.

         Evangeline squints, but then gives him a hopeless look.

         Hollin holds out his hand. Evangeline looks surprised for a fraction of a second, but then she gives him her hand, and Hollin points it at the right place, feeling how warm her fingers are against his.

         He bets he feels as cold as frost to her.

         The thought makes him sour.

         “There,” he says, tracing the shape with her finger, slowly. “Do you see?”

         “Right,” Evangeline lightens up. “Of course.”

         Their hands separate. “It is actually just a cross inside a whole other constellation. If you look to your right, you will see a little beak. Or, a sort of beak. The top of the cross is a tail. Together, it forms a swan.”

         “Does each constellation have a story?” She asks him.

         “Not all of them,” Hollin replies, leaning back with his hands on the grass, his long legs spread in front of him. “Some are just more interesting than others.”

         “I think each one deserves to have its story told,” Evangeline whispers. “Don’t you think so, too?”

         He looks at her. “Not particularly.”

         Evangeline shrugs, her eyes stuck to the sky. “They all matter, after all. No matter how small. They all have a story to tell.”

         Hollin watches her intently, the contours of her face. “Maybe you should write their story.”

         Evangeline smiles. “Maybe. With your help, I could.”

         They sit in silence, and Hollin sits up, holding his knees to his chest, his hands folded around them. At this hour, he would usually feel the pressure of his powers booming under the surface, knocking to be set free. But not now. He looks down at his hand, clenching and unclenching.

         “Are you in pain, Hollin?”

         He looks at her suddenly, embarrassed that his feelings are so easy for her to read. “No.”

         “Okay,” she murmurs. “Good.”

         Another pause.

         Hollin finds himself murmuring back: “Silently, one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven, / blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels.”

         Evangeline observes him, a quiet smile gracing her features. “Did you write that?”

         “Of course not,” Hollin says. “It is a quote, from a very long time ago. It came in a book that I once read about different worlds. I think that that writer died when his world did.”

         “The world before this one?” She asks. “I read about that too. That once, the earth was new, and humans also roamed the lands. But then the sun died, and the world was shattered to pieces. Almost everything perished with that sun.”

         “Yes,” Hollin says. “Until the death of that sun gave birth to a new one. And life began again. What survived evolved. It was the beginning of our world.”

         “It is strange to think,” Evangeline adds, “that somewhere, out there, new worlds can exist apart from our own. It is the strangest universe, isn’t it?”

         “The strangest,” Hollin murmurs.

         He does not know how long they sit and watch the stars, sharing their theories and their knowledge, and their hopes, and a few of their fears. He shares very little, and she shares a lot, but all their thoughts are carved in his mind, hers forever with him. And, once again, Hollin is fascinated with her mind, and her cleverness, and her curiosity. She knows how brilliant she is, and he admires that to no end. Evangeline is shameless, and shares her thoughts without any hesitance.

         Hours, and hours. The night darkens, and darkens, and the world begins to sleep. When neither can shake the cold off their bones, they leave.

         They walk through the city in quiet footsteps, and Hollin is all too attentive to every shadow that crosses their path. Just in case, he moves a little closer to Evangeline.

         She looks up at him when he does, smiling slightly, and she is about to open her mouth and say something, but she never gets the chance to.

         Hollin is thrown to the ground, and the next thing he hears is a scream. Evangeline’s scream.

         It takes him a full second to realize what is happening – that there is a thief on top of him, raising his fist to knock Hollin unconscious. And, next to him, another man.

         His hands. On. Evangeline.

         Hollin stops the thief’s fist with a hand, a reflex so fast that Hollin does not even notice it himself, until he is digging his fingers in the man’s fist. The thief widens his eyes, and then he begins to sob. The Prince realizes that smoke floods out of his hands, and the smell of burning flesh hits his nose.

         Taking advantage of this, Hollin throws a fist to the man’s face, knocking him unconscious on the cobbled floor.

         “HOLLIN,” Evangeline screams.

         The remaining man puts a knife to Evangeline’s throat, and Hollin’s knees wobble. The thief has a hand around her waist, the other holding the blade so close to her skin.

         Hollin closes his fists. He should have seen this coming. He should have paid more attention, but instead he had been staring at her like a lovesick puppy-

         “All ‘ya coins,” the brute says, “on the ground. Or the girl dies.”

         Hollin blinks. “Touch a hair on her head,” he says slowly, ugly anger bubbling under the surface. “And I will tear you to pieces with my own hands.”

         “Will you, now?”

         Another voice, from behind him this time.

         Hollin turns as four shadows appear, taking shape in the moonlight. Four men, each with their own weapon – rusted blades and stolen swords. Hollin swallows. He is ready to burst out of his skin and kill them all.

         What stops him is Evangeline’s eyes, free of fear but with urgency, worry.

         Worry for him.

         He begins chuckling.

         Evangeline blinks, and all the men seem to stop in place to watch him, probably thinking he’s bonkers.

         His laughter suddenly comes to a bitter halt. “I said – release the girl.”

         “Give us ya money first, then.”

         “He doesn’t have any,” Evangeline shouts, angry and red-faced. “Neither of us do.”

         “Dressed li’ that, you pro’lly have-”

         The man holding the knife to her throat does not know what hits him. Does not know because what hits him is an invisible hand. A phantom hand.

         Hollin squeezes the man’s throat, and the knife falls out of his hand, clanking to the ground. Evangeline runs to his side, eyes wide, staring up at him. And Hollin realizes that she knows what he did, and that she is not scared. She is-

         She is in awe.

         The four men watch their partner cling to his throat, struggling for air. Their eyes turn to Hollin, furious and scared out of their minds. Hesitating.

         Hollin feels Evangeline tug at his sleeve. “Run,” she whispers.

         Hollin, who is absolutely dying to strangle each one of them looks to her, confused. “What-”

         “Run,” she says, and takes his hand.

         She pulls him after her, and they are running down the street, as fast as their legs can carry them. Hollin shakes his head, wondering why on earth she would stop him from murdering all of those brutes. He hears them follow, and Evangeline grips his hand tighter as they turn a corner. She runs much faster than he ever could, and Hollin’s lungs strain as he attempts to keep up with her.

         The men approach as they pass a stable, and Hollin’s instinct makes him act: he waves a hand, and piles and piles of hay fly off into the street behind them as if moved by an invisible force, cutting off the men’s run and making them trip all over each other.

         Hollin and Evangeline keep running, looking back to see the damage and-

         While Hollin’s heart is beating out of his chest, she sees that Evangeline is laughing.

         She is laughing.

         The sound is carried into the night as the men begin to pick themselves up. They run, and run, and then Evangeline yanks at his arm, almost making him fall backwards in the process, and pulls him into a very, very tiny alley way, one they would not squeeze through if they were to go right into it, instead of sideways.

         It is no more than a crack between buildings, Hollin notices. They breathe, and keep themselves silent, until they see from the corner of their eyes the thieves running past them, not seeing them in the darkness.

         What wakes him out of his delirium is the quiet sound of her laughing to herself. Hollin looks down, and his noses brushes her forehead. It is then that he realizes that they are literally pressed against each other, squeezed together between the buildings, just a fumble of limbs.

         Her closeness makes him die.

         Hollin puts his hands on either side of her, against the cold wall, attempting to put some space between them, but he cannot. He does not even know how they will manage to get out of here.

         And meanwhile, Evangeline is still chuckling. He can feel the vibrations of her chest against his. He is sweating, everywhere.

         “Why are you laughing?” He hisses quietly. “You almost got killed.”

         “I am not sure,” she shakes her head, and her nose bumps slightly in his throat. “Must be from the shock.”

         Hollin breathes out, and is all too surprised to find a smile on his own face. He looks down, and she is looking up, and their noses bump against each other.

         “Sorry,” she murmurs sheepishly, smiling nervously, leaning her head against the wall so they have some space between them.

         Hollin does not know what to do with himself.

         The contours of her body are firmly against him, and he can feel her breathing in, out, in, out. Her breath hits his collarbone, causing his skin to moisten.

         “What you did out there,” she says, “that was the greatest thing I have ever seen.”

         “Almost strangling a man to death?”

         “Yes,” she breathes a laugh. “But also…thank you.”

         “Whatever you might think of me, I cannot believe you thought I would let you be killed by rogue thieves.”

         “I did not think that,” she murmurs.

         “This is madness,” he says. “We should have never gone out.”

         “Some adventures are better than others,” she smiles, seemingly unbothered by their closeness.

         Hollin has to turn his face slightly to the right so he’s not touching his lips to her face. That is how close they are.

         “You almost got your throat cut out,” Hollin murmurs, “and you call it an adventure.”

         “Always looking on the bright side.”

         “You are fucking nuts, Evangeline. You are fucking mad.”

         But they are both smiling.

         The thrill and the adrenaline slow when they hear noise at the end of the street. They stay very quiet, almost not breathing, Evangeline looking to the street, and Hollin looking to the right still, his eyes focusing on a birthmark at her neck. He wants desperately to kiss it.

         They listen as the men come back, and they are pressed together again, wishing the darkness to cloak them once more.

         But they are never noticed.

         One of the men scream, “I think I see ‘em over there!” And then leave, running the other direction. After a few minutes, they stop hearing anything at all.

         The streets are silent. Evangeline begins moving, and Hollin too, trying to squeeze through, and they both try to awkwardly move and pull away from each other, only to end up stuck pressed together, Evangeline against him and the wall, and him against the wall and Evangeline.

         “I think we should go one at the time,” Evangeline says.

         So she moves first.

         But Hollin also moves first, and neither of them end up moving anywhere.

         “Right, wait, wait,” he whispers. “You go first.”

         “Okay,” she whispers back. “Just – can you move a little? Yes, okay, I think I can squeeze through now.”

         But she cannot.

         Hollin tries to squeeze his back against the wall, but then he turns his face slightly to his left-

         At the same time Evangeline looks up at him, and turns his face to her left.

         And, accidentally, their lips brush.

         They both gasp and pull back, hitting their heads on the wall.

         “Ouch,” Evangeline groans, wanting to touch the back of her head but not being able to.

         They look up at each other. They are both blushing. Stuck in that second. Evangeline laughs under her breath, nervously, and he tears his eyes away.

         Evangeline blinks, and then pushes at his chest with her hands. Slowly, she manages to squeeze through the crack. Hollin follows suit.

         “How was it so easy to get in but so difficult to get out?” She mumbles under her breath, but Hollin knows she is simply trying to make conversation, to push them both past what just happened.

         His lips are tingling.

         “Let’s go home,” he says simply.

         Evangeline pauses, looking up at him through her lashes. But Hollin has already turned away, expecting her to follow. She does, and they stick to the shadows, all the way up, until they are safe in the palace grounds.

***

         She kissed him.

         Oh, gods, she kissed him.

         Accidentally, yes, but it was still-

         All the way up the gravel path, Evangeline wants to sink to her knees and dig a hole to hide herself in. But all she can do is stare at Hollin’s back, and think about how soft his lips were when they brushed hers.

         Is he angry? She can’t read him. It makes her nervous, not being able to see his face.

         Should she bring it up? No, no, she won’t – she can’t.

         Her heat is bursting with colors, and Evangeline does not know what to do with herself as they sneak back into the grand Hall.

         She expects him to simply leave her there and make to his rooms, but instead, she sees that he makes for the kitchen.

         She blinks, “Where are you going?”

         “Where do you think I am going?” Hollin says over his shoulder.

Gods. He’s handsome.

Even with that angry frown of his.

“I’m hungry, I’m going to eat,” he says. “Come if you want.”

She does, so silently.

In the kitchens, she prepares some tea. Hollin snacks on a day-old pastry, leaning against the wooden cupboard.

Neither of them speaks.

She wants him to say something, desperately. But Hollin simply stares into space, unblinking.

“Here,” she murmurs, giving him his tea.

He takes it with a brief thanks, and begins sipping.

“I am going to bed,” she says, feeling so awkward she might shatter. “I…so, goodnight.”

“Wait.”

She stops, tea in hand. She looks at him, heart full of hope. For what, however – she does not know.

“Yes?” She says to him.

“Are you really not afraid of me?” He asks, looking straight at her.

“No,” she says. “I’m not.”

“Hum.”

Evangeline stands there for a second. “I had a good time, you know. Even if thieves did try to cut our throats. That part was…yes, that part was a bit of a bummer, you know, nobody really wants their night to end with a man putting a blade to your throat. But the rest, it was, uh…I, well, I dare say that I…”

“You are rambling,” he states.

“Yes,” she says, putting down her tea, just so she can pick at her nails – a nervous habit. “I do it when I am nervous.”

“Why are you nervous?” He asks, crossing his feet over the other. He puts his tea down, and folds his arms against his chest.

He looks so…huge here. Leaning against the counters, his dark cloak still on, his legs so long. His eyes so beautiful.

“I think I am allowed to be nervous after what we went through,” she says. “It is quite normal to be in shock after you’ve almost been killed.”

“Is that it?”

She swallows. “What else would it be?”

“You were silent all the way here,” he says. “I never thought I would see you with your mouth shut for more than three minutes.”

The words seem like an insult, but the way he says them…they feel nothing like it. Evangeline swears she can see the curve of his mouth from where she stands. She swears she sees the corner of his lip twitch.

And she notices, like she’s just banged her head on a wall again, that he’s teasing her.

It is so strange to see him at ease, bantering with her, that the only thing that comes out of her mouth is a very stupid, “What?”

Hollin raises his eyebrows, watching her. “What?” He repeats, as if mocking her.

It is a smile. He is smiling.

She must have banged her head too hard.

“If I knew almost getting murdered would have put you in a good mood, I would have orchestrated something like this a week ago,” she frowns.

He smirks – mean, and mocking, but still-

A little teasing is let through in that smirk. “That’s not why I’m in a good mood.”

She crosses her arms. “Then what?”

“I made you speechless tonight.”

She blinks slowly. “Pardon?”

“I made you speechless,” he repeats. “Didn’t I?”

“With what?”

“You know what.”

Her cheeks feel like somebody stuck two little fires inside her mouth. Is he talking about-

She pulls her hair out of her face indignantly. “That was an accident.”

“Was it, now.”

“Do you think I would kiss you on purpose?” Her voice rings.

“Why wouldn’t you,” he drawls, eyes flashing.

“Aren’t you a little too cocky-”

“Deny it, then,” he says. “Deny it.”

“I am denying it.”

“Say the words, Evangeline,” he coos. “Go on.”

Is this real life? Or did she just die on the cobblestones and this is all some kind of weird death-dream-thing? Is Hollin Havilliard, Prince of Adarlan, grumpy-by-definition, actually provoking her?

“What are you on about?” She blurts out, straightening her dirty skirt. “That is preposterous. Maybe you wanted to kiss me. You were the one who turned.”

“Putting the blame on someone else is just avoiding your real blame,” he smirks wider, meaner. “You said that once.”

Damn him, she did.

“Uh, yes,” she says, trying to make her tone even, matter-of-factly. “And that is…precisely what you are doing. Putting the blame on me.”

“Convince yourself of that – if it makes you sleep better.”

“Good idea,” she says, grabbing her cloak, and folding it in her arms. She wants to run away as fast as he can from his observations and his beautiful eyes. “I am going to bed, before you make me want to hit you in the head with a pan.”

She turns away-

“Your hand is bleeding.”

She stops. “What.”

“Your hand,” he says, pushing himself off the counter. He reaches for her hand, and his touch-

Evangeline expects cold fingers.

There is so much warmth in him.

She looks down as he does, and sees a particularly ugly cut between her thumb and forefinger.

“It will get infected,” he says, rather impatiently. “Come here.”

“I can take care of it myself.”

But he already has a wet cloth in his hand, and keeps his fingers tightly on hers. Evangeline watches him. He wipes the wound gently, and then reaches for the drawer to the right, the third from the top, removing a bandage.

“How did you know that was there?”

“I used to scrape my knees a lot,” he says. “Servants had to always wipe my skin.”

She watches him cut the bandage with his teeth, and then he wraps it around her thumb, firmly tying it at the top.

“Thanks,” she says, leading her hand to her chest.

“You’re welcome,” he says back.

They stare at each other.

And then Evangeline’s eyes focus on the red mark on his neck-

“You’ve blood on your neck.”

“It’s fine-“

Evangeline grabs a handkerchief from her pocket, and puts it under cold water. “Sit,” she says. “I can’t reach you.”

“It’s fine.”

“Sit, damn you,” she says, just as impatiently.

Adrenaline turned into pure exhaustion, for she is cranky and, surprise of all surprises, he is actually listening to her. Hollin sits with a frown, and takes off his cloak.

She wipes at his neck – it was simply a little dot of blood, like he’d scraped his neck on the stone of the wall. She still wipes at it.

“What’s that birthmark on your neck?” He asks.

***

 

Evangeline seems to freeze.

Her hand shakes slightly as she pulls away from his neck. Her eyes turn downwards, and Hollin tries to look for answers where she reveals none.

“It is not a birthmark,” she whispers.

Hollin stops.

Not a birthmark, but a scar.

“Who did it,” he demands.

Evangeline looks up at him, cleaning her handkerchief in the water. She squeezes, and the water runs red. “It was a long time ago,” she says quietly.

Hollin touches her wrist.

Evangeline flinches. Actually flinches.

Hollin pulls back. No unexpected touches. She does not take that well.

He furrows his brows, his heart cracking open. “I am sorry.”

“Don’t be.”

She moves to his forehead, pushing back his hair. She touches him freely, gently, with a sort of hesitance that makes him wonder if she expects him to push her off him. But he does it. She wipes at his forehead.

“What are you doing?” he mutters.

“You’ve gravel on your head,” she says. “And chimney ash.”

She wipes at his face, folding and unfolding her little piece of cloth. At the end of it, Hollin is sorry she pulls away.

The tenderness between them seems to slowly crumble. The silence, however, is comfortable, and he wishes she stayed with him like this until morning.

“Goodnight,” she says, unmoving.

“Goodnight,” he says, also unmoving.

Evangeline pauses, and then turns to leave. She does not look back.

Hollin looks over at the handkerchief she left on the counter. He thinks of returning it to her, of calling her back.

But he doesn’t.

Instead he grabs it, and folds it, and puts it in his pocket.

She stole his heart like a ruthless thief in the night.

So he might as well steal something back.

Chapter Text

This is one bitch of a situation, Fenrys thinks as he takes the last gulp of the last drop of liquor. Aelin is going to murder him once she finds out he’s been murdering her favourite – and most precious – stack of drinks. He should be starting to come up with excuses before his Queen truly snaps his neck, but-

          But instead he is sitting alone in a basement, pathetically drinking himself to sleep.

          Again.

          It has been four days since Vaughan made his appearance.

          And Fenrys has lost his damn mind.

          In all honesty, he never expected to see the male ever again. Fenrys had known Vaughan most of his life, and he’d truly known him inside out. Perhaps better than Fenrys knew himself. He knew that once the bond with Maeve was severed, once the war was over, Vaughan had no reason to connect with him – with the Cadre – ever again. He would go off into his own little world, make his own damn rules just like he always did, and he would venture out to gods knew where, doing whatever the fuck he wished to do with his miserable life.

          That had always been Vaughan. Always on his own. Always choosing himself first.

          And Fenrys had been fine with that.

          (Take note of the had been part.)

          Now…

          Now, he does not know.

          When he recognized that scent in those woods that day, Fenrys’ blood had gone cold. Frozen. It had felt like he’d taken a dive into the Northernmost sea’s dark, ice waters, for his bones had stopped working, his lungs had stopped working, his mind had stopped working, and his heart-

          His heart is a whole other story.

          To put it simply, Fenrys’ first reaction was exactly as it should have been: anger. Pure and blind. Undiluted anger.

          He’d wanted to strangle Vaughan where he stood. For his cowardice, for running, for proving once again to be the selfish asshole Fenrys had always known him to be. Fenrys had taken one look at that sneer he knew all too well, and he’d wanted to punch the male to the ground. Make him feel twice the things Fenrys had felt in the last decade.

          And now, well.

          And now here he is. Sitting on the floor, wretched, his head against the wall and his hair falling out of his ponytail.

          As his eyes close from exhaustion, he remembers all those months he spent in the woods of Terrasen, looking for clues to aid their search for the returned – or never erased? – valg demons. He remembers sitting down in the snow, resting against a tree, the chirping of birds somewhere far away…

          Fenrys remembers remembering.

          Remembering Vaughan soaring through the trees in different woods, his great wings making shadows upon the snowy ground. Fenrys’ paw prints on the plush ground, his wolf instincts driving him far away. And Vaughan always keeping close. They had been following orders back then, of course. They knew very few things besides bloodshed and following orders. Though, amongst all those terrible deeds, they knew each other.

          Fenrys knew the way Vaughan shifted, with a slight shake of his body. He knew the way his back muscles moved with the tension of his bones growing again. He knew the darkness in Vaughan’s eyes better than anything else in the world, because it had been the same darkness in Fenrys’ own mind.         

          He remembers their missions. He remembers each and every single one of them.

          And he remembers other things.

          Fenrys recalls torn breaths and slow touches. Vaughan’s lips against his own. Nights spent shivering in the cold, with only their own passion to warm them.

          Now, those memories – those he remembers all too well.       

          Those are the hardest to forget.

***

          Four days before, it had been the decided the following:

          The Queen and the Prince would go about making alliances with Antica and the rest of the southern continent, letting it be known that a Valg threat was once again at large. Better be prepared, than be sorry. And Fenrys knew that Aelin and their court ought to be prepared for anything.

          Lorcan and Elide would oversee that Perranth had its walls fortified and closed off, keeping their people – and the children – as safe as possible, until Rowan and Aelin were certain  bout what awaited them outside of Orynth.

          Lysandra and Aedion had their hands full of work to do, and Fenrys knew that the two already had a lot on their plate, save for what they had already began. Lysandra would be infiltrating the villages with a face no one could recognize and suspect, while her husband kept training the people to defend themselves, should another war rise.

          Aelin had asked Fenrys to oversee Terrasen while she was gone, and it was as much an honour as it was a curse, for he would have a country in his hands, and a male beside him that did not know any other expression except a cruel frown.

          She’d asked them both – Fenrys and Vaughan, since the latter had been in direct contact with the threat – to make sure that no dangers could befall their people. And, if possible, to catch one of those sons of bitches.

          Four days later, nothing.

          Silence.

          From both the Valg and Vaughan.

          Honestly, it has come to a point where Fenrys actually hopes for one of those demon fuckers to show up so he can release this tension off his bones. He reckons unleashing himself and tearing Valg apart bit by bit will do him so good. It should.

          If only he was so lucky.

          Vaughan, much like the Valg, has been fully intent on not making himself seen in the last few days. He wonders the halls from time to time, but other than that, he keeps himself to his rooms, doing only gods know what. If Fenrys didn’t know better, he’d say Vaughan has been avoiding him.

          Well. It suits him that way.

          At least that is what Fenrys has been trying to tell himself.

          They meet each other at breakfast this morning, and it feels rather tense between them. That with seven or so seats between them, the silence so heavy Fenrys can feel it pressing down on his shoulders. Vaughan has a book opened on the table while he digs into his porridge, and pays him no attention at all.

          Fenrys ignores his food.

          Which, to everybody who knows him, it is clearly not a sign of a favourable mood.

          “Describe to me how they act,” Fenrys says, and his voice echoes in the hall.

          Vaughan lifts his eyes lazily, as if his reading being interrupted is the worst thing that could have happened.

          “You saw it with your own eyes,” he says in a drawl. “They act like fucking Valg.”

          “Answer me properly, Vaughan.” Fenrys is scowling.

          In response, Vaughan turns his eyes back to his book with a snort.

          “You’ve started giving me orders now?” Vaughan smiles at the page, a little bite to his words. “Ah. Should I start calling you Lord now, as well? Like all your servants do?”

          “I do not have servants.”

          “You have people who wait on you,” Vaughan says. “Those are called servants. But you prefer to be a hypocrite and call them…what was it? Helpers?” A shake of his head. Another huff of a laugh.

          With a sigh, Fenrys decides that he’s had enough. Vaughan clearly wants a fight, and Fenrys knows himself too well to know that if he is pushed too far, he will be tempted to give the male a true fight. He pushes himself out of his chair and heads towards the main doors to the courtyard. He needs to get some air. He needs to get Vaughan’s mocking sneer out of his mind before he does something reckless.

          “Who is she?”

          Fenrys stops and turns at the words. The ugly calmness with which Vaughan utters them sends Fenrys’ heart thumping. Vaughan keeps his eyes to the page, feigning disinterest, whilst his eyes do not move a fraction. Fenrys can tell that Vaughan’s hands are closed in fists beneath the table.

          “Who are you talking about?” Fenrys drawls.

          Vaughan looks at him between dark lashes. “You still stink of her, you know. Like raspberries and spring.”

          Fenrys leans his hands against the table tiredly. He raises his eyebrows at the male in front of him and tries again: “Who.”

          Vaughan eyebrows mimic his, and he says what Fenrys already knows. “The female you’d been fucking during those weeks when your Queen sent you to your little hunt in the woods.”

          Fenrys raises his chin, completely silent. Waiting for the blow.

          “She was important to you,” Vaughan remarks, no feelings behind his words. A statement, and nothing else. At least in the surface. “Probably still is.”

          “And you are concerning yourself with that because…?” Fenrys snaps. “Is that what this is all about? You came back, smelled a female on me, and now you are pissed at me?”

          Vaughan laughs.

          He laughs quietly, with a temper rising just underneath that dangerous smile. Fenrys’ blood is boiling.

          Maybe he did not need to rip Valg apart to get this ache off his chest.

          Maybe he just needed to rip him apart.

          “You are still the same, Fenrys,” Vaughan says with that bitter grin, moving off the table. His book is left open. There are finger marks on the pages. “You have not changed a bit. Still terribly sentimental. You could never fuck without pouring your heart out.”

          Fenrys watches the male carefully as he approaches. It is a taunting walk, meant to provoke him. He truly does want a fight. He’s asking for it.

          Fenrys is going to give him exactly that.

          “What do you want me to tell you, Vaughan?” Fenrys says, welcoming that anger. That anguish. “Are you sulking because I forgot you? Yes, I did forget you. For a decade, you disappeared. You cowed from a fight-“

          Vaughan smiles a little at that. “Did I?”

          Fenrys halts. “You left. I moved on. What the fuck was I supposed to do? Find you?”

          Vaughan’s eyes burn into his own. But Fenrys can see nothing in those dark depths. If there is any type of sadness in Vaughan, even deep within, Fenrys cannot tell. Vaughan will not let him in. He never has.

          He never will.

          “No,” Vaughan says, flat and dry. “No.”

          “She is important,” Fenrys says. And then swallows. “Was important. Now if you want to discuss the last ten years, then fucking sit down like a grown male and do it. You want to keep glaring at me seven seats away, then fucking do it. But do not taunt me, Vaughan, about a relationship that never was. It never was because you never fucking wanted it to be.”

          His anger seems to please Vaughan. Of course it does. How often did they scream their lungs out at each other before? How often did their fights end with Fenrys pinning Vaughan to a wall? This was always their way. This was always their thing. Driving each other insane, driving each other mad.

          Driving into each other, hearts colliding.

          Until-

          Until they did not.

          Vaughan breathes a soft laugh. “Is that so.”

          “Pretending you do not remember?” Fenrys sneers. “Nonchalance has never looked good on you.” Even now, he is shaking. His blood boiling, urging him to shake Vaughan awake. To make him realize… “You want to make things right. Is that not why you came back? Is that not why you are helping us now? Then why hold such disdain for me? You are in the wrong, Vaughan. You were always the one in the wrong. Not me.”

          Again – that smile. “You sure do seem perfectly convinced about what happened during the war.”

          “You ran, that is what happened. You hid. Now you are giving me shit for absolutely no reason. And it is because you are angry, Vaughan. But your anger is not directed at me. It is directed at yourself.”

          “You are right on one thing,” Vaughan says, a step closer. Another. Fenrys tries to breathe, and realizes that he might explode if he does. “I could never detest you as much as I detest myself. Truly. But one thing I will make clear, Fenrys: you talk about honour and friendship and bravery and you know nothing of those things.”

          “And you do,” Fenrys scoffs.

          “You would be surprised,” Vaughan bares his teeth.

          He is barely an inch shorter than Fenrys, and yet under Vaughan’s gaze, he feels himself shrinking. And wanting. Wanting so badly so many things.

          “Indeed I would, if only I knew,” Fenrys spats. “But I don’t, since you refuse to tell me.”

          “But you’ve made it perfectly clear what you think of me and of what I did,” Vaughan says. “Isn’t that right?”

          “And, what? Will you tell me a different story, Vaughan?”

          “I can tell you many stories,” the male says, a breath away. Fenrys can smell him – his soap and his clothes, his hair and his skin. He can feel him – his anger, his desire. “None of which you will believe. So, what is the point?”

          A wolf’s growl finds itself out of Fenrys’ mouth, but it is not enough to make the osprey to cower. Quicker than even Fenrys can detect, Vaughan’s hand moves.

          Fenrys lets out a gasp when that hand finds the middle of his legs.

          Vaughan’s hand is tight and demanding as he cups him. Fenrys’ breathing tightens, his world splitting apart as Vaughan cocks his head to the side, watching him with his hand between Fenrys’ legs.

          “I will you one, though,” Vaughan’s smile is cruel. Crueller than Fenrys had ever seen. “For old times’ sake.”

          His hand tightens on him and Fenrys lets out a shaking breath, swallowing a moan. His eyes burn into Vaughan’s, but the male simply gives him the softest, most brutal smile.

          “I will tell you the story of a wolf turned lap dog,” Vaughan taunts. “Freed from a queen, just to be put on a leash by another who feeds him scraps-”

          Before he thinks it through, Fenrys has a hand on the back of Vaughan’s neck. Before he thinks it through, he is pushing Vaughan down onto the table, face-first. Flowers drop from a broken vase, spilling water to the floor. Unlit candles roll over the oak table, knocking over silverware. A plate shatters on the floor.

          Before he thinks it through, Fenrys is pushing Vaughan’s clothes away. Ripping at them.

          He remembers vividly. Vaughan bent over the bed, his fingers clutching the sheets in a death-grip. Vaughan straddling him, leaving colourful bites on his neck, marking him. He remembers angry kisses and softer ones. He remembers sleeping, better than he has ever slept in his life, and waking up to Vaughan picking pillow feathers off hair, a smirk plastered on his face.

          Vaughan reaches behind him, tugging at Fenrys’ own trousers, and Fenrys pulls Vaughan’s tunic up, over his back and-

          And stops.

          On Vaughan’s back. A scar that runs from his hip to the middle of his chest, side to side. Brutal. A scar that would never, ever fade. A scar that had not been there before. That Fenrys did not recognize.

          Fenrys’ shaking hands pull back as his body does.

          Vaughan freezes as if understanding what Fenrys has seen – what he was not supposed to see. But before he can pull away, Fenrys has him on a tight grip, turning Vaughan to face him.

          Fenrys rips open the front of his tunic, letting most of the side buttons scatter to the floor. Fenrys steps back at what he sees.

          Vaughan’s chest. What had been perfect and untouched, even after centuries of bloodshed and wars fought for a tyrant queen, was now brutally scarred. The red line of scarred skin on Vaughan’s back carries on to the front of his chest, right up to his heart.

          He has been carved open.

          Fenrys’ heart drops, falters, and stops.

          For those few missing heartbeats, he follows the scar with his eyes, imagining-

          Imagining every horrid thing.

          Vaughan’s chest lifts and falls with his rapid breathing, but the male says nothing. No sneer, no smirk, no nothing. He is a blank page, and someone dripped a line of dark ink along him. Scarred him.

          It does not take long for Fenrys to guess who that someone was.

          “What did she do,” Fenrys whispers, his voice almost gone. “What did she do to you.”

          Fenrys reaches out a hand, his fingers tracing the spot where his heart was pierced. Tortured. She had tortured him-

          Fenrys lifts his eyes to meet Vaughan’s. But the male will not look at him. For the first time in ages, Fenrys sees something else other than disdain in Vaughan’s eyes.

          Fear. Sadness. Revolt. Disgust. Guilt.

          All wrapped into one gesture – the way Vaughan turns his eyes away.

          Fenrys has Vaughan’s name at the tip of his tongue, but he stops himself.

And then it is too late.

          Vaughan turns away, walks out of the room, leaving Fenrys with flowers and candles and water on the floor.

          And his heart, too.

***

          The castle guards tell him that Vaughan left for the woods.

          “To look for the threat, my Lord,” they say. “The male said nothing else.”

          It is what he hears everyday.

          That he has left before breakfast, before sunrise. That he has not said when he will come back. And that is all the guards know.

          For four more days, Vaughan disappears.

          Fenrys dreams about it – that knife piercing through skin, Vaughan’s screams filling his mind, the sound of skin tearing, the smell of blood spilling-

          Is that so

You sure do seem perfectly convinced about what happened during the war

How would he know?

How would Fenrys know if Vaughan refused to tell him anything about the last ten years, about the war? About everything?   

He was never a male to share much of himself to begin with, that much as true. But Fenrys felt like they’d always had a secret line of communication and a deeper understanding of each other within the Cadre. They were a fright in a group, but Vaughan and Fenrys were a terrifying pair.

In bed, it had been easier.

Vulnerability could be found in the smallest of breaths and the most desperate of touches; the most wanton pleas and the loudest cries. Maybe Fenrys had been a fool to hope that that vulnerability between them could be shared after the war.

But he had still hoped.

Desperately, sometimes.

“My Lord.”

His eyes focus on the untouched dish in front of him. Slowly, Fenrys comes back to reality, looking up to Ada’s worried, very human eyes.

“You have not eaten,” the woman says, full of scolding words at the ready.

“Has he left?”

Ada crosses her arms, sighing softly. “You ought to eat, My Lord. I will not have empty bellies in this palace. When our Queen arrives and sees how thin you are, who do you think she might blame?”

“You, surely. She will have you whipped and put behind bars. Or even hanged.”

Ada frowns at his humour, and pushes his plate closer to him. “You worry me.”

“You worry for everybody, my dear Ada,” Fenrys shakes his head, lifting himself and placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. “Take the day off and rest-”

The woman has never looked more offended in her life. “I will surely not!”

“Suit yourself,” Fenrys sends her a smile, patting her shoulder, before walking away. “I need to go.”

Behind him, the woman sighs. Fenrys imagines her shaking her head at him and with good reason. He is tired of himself, too.

It is not difficult to find him. It is a scent that Fenrys knows all too well from years spent in woodlands. It takes him back. Fenrys swears that if he looks up, he will see an osprey and its great wings, making the skies his own.

He does not, however. He finds him sitting at the base of an oak tree, overlooking a dry river.

If he feels him approach, Vaughan does not indicate so. He stays silent, eyes locked in front of him. From the looks of it, his hunts had no success. No Valg in sight.

Fenrys sits down next to him, their arms brushing. He is insanely glad when Vaughan does not move away, though the male’s numbness startles him. He almost wishes for the rude remarks and cruel smirks again.

They stay in silence for a long time, listening in. The musicality of the woods never stops – from leaves colliding with the ground, to the soft pit patter of bird’s feet in the thick branches. It is a world detached, a world of their own – if they want it to be so.

“Her name is Aella.”

Vaughan looks up at the sound of Fenrys’ voice.

He finds himself speaking, not really knowing why he feels the need to explain, to tell this story. But Fenrys continues: “I met her months ago. Almost a year back. When the first villages burned. When we did not know the Valg were behind it.”

Vaughan is silent, turning his eyes away to the ground. Despite the non-response, Fenrys can tell that he has the male’s attention, so he carries on.

“I was inquiring about the attacks in a town in the eastern coast, near Suria. And I met her in one of the town gatherings. She lives alone with her sister, always has. I am still not very sure how it happened, or why. We were both in need of someone, I believe.”

Vaughan takes a while to speak. But when he does, his voice is hoarse, like he has not used it for many days. And probably hasn’t. “Do you love her?”

There is a pause.

“I care for her, deeply.”

Vaughan looks at him from the corner of his eye. “Not enough to make her your companion?”

“Neither one of us was looking for a companion,” Fenrys says. “I hold her in my heart, and always will. But we knew we would part ways, eventually.”

Vaughan begins to shake his head like he wants to say something to that, but then he gets silent, and the woods keep singing, and there seems to be nothing else to say.

But there is. So much.

“What did she do, Vaughan,” Fenrys demands quietly, facing him.

It looks as if he might not get an answer, but then Vaughan sighs. “You know what she did.”

“Yes,” Fenrys says. “But why? What for?” A pause. “Because you did not kill Lorcan?”

“No,” Vaughan says, refusing to look at him.

Fenrys turns slowly. “Then why?”

And then Vaughan’s eyes snap to him. Cold darkness.

“Because I did not kill you.”

Fenrys’ blood runs frozen. “What.”

“She ordered me to kill you,” Vaughan says.

There is no music anymore.

The world has stopped spinning, and breathing, and living. It seems as if reality is whisked away, and Fenrys is left in this numb, dark place full of terrors he cannot imagine or touch.

Vaughan leans back against the trunk, facing forward. “She had you. You and your queen.”

“You were there.”

“For a day,” Vaughan murmurs. “Less than a day. I heard Aelin scream. I caught your scent in the halls. I smelled your blood. She asked me where Salvaterre was, and when the answer did not come, she sent me away again. Unpunished. Salvaterre was not important then – she had what she wanted most. Your Queen was within her grasp, so she no longer needed me. She ordered me to stay back. And I did. I had to. I couldn’t…I tried-“

He bites his cheek, takes a breath. “My body moved on its own.”

Not once had Fenrys caught Vaughan’s scent, but then again, he had been a prisoner as much as Aelin.

“I walked aimlessly through the land for ages. Everytime I tried to go back I would send myself walking the other way a second after. It did not matter how much I contradicted it, how much I fought it. It didn’t work. I could not reach you.”

Fenrys’ mind creates a thousand images of Vaughan. Each one of them more painful than the last.

“And then she called me back to her side,” Vaughan says. “And I knew that you had escaped.”

Because Maeve would never have let Vaughan anywhere near Fenrys. Somehow, she had known. She would not have risked it.

“What happened?” Fenrys asks, his voice small.

Vaughan takes a deep breath, leaning his head against the bark and closing his eyes. Fenrys is not sure if it is a way to ward himself against the terrible memories, or if he is trying to see it all clear as day.

“Then she said I was going to kill you,” Vaughan murmurs. “And I said yes. I said I would kill you. I would hunt you down to the ends of the world, and I would bring her your heart, freshly carved from your chest.”

But he had not.

“But I did not,” Vaughan says, opening his eyes. The dark brown reflects the clouds above them. “So she tried to carve out mine.”

“How.” Fenrys’ voice is strained. “How did you not find me?”

Vaughan pauses. And it is such a heavy, frightening pause, that it makes Fenrys’ heart stop, too, as he realizes…

“You did find me,” Fenrys says.

Vaughan nods. “Yes.”

“Where.”

“I watched you fight from a mountainside. Your chest was stained and your hair was matted with blood. You were death itself, reaping your way through demons.”

Fenrys’ throat is tight. There is a rope surely, tied with such force around his neck so that he can’t form the words he needs to say.

The male continues, “It was so difficult. So difficult to turn away. I thought it would kill me.”

“But you did,” Fenrys whispers.

“Somehow,” Vaughan says. “I still do not know how.”

“She found you.”

“I felt the call, and resisted. But I…I could barely breathe. It was a relief to answer it, to go to her,” Vaughan closes his eyes, as if he might retch all over the grass.

Fenrys hangs his head, running his fingers through his hair. “I’m…you never stayed away from the war. You stayed away so you wouldn’t have to kill me.”

Silence.

“Vaughan.”

“Can you leave it alone now?” Vaughan says, giving him a look full of anger. But what it really is – is discomfort. “And shut up about it?”

Fenrys pauses. “Why didn’t you tell anyone?” Why didn’t you tell me?

I can tell you many stories

None of which you will believe. So, what is the point?

Those words hang above them like knives.

“Vaughan.”

“Fucking leave it alone, Fenrys.”

But Fenrys has already turned Vaughan’s chin toward him. He’s already leaned down, and touched his lips to his, ever so softly.

And, to his biggest surprise, Vaughan does not pull away. He melts.

Clinging to him, Vaughan kisses Fenrys harder, adding pressure little by little until Fenrys is falling backwards into the grass, and Vaughan is lying at his side, hovering slightly above him. Whatever coldness prevailed in Vaughan’s bones, it now seems like the ice has cracked, giving away to the desperation underneath the mask.

It takes Fenrys a moment to process it all. That he’s here, with Vaughan, and they are kissing, and that he has missed this so much. He has missed him so much.

Vaughan breaks the kiss like he’s just now realizes their predicament. But he does not pull away; his fingers still cling to Fenrys’ tunic, and his breath still touches Fenrys’ upper lip. They look at each other, and it is as if the music returns. The world is peaceful.

Fenrys says, “I apologize. I apologize for not asking when I should have; for not paying attention when I should have; for doubting you when I should not have.”

Vaughan lowers his eyes to Fenrys’ lips. A heartbeat later he murmurs, “I am sorry about your brother.”

The pain lashes at him like a whip. Fenrys shakes his head slowly, swallowing it all down, pushing it to the dark corners of his mind. “It was her fault. All of it.”

Vaughan’s hands loosen on Fenrys’ shirt and Fenrys, suddenly afraid Vaughan might pull away completely, clings to him too. The male hesitates, before settling down again next to Fenrys. Tentatively, Fenrys touches a hand to Vaughan’s chest, right atop the scar that will never fade. A reminder of what he did, the sacrifices he made.

The male’s eyes lower to Fenrys’ hand, just to move back over Fenrys’ face. “I could not find a way to tell you.”

“I did not make it easier for you, either,” Fenrys admits. “I was quick to join everyone on hating you.”

“I think you still had good reason to.”

“No,” Fenrys says, pulling him closer. “I did not. I never did.”

Something cracks in Vaughan’s eyes, and a small glimpse of softness shines through.

“Did you mean it?” He suddenly asks.

“What?”

“When you said you forgot me,” Vaughan says, frowning as he traces a button of Fenrys’ tunic. “Did you mean that?”

“I was angry.” Fenrys shakes his head. “I said it to hurt you. Of course I didn’t forget you. I thought of you – constantly. I dared to think of leaving to find you way too many times.”

“What stopped you?”

“The war,” Fenrys murmurs. “The fact that you seemed much less inclined to sleep in my bed the last time we talked. Maeve. Everything.”

Vaughan gets silent, and Fenrys’ eyes trace the contour of the male’s cheeks, his jaw, his dark brows. The way his hair moves with the breeze. There is still so much to say.

Fenrys does not know where to begin.

“Did you forget me?” Fenrys asks softly.

Vaughan gives him a look, and one of the corners of his mouth lifts slightly. “For a while, I did try. It was easier to cope. And then…”

Fenrys nudges Vaughan’s nose with his. “And then?”

The male lets out a short breath that sounds a lot like a laugh to Fenrys. “And then I did not want to keep trying anymore.”

“Are you saying you returned for me?”

“I did not say that.”

“You implied it.”

“I did not imply it.”

Fenrys touches Vaughan’s cheek, seemingly in a tender way, but then Vaughan seems to flinch slightly.

“What is it?” Fenrys murmurs, pulling his hand away.

Vaughan shakes his head slightly. “I…you always used to do this.” His dark eyes meet Fenrys’, suspended in a moment. Then Vaughan leans in, letting Fenrys’ hand touch his cheek again. He leans into the touch. “You always did this. And then this,” Vaughan takes Fenrys’ thumb, running it across his bottom lip, making Fenrys’ heart tremble, “before you kissed me.”

Fenrys’ thumb caresses Vaughan’s cheekbone, before dropping down to his bottom lip. Fenrys’ eyes trace every movement, while Vaughan’s stay attached to his face. Gently, with the world’s tenderness at the end of a touch, his finger glides over Vaughan’s bottom lip, tracing the shape of his mouth, the cupid’s bow, his upper lip…

And then he leans in, taking Vaughan’s lips.

What is in a moment?

Butterflies, and sunrises. Flowers blooming in the coldest depths, and an ocean raining down on an empty desert. A single breath, a gentle touch. A kiss, and a thousand memories that spring up like a field of wild roses.

In this moment there are a thousand feelings building up inside his chest, and Fenrys believes he has no space to fit it all inside his heart, that it might explode, any minute, any minute now. Surely it will, the moment Vaughan smiles against his lips, the moment Fenrys feels Vaughan’s long fingers tangling in his hair.

What is in a moment?

A million lightning bolts.

          Fenrys lifts his heart to the skies, and lets the thunder rain down on him.

***

          The castle is practically empty, so nobody sees when two males sneak into the halls, stumbling over each other, stumbling over kisses, stumbling over touches, and into the chambers that face the rose garden.

          Fenrys locks his door, though it is a struggle to get it right at first, for Vaughan keeps clawing at his clothes, and Fenrys is quite busy memorizing Vaughan’s lips all over again to see where the hell the key on the door is.

          Eventually, he has Vaughan deliciously naked, his back against his bed, his breathing shallow.

          Fenrys is kneeling atop him, a leg on each side of his waist. Vaughan reaches for his tunic, but Fenrys is quick to grab his wrists and pin the male to the bed.

          They have had too much practice with this.

          And Fenrys’ hunger is insatiable.

          Vaughan locks a leg underneath his and, with his hips, and using his full force, manages to turn Fenrys over, until Vaughan is the one sitting atop him.

          Fenrys watches with an attentive eye as Vaughan rids him of his clothes. The male does everything with precision and intent. Vaughan takes what he wants when he wants, and will waste no time at all to see Fenrys writhing underneath him.

          They are contrary, in every way it seems.

          Fenrys likes the chase better.

          He likes to play around, exhaust his prey, before anything else. But he feels very much tempted to lay back and keep enjoying the view.

          And he does.

          For only a moment.

          Because as Vaughan works on the laces of his trousers, Fenrys’ eyes do not move from that scar. Anger is a wave that crashes onto him without warning. It comes quick, in waves, and it makes him boil.

          Vaughan grabs his chin, turning Fenrys’ face up to him. “Eyes on me,” he says.

          Fenrys swallows. “Vaughan-“

          The male stops. He looks over at Fenrys, at the tension in his eyes. He leans down and says, “Do you want to do this?”

          Fenrys lets out a long breath. “It is not that. Of course I do.”

          Vaughan seems to understand without further explanation. “It is done. She is dead. She will not touch us anymore.”

          Fenrys’ eyes trail back to Vaughan’s chest. “The Valg-“

          “Eyes on me,” Vaughan says, slowly, lovingly, almost, as he touches Fenrys’ cheek. “Focus on me.”

          Fenrys’ eyes flutter shut the moment Vaughan’s lips touch his neck. Slow kisses he never received from Vaughan to replace the bites he’d given him in the past. Fenrys feels Vaughan’s hand slip under his trousers. His hips lift instinctively, desperate to meet Vaughan’s touch.

          “Eager,” Vaughan’s murmurs against his lips, a slight smirk playing on his mouth. “You were always so eager.”

          “That has not changed,” Fenrys says, groaning under his breath when Vaughan begins stroking him. Gentle, at first. And then Vaughan squeezes him at the tip, and Fenrys can feel himself lose control quicker than he expects.

          He is about to push Vaughan into the mattress when the male gives him a look that makes him halt. Fenrys leans back down, and watches as Vaughan moves down his body.

          All thoughts of Maeve and the Valg are forgotten. Nothing exists past Vaughan’s kisses on the top of his thighs. Fenrys is too tempted to close his eyes. More tempted to watch.

          And then Vaughan takes him in his mouth.

          It takes every strength he ever had not to let his release overtake him right there. But a few more strokes from Vaughan’s hand and a long kiss on his tip, and Fenrys is falling, and falling, and he keeps falling.

          It seems to never end.

          When his lungs begin to work again, Vaughan steals his breath right away with a searing kiss. That kiss alone pierces his heart from side to side, leaving him bleeding all over the sheets.

          “You might kill me,” Fenrys finds himself saying, his voice small, as Vaughan spreads kiss after kiss after kiss across Fenrys’ face.

          “I can try,” Vaughan laughs softly.

          That laugh.

          It had been so long.

          Deep and rumbling, like thunder itself.

          Fenrys can only wonder how he managed to keep his heart to himself all those days when they were not speaking.

          Vaughan takes his lips again and, taking advantage of his distraction, Fenrys slowly pushes him over so he rolls onto the mattress. He falls effortlessly in between Vaughan’s legs.

          “Better than fucking you over a table, hm?” Fenrys murmurs, a laugh tearing itself from his chest.

          Vaughan snorts. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”

          “Indeed – I have fucked you in worse places.”

          “I can recall a temple.”

          “The benches were quite comfortable,” Fenrys argues, smirking down at him. “Do you remember-“

          “Take me.”

          Fenrys stops himself short.

          Vaughan seems breathless as he tugs Fenrys down to him. Each kiss he leaves on his neck is a miracle on Fenrys’ skin. A gift. He wants those kisses to be forever marked on him.

          “Take me now,” Vaughan says softly, touching Fenrys’ cheeks.

          Fenrys lowers his forehead to his, smirking when he feels Vaughan’s hand between them, teasing. “Eager,” he repeats, leaving a kiss on Vaughan’s mouth. “You were always so eager.”

          Seemingly out of practice, it takes them both a second to get back into their own rhythm; to remember each and every way they liked to be touch, where and when and how. Fenrys gently strokes him with slow movements, his hips shifting equally slow, allowing Vaughan to adjust to his size.

          At a certain point, they just lie there, breathing against each other.

          “You know,” Vaughan murmurs, groaning softly as Fenrys moves ever so lightly. “In another life, we might have been mates.”

          Fenrys smiles, feeling a bead of sweat drip drown his forehead as he moves against Vaughan. The moan Vaughan lets out destroys him. “Who says we are not?” Fenrys murmurs.

          Vaughan’s body freezes slightly, his eyes burning into Fenrys.

          “What?” Fenrys says nonchalantly, a little smug. “You never considered it?”

          “That is…not at all the thing to say while you fuck into me.”

          Fenrys groans, hissing as Vaughan’s body begins to tremble, responding to his own. Each moan he receives is forever etched into his mind.

          “It is the exact…” He lets out a strained moan, his arm beginning to shake as he becomes dangerously close to losing himself. “…thing to say…as I fuck into you.”

          A whimper leaves Vaughan’s mouth the moment it crashes onto him. And Fenrys does not know if it is the sight of Vaughan falling apart that does it for him, or the word that flashes in his mind, but then he is lost and gone, clinging to Vaughan as if he is clinging to his life-line.

          In a way, he is.

          In a way, Vaughan had always been a life-line.

          And, somehow, these are the words that Fenrys had always wanted to say, but never seemed to find them until now.

          “I have need of you,” he murmurs, leaning down to rest his forehead on Vaughan’s chest. Right over that scar. “I have need of you,” he repeats. Again. Again.

          And again.

***

          At breakfast, Vaughan does not disappear before sunrise.

          The guards have nothing to say, and Fenrys has nothing to ask.

          Ada watches from the doorway with a smile as Fenrys eats his usual two breakfast plates.

          This morning, he appears to have quite the appetite.

          Vaughan does not sit seven seats away from him.

          They are quite close.

          Indeed, Ada would say that they almost seemed unwilling to move an inch further away from each other. She smiles to herself as she leaves them be.

          They are in a world of their own.

          Vaughan reads while he sips his tea, occasionally glancing over at Fenrys and his mouth dripping with food. Fenrys can swear he sees a smile on Vaughan’s face, but he does not say anything.

          “You eat like an animal,” Vaughan shakes his head, his eyes back to his book. “You always have.”

          “I did not hear you complain about it last night.”

          Vaughan gives him a look. “Filthy.”

          Fenrys smiles, touching Vaughan’s hand, leaving a gentle kiss atop it.

          Vaughan pretends he is not all too pleased with himself.

          And Fenrys does not present that is all too pleased with the blush that rose on the male’s cheeks because of him.

***

          Three days later, they are still in bed.

          The cold tears him apart, and Fenrys moves closer to the warm arms lying next to him.

          Arms that rise to welcome him in a sleepy, morning greeting.

          “I might never move,” Fenrys murmurs against Vaughan’s neck.

          Vaughan cracks an eye open, watching as Fenrys dozes off again in his arms.

          “Me neither,” he whispers. “I think I might have need of you, too.”

          Vaughan might have fallen asleep and dreamt it, but he had a vague memory of lips touching his forehead, and three little words being whispered into his ear, in the most gentle, loving manner.

***

 

          Fenrys attempts to keep his worries at bay.

          Everyday they hunt, but no Valg seem to exist. They move to the nearest villages; they talk to civilians and officials and guards and soldiers. There are no reports. Aelin’s letters bring no news.

          Fenrys does not know what to do.

          “Do you think it is normal?” Fenrys asks Vaughan one afternoon, as they lay in the parlour by the fire, Vaughan on the couch, and Fenrys resting with his back on Vaughan’s chest. “They threaten Aelin, but weeks later, we hear nothing?”

          Vaughan runs his fingers through Fenrys’ hair, untying the knots before braiding the strands. “I think we are playing a much bigger game here.”

          “What do you mean?”

          “I mean that these Valg know that we know. They know we are prepared, and they are waiting. For what, I still don’t know.”

          But Fenrys knows.

          They are waiting for war.

          Fenrys looks up. “Hopefully Aelin will bring reports.”

          “Your Queen has said nothing in her letters,” Vaughan says. “She will bring you nothing that you don’t already know.”

          “Or maybe Lysandra and Aedion got lucky. Or Manon and Dorian. We will have to plan our move next.”

          Vaughan finds himself smiling.

          “What is it?” Fenrys raises a brow, wondering if he is being mocked.

          Vaughan shakes his head, and gives a little shrug. “I love you.”

          A pause. “Oh.”

          “Is that all you are going to say?” Vaughan taunts. “Close your mouth, Fenrys, you look like a fish trying to breathe out of water.”

          “You threw that at me out of nowhere-“

          “Like you throw it at me everynight when you think I’m asleep?”

          Fenrys raises a brow. “And you waited this long to-”

          A knock at the parlour’s doors makes them halt. Fenrys sighs, but does not move. Vaughan himself seems entirely to happy to keep Fenrys a willing prisoner in his arms.

          “Come in,” says Fenrys.

          Ada opens the door, and at the sight of her, Fenrys springs up in alarm.

          “Ada,” Fenrys inquires, seeing the woman’s panic-stricken face.

          “I…my Lord, I do not know how to tell you this-“

          Behind him, Fenrys feels Vaughan lift himself up.

          “Aelin?” Fenrys chokes on the name, wondering if something had happened on the way-

          “No, no my Lord, goodness, no. Our Queen is…is fine, this…this concerns you only, my Lord, I am afraid. I…there is someone here to see you.”

          Fenrys and Vaughan share a look.

          “They are by the entrance doors, my Lord.”

          “They?” Fenrys murmurs.

          Ada leads both males through the halls of the palace. A familiar scent is caught, and Fenrys’ surprise cannot be contained. But when he turns a corner-

          It is not who he expects at all standing by the doors.

          A female with a child in her arms faces him.

          That scent – yes, it is familiar. And yet-

          Not at all the same.

          “Enna,” Fenrys says gently, addressing the female present. “What has happened? What-“

          Vaughan takes a sudden step back, like he’s been struck in the face. When Fenrys looks over at him, Vaughan looks like he has seen the world end before his eyes. Shock and confusion and then-

          Realization.

          “What is going on?” Fenrys asks. “Has something happened?”

          Enna swallows once. When she speaks, she gives Vaughan a frightened look, before turning to Fenrys only. “I am sorry to come…to come unannounced. But…” a tear falls down her cheek, and Fenrys’ heart stops.

          Completely.

          He realizes, as he looks at the child wrapped in her arms.

          He realizes why Enna has her face stricken with tears.

          He understands the reason for Vaughan’s own shock.

          Enna murmurs, “Aella is dead, Fenrys.”

***

 

          Ada stirs the wood in the hearth, and leaves a tray of steaming tea cups in the rounded table of the parlour.

          The baby has not cried once.

          They sit on the couches.

          “My sister wanted to tell you,” Enna continues as she bounces the baby in her arms. “But she did not know how to. I tried to persuade her to go to Orynth time and time again, but she…she was frightened. You must understand.”

          He does.

          He understands all too well.

          As it sinks into him, Fenrys feels like he’s drowning.

          “Did…was it childbirth?” He asks, his voice still trembling, his eyes rimmed red.

          Enna shook her head slowly. “The healer did not think so. My sister was…she had a frail health, always had. As you know. Her heart stopped during her sleep.”

          “I know,” he whispers. Rare for fae to have a condition such as Aella did, but-

          “You must know,” Enna says gently, her voice full of grief. “She would not hide this from you. She was going to let you meet your daughter. But…she needed time.”

          But she never got time.

          “When?” Fenrys manages to ask.

          Enna understands what he is asking. “Three days ago. On the twenty-third.”

          A daughter.

          A daughter born on the twenty-third.

          Enna wipes a tear away. “I cannot take her. I do not have the means for it, or the condition to take care of a child.”

          Fenrys murmurs. “I would not turn away my own child, Enna.” A pause. “This is simply…a shock. I want her more than anything else in the world.”

          Vaughan’s arm brushes his own. It is such a small gesture, but it means the world and more. I am here, it says.

          “Can I…?”

          Enna nods, and gently lifts the baby and places it in Fenrys’ outstretched arms.

          He feels tears down his cheeks when he sees those eyes turn to him. Fenrys has to wipe them away, but as much as he tries to see her little face, his eyes keep blurring.

          A tuft of blond, almost white hair falls over her forehead. A button nose and lips with a sharp cupid’s bow. Red cheeks and eyes so large and squinty. It is the first things he sees of his daughter. It is the first time they gaze upon one another.

          And Fenrys already knows that there is no love that beats this.

          Enna murmurs quietly, “Aella named her Luna.”

          “Luna,” Fenrys murmurs. “Luna Moonbeam. My Luna.”

          He looks up at Vaughan.

          What is in a moment, they ask.

          A thousand tragedies, but a million tiny pieces with happiness written on them, being put back together.

          Vaughan opens his arms. A request.

          Luna looks up, her eyes now wide.

          “Hello,” Vaughan says, letting out a soft laugh. “Hi, Luna.”

          What is in a moment, they ask.

          Well.

          A thousand ways to say I love you, and a million more to say Hello, I have been waiting for you.

          Vaughan takes her hand in his, so gently. He says, “Hello, little Luna. Welcome home.”

          When the little on is in Fenrys’ arms again, her father kisses her head. He murmurs, “Hello, my love. Welcome home.”

Chapter Text

          Dear Aedion & Lysandra,

          The world has never felt brighter for me today. How wonderful to hear the news after such frightful weeks! It is a blessing bestowed from the gods themselves, and one I am so delighted to be sharing with you both. Reading the happy words of your last letter flourished the greatest happiness in my heart, and I am beyond excited for what awaits you! Congratulations are definitely in order, and, yes, of course we will celebrate together once I am reunited with you once more (I trust Aedion to be the best father-to-be and welcome me home with those amazing lemon cakes of his!)

          Concerning the second part of your letter: unfortunately, it seems the situation here in Adarlan is just as you described over there. No news from the threat, only silence. Hollin has been as hard at work as Dorian would have been, and his attention has been admirably turned to his people in these difficult times. Many seek his council, and many respect him as they respect his brother. But I also have to admit that such things do not surprise me when it comes to Hollin. Maybe you will disagree, but I have found that all my suspicions about him are confirmed: he is kind, and honest. Brave. Beautiful. I know you have been worried for me, but I assure you that the prince has no ill intent towards me, nor did he ever. Hollin is…difficult. But aren’t we all?

Also, he has haunting eyes. Oh, those eyes. Eyes that do not fail to drown me each time I dare to look into them. And I allow it.        

          I allow him to drown me.

          And I happily go under.

          Never to resurface.

***

          Those words were never supposed to find themselves on a page.

          And yet.

          Evangeline stares at them with a terrible blush blooming in her cheeks, and she covers her face with both hands as if that would stifle it.

          As if that would quieten her heart.

          Oh, only if it did.

          In truth, she is giddy with happiness for Lysandra and Aedion. The pregnancy was sudden, and completely unexpected from what they have told her. A brother and a sister, lady Yrene had said. A brother and a sister that Evangeline would meet in just a few months, at the start of the new spring.

          Yes, indeed.

          It is happiness that blooms in her heart this morning as she walks through the busy market street of Rifthold on her way to the school. For the news she received yesterday evening, and for a certain brooding prince with dark blue eyes.

          Two full weeks have passed since their incident with the thieves, and as strange as those first few days were for them both, their daily lessons continued. Her mornings and evenings were spent with him, either lost in conversation or hovering over books with ancient, broken spines and dusty pages about    the most interesting subjects.

          She does not know how it happened, exactly.

          If her affections had been gradual and grew over the time they spent together, over getting to know the sides of Hollin the world did not deserve to see, or if it had been like stepping into the cold embrace of the sea. A quick splash, and then she was swimming in feelings too deep to wade through, too strong to allow her to come to the surface.

          It is ironic, really.

          That in teaching him how to love another woman, she had come to love him.

          The cruellest of ironies, she would say.

          From one heartbeat to the next, her smile is whisked away, leaving a terrible dread in the depths of her heart. Evangeline knows – she knows that deep down, there is no sense left in her anymore. In fact, if she had had any sense at all, she would have prevented this from happening since the very beginning. Maybe she would have never suggested their lessons; maybe she would have never insisted to break down his walls. If she hadn’t…

          Well, the mess is made, isn’t it?

          Evangeline sighs, folding her still unsent letter into the pocket of her dress. Her words have no sense at all. She should have never even written them. And, if she really thinks about it, it is a good thing that Hollin is so besotted with the Princess of Ellywe. Not that Evangeline knows the princess personally, but she has no doubt that the girl is as beautiful and kind as the world makes her out to be. And is it not a good thing that Hollin is ready to open up his heart to someone, after being in the dark for so long? Hadn’t that been the whole point of their lessons, after all?

          Isn’t that all she wanted for him?

          She would wish him well, Evangeline thinks. She would wish them both well, and her selfishness, greediness and jealousy would be stuffed into the dark corners of her mind, locked away for no one else to find.

          Hollin had not a care for her love.

          He had no need for it.

          And Evangeline should be thinking about more important matters, anyway. Certainly. Mostly about the other piece of news that Lysandra and Aedion delivered. The not-so-good part.

          Since Dorian had left to join Aelin and the others in their search for the Valg demons, they had found nothing but silence. Not a sight of Valg blood anywhere. No victims. No attacks.

          Everything is silent, as if it had never happened.

          Queen Aelin is now in Terrasen with her consort. The Queen of Witches and her own King making their way back home. Their court going back to their lives, attentive and restless, worried about what they had not found.

          Even as the sound of laughing children lightens her step and her heart, Evangeline cannot help but repeat the words in the back of her mind, the words that Lysandra and Aedion had left for her on their last letter:

          Be on the look-out, my dear. Something terrible is coming.

***

          Hollin Havilliard is lazy.

          Maybe it is the weather, or the awful festive season that has marched on and into his homeland way too soon. Maybe it is something else entirely.

          But he does not feel like working today.

          The Prince stretches his legs on the small cot he’d placed years before in the tight space of his office, between the stained-glass window and a shelf unit that is close to falling apart with all the weight that has been placed upon it.

          Evangeline has left earlier than he wanted her to this morning.

          And, foolishly, he had not stopped her.

          He’d wanted to, though.

          Gone were the days when it was easy for him to be hostile; to show her his teeth in order to keep her and her gentleness at bay. Gone were the days when Hollin could withstand the loneliness on his own. Gone were the days when the prince of Adarlan felt weakened with childish fears and hateful shadows.

          Shadows.

          They gather in his hands now that she is gone. He twirls a cloud of smoke between his fingers, imagining it is her red-gold hair he is touching. He would wrap those curls in his fingers, twist them once, just to let go and watch them fall over her shoulders in a most delicate manner.

          He smiles to himself.

          Girls do not like brooding men, she had told him that morning as she’d entered his office, always without knocking, placing a plate of too-sweet porridge in front of him. He hadn’t even gotten a chance to get properly dressed. She hadn’t seemed to care.

          He’d told her: “You, apparently, do.”

          It had been meant as a tease, but his morning voice had made it sound like an insult, and as always, Evangeline had simply shaken her head at him and scoffed under her breath, “Moody prince.”

          Slowly, he traces his bottom lip, recalling the soft, accidental press of her mouth against his. It had been too quick for Hollin to properly keep the memory tied to him, and that only increased his need to get to know her lips again. He would do it properly, this time. As any gentleman ought to: he would take her hand, press a kiss to her palm, ask in loving whispers against her ear where she would like him to kiss her next, and when her answer came, he would finally bend down-

          A terrible knock disrupts his thoughts.

          Hollin’s jaw ticks. “What is it.”

          A trembling voice comes from outside, and Hollin recognizes it as the stable boy’s voice. “Apologies, your Highness, but a note from your brother has arrived.”

          Hollin is quick to move to his door, take the note from the boy and shut the door on his face.

          He quickly reads over the words and sighs.

          Nothing new.

          Nothing he doesn’t already know.

          Brother, the note says,

I am on my way back. Manon has taken our daughter back to the Wastes, and will be joining us in a few weeks’ time; we deemed it safer for Rhiannon there, at least for the time being. As much as it hurts my heart to part with them, I know it is the right choice.

I am sure you have gotten my updates the last time we spoke, and, unfortunately, I bring you no other news, Hollin. Not even the fae can scent them anywhere. Our best guess is that whatever kernel of Valg remained in this world, it managed to be small enough to go undetected – but that can only worsen this threat.

Now, to answer the last part of your previous letter: I do agree that an alliance with Ellywe could only be beneficial for Adarlan, and while I do give you my blessing for you to be joined with its Princess, I ask you to think it through. I would not ask you such a thing, Hollin. If you want to go through with this, let it be on your own terms. I will not have my brother married simply out of duty or obligation.

I hope you are faring well. I will see you in a few days.

Your brother,

Dorian.

          Hollin folds the note and throws it carelessly onto his desk. Marriage, it seems, has made his brother a blind idiot.

          If a war is truly brewing in the distance, then making Adarlan stronger should be his top priority. But Dorian, his foolish brother, has always put feelings and family before his own country.

          Hollin leans his hands against the wooden desk, sighing quietly. It is a necessary duty, he thinks. And Hollin would do it. Because his brother-

          Dorian had given too much of himself already.

          It is time for Hollin to give something back, too.

          Even if it tears his heart to pieces.

          With an incredible dread falling over him, the Prince of Adarlan sits down at his desk, and begins a letter.

***

          The Queen of Witches shelters her daughter against the raging wind of the mountains, placing a cloak of deep red that sits in the little one’s shoulders as she looks over at the orange dusk. The ocean in the far distance brings the northern storms over as the sun goes to sleep.

          “Ready?” The King of Adarlan asks, watching over them both while Abraxos patiently folds a wing over them all, protecting them from the chill.

          “Yes,” says Manon. “We are ready.”

          The Queen watches as her husband takes their daughter into his arms, murmuring gentle words into her cheeks. She makes herself watch it all, even if her heart begins to ache, even if the pain is almost too much to bear. Something inside her now bristles at separating from the King; a wild warning in the back of her mind everytime they need to be away from each other.

          He helps Rhia into Abraxos’ saddle. When he looks at her, Manon’s instinct is to wrap him in her arms, and not let go.

          “Witchling,” Dorian smiles slightly, letting his knuckles drag over her cold cheeks. “Chin up.”

          It is what he says when he is trying to make their daughter smile.

          And now he is doing it to Manon.

          Her hair flutters in the wind, and Manon idly peels it off her face as she says, “Let me fly you to Adarlan.”

          “We have talked about this,” Dorian says, his voice gentle, a contrast with the wind around them. “It will only make you lose time. You need to speak to the Witches as quick as you can. I will get to Adarlan in two days by horse.”

          She seems ready to debate this once more, but at the last minute, Manon simply steps into his arms. He will offer her words of comfort if she wishes for them, she knows. He will give her everything she needs – even if she asks for illusions.

          But Manon wishes for nothing. She allows him to pull her into his chest, and she breathes in the scent of his clothes, his skin. Every fibre of her being begs to be forever wrapped in his arms, and never leave. She wishes to cling to him, and never let go.

          It is not unusual to her by now – it had been the same thing when she had been carrying Rhiannon.

          Dorian laughs gently against her cheek, the sound reverberating against her. Lovingly, but lowly, he says: “Might I have known years ago of this pretty little fact that witches become very clingy to their companions once they are with child, I would have convinced you much sooner to have another one.”

          Manon’s mouth twitches a bit. “You did not convince me.”

          “No?” Dorian says, a gentle playfulness to him. “Are you sure?”

          Manon touches his chin, their voices still low so little Rhiannon does not hear. “I was never trying not to have your child, princeling.”

          “And what a miraculous child it will be, witchling.”

          Indeed, as it was still terribly difficult for witches to bring life to the world. Manon had been luckier than most.

          They both had.

          “How will we tell that one?” He grins, gesturing with his chin to their already sleeping daughter, nuzzling Abraxos’ neck.

          “I will leave that one for you to figure out,” Manon says, and kisses his lips slowly.

          “Hopefully,” Dorian says between kisses, “she will scream less than Aelin did.”

          Then Dorian finds himself kissing her back eagerly, deeply, weaving his hands beneath her coat – just to touch that small bump at the bottom of her stomach. He smiles wide, kissing the tip of her nose. “Come back to me soon, my darling.”

          She is tempted to scoff at his little endearments, but Manon’s heart does not allow her to. Instead, she nuzzles his neck, leaving a soft kiss of cold lips on his skin.

          “Soon,” she promises.

***

 

          “Aelin, come to bed.”

          The Queen of Terrasen watches over the darkness falling over her reign, uncaring about the chilled wind kissing her bare legs and feet. She leans over the railing of her balcony, trying to find answers she has no questions for.

          “They are hiding,” she says for Rowan to hear, the sound of her voice carried through the open double doors and into their bed, where he lay with his fluffy hair and perfect eyes. She does not turn to look at him, her eyes narrowed, as if she would find everything she is looking for if she faced the darkness long enough. “For some reason, they have disappeared. They are hidden from us.”

          Footsteps sound, and soon she finds a big, soothing presence behind her. Pine and mint. Aelin lets the scent calm her restless heart, her breathing slowing down the moment she feels the tips of Rowan’s fingers move up her arms.

          “You need rest,” he says to her, his breath on the top of her spine making her shiver.

          “I need to solve this,” she says. “I need to figure out-”

          “We will,” he murmurs against her. “We will, Fireheart.”

          Aelin Galathynius closes her eyes, leaning back against her mate’s bare chest. She allows herself this moment of peace as they await the storm to come. She allows him to caress the front of her nightgown, her hands moving to his forearms, idly stroking the rough hairs there.

          And then, unexpectedly, Rowan moves his hand downwards. Further down. Aelin’s breath is caught off, her eyes flinging open. Despite everything, a slow smile forms on her lips.

          “I thought you said I needed rest,” she whispers, turning her face to the side, her lips touching his jaw.

          “There are many kinds of rests,” Rowan says, catching her lips in a brief, sensual kiss, just as his hand dips beneath her nightgown.

          He finds her deliciously bare, and Rowan growls his satisfaction low and deep against her neck.

          Aelin loses herself in him, so quickly, like she’d flung herself off this very balcony. A moan escapes her lips, and her hand squeezes at his forearm, urging him to dip his fingers lower, to touch her exactly where she wants him to.

          Just as he teases her slick entrance, Aelin catches his lips with hers. His hips are firm, pressed against her own. His presence is a lifeline, and she clings to it desperately.

          Even as she whispers, “Tell me it will be alright.”

          It is with the utter most confidence and love that Rowan whispers back, “It will be alright, Fireheart.”

***

          Lord Lorcan Lochan sits at home in front of a fire. His wife dozes off on the couch, her head on his lap, her soft features free of the days’ worries.

          He takes a moment to contemplate her.

          Who would have known that, ten years ago, he would have found his equal, his mate, his heart, in the middle of the woods? Who could have imagined that they would have ended up here?

          A gentle pitter-patter of footsteps makes him look up at the double doors of the sitting room. There stands his oldest son, his eyes still clinging to sleep as he watches his parents.

          Lorcan murmurs, “You should be in bed.”

          And still he extends an arm, and Ferran clings to his father’s hand as he slips next to him on the other side of the couch, careful not to wake his mother.

          “Can’t sleep?”

          Ferran shakes his head, sighing when his father wraps an arm around him.

          “Dad?”

          “Yes?” Lorcan says, looking over at his son.

          “How did you know that mama was your mate?” Ferran asks.

          A pause. “Why are you thinking this now?”

          “Just wondering.”

          “Well,” Lorcan begins, a deep sigh escaping him. “I just…knew.”

          “Did you know it when you first saw her?”

          “No.”

          “When?”

          Lorcan gives his son a confused smile, but nonetheless he finds himself saying, “I knew it when she made me overthink everything I ever thought I knew. Then, I realized that, from that day forth, I could never be separated from her. We are equals in every way.”

          Ferran sighs. “Do you think I will ever find someone like that?”

          Lorcan watches his son carefully. “Do you want to find someone like that?”

          “Are we not supposed to?”

          “No, son. We should be open to it. Seek it, to some degree. But you do not need it.”

          “But it has been said that your mate completes you. That they are your other half.”

          Lorcan smiles, poking his son’s nose. “You are already complete. A mate will only add to your life. Not complete it, son.”

          Ferran stares at the fire thoughtfully before sighing, and Lorcan wonders, in that split second as he sees himself in his son, if Ferran is feeling exactly as he once did; exactly as he still does, sometimes.

          He touches his son’s arm, and gently says, “You deserve the world, Ferran. Companionship included. It will come, son. Even if you do not chase for it. Even if you find yourself thinking it will never happen to you. Life is a series of twist and turns, so wait it out. I certainly did. And look what fate brought me.”

          He looks at his wife, still gently sleeping, and smiles. “It brought me the most beautiful gift.”

          Ferran is silent for a moment, and then he says, “Do you really think so?”

          “I know so.” Lorcan says. “Now go to bed – you are too young to be worrying about such things.”

          Ferran gives him a smile when his father nudges at his arm. “Thank you. Goodnight, dad.”

          When his son leaves, Lorcan looks down to see Elide herself open-eyed, as if she hadn’t been asleep at all.

          Before he can say anything she sits up, and touches her lips to his, so softly. And Lorcan knows that, whatever comes to them, whatever might happen in the future, he will always have this.

 

***

          His letter is addressed to the princess of Ellywe. It is a formal invitation to the Winter’s Ball, meticulously written out, his lettering perfectly royal, his compliments worthy of charming even the iciest of hearts.

          He hates it.

          Still, he sends it off and, with a heavy sigh lifted off his chest, he looks over at the chair Evangeline left in his office. It has been her place all these weeks, and he’s seen her almost fall asleep in it countless times. She always complains it’s so cold in here. Maybe he should bring her a blanket.

          Then, with a frown, Hollin looks outside.

          The day has come and gone, and the sun is slowly drifting down the mountains, the sky kissed with fire. The wind brushes the trees, carrying off their leaves. And one thought comes to him, and does not leave him for hours:

Evangeline should have been back by now.

***

Her head is pounding as she walks through the streets of Rifthold. It has been a long, long day, and Evangeline can feel the weight of it press into her shoulders. She rubs the back of her neck, and thinks of Hollin.

His name makes a gloomy sadness settle into the depths of her heart, now. She should simply tell him that their lessons were over. She should tell him that he is perfectly apt to deal with the Princess now, which is not a lie, and that he has no need of her anymore. If he should say otherwise, she might simply lie a little bit – tell him she is too busy to continue, or too tired, or-

Or too in love.

Goodness, no. She cannot possibly mean that.

To mean it, she has to understand what is love in the first place, something she truly does not have the least bit of knowledge about. All her life, she had never been in love. Certain boys have caught her eye from time to time, of course, but…

But she had always been too frightened.

And now?

Maybe she is not frightened enough. And that is what scares her most. She has no fears when she is with Hollin. She can run from a group of thieves laughing. She can grin with a knife pointed at her throat.

Is that love? The feeling of safety? Or is it the gentle happiness that bubbles in her chest whenever he was near? Whenever he squinted his eyes at the sky and smiled, like he didn’t even know he was doing it, like he didn’t even notice that she was watching him. Was that love?

No. No, no, no.

Either way, she needs to end it. She needs…she needs to take into account that soon he will be engaged, possibly married, he will have a future with someone else, a family with someone else. He will share his love of the stars and of the universe and all of the unknowns of the world with someone else, and she will not hear the delight in his voice as he explains all the things that he loves and that she wants to know.

It is the right decision.

Moreover, what if the Princess is already in love with him, too? Evangeline could not possibly hurt her like that. Despite never having met her, she would feel so terrible to get between-

A cry makes her heart sink to the floor. All her thoughts drift away as Evangeline realizes that she has been wondering too far off the path. She is surrounded my small hills and fields, happy white houses sitting in darkness here and there.

Shivering from the cold, Evangeline shakes off that sound as having been something from her own imagination, and sets off the other way, back to town. It will be easier and faster to reach home from there. She wraps her cloak tighter around her, and marches off.

When that same scream chills her to the bone.

She pauses, looking around. She does not know where the sound came from, but something makes her walk to the shadow of a big and old oak tree. No lights in sight. No people.

“Hello?” She calls, worried that someone might need help. “Hello?”

A quiet sob makes her look over to her right. Rounding the tree, Evangeline finds a small child with her knees to her chest and a tear-stricken face. She is too young to have been enrolled in school, so Evangeline does not recognize her.

When the child sees her, she jumps, gasping, and, when Evangeline tries to soothe her gently, the child only cries harder.

“Sweetheart,” Evangeline murmurs. “It’s okay. Are you lost?”

The little girl pulls her hair from her face, shaking her head. “N-No, my L-Lady.”

Evangeline squats down to the child’s height, assuring her that everything is fine. “What is your name?”

“Clara.”

“Hello, Clara,” Evangeline smiles softly. “My name is Evangeline. I am a teacher. Why don’t you tell me what’s the matter?”

Clara looks around with frightened eyes, and murmurs: “I’m…I…I ran away.”

“Why did you run away?”

“I’m scared,” Clara says, shivering. “Mama…my mama…”

“Sweetheart,” Evangeline murmurs, hugging the child to her chest. “Everything is going to be alright. Now, now. Tell me what happened. Slowly.”

“Mama started screaming at me.”

Evangeline’s face hardens. “Why did your mama started screaming?”

“I…I dunno.”

Evangeline’s heart clenches. It is not the first time a child comes to her with this sort of problem. It is a terrible thing.

She is ready to comfort the girl, but then she whispers: “I d-don’t think that was my…my m-mama.”

Evangeline blinks. “What do you mean?”

“Mama never screams. She is kind,” Clara says against Evangeline’s chest. “And her eyes were different.”

A chill hits Evangeline’s chest, deep and frightening.

“Clara,” Evangeline says, trying to keep her calm. “What did she say?”

“I didn’t understand.”

Evangeline touches the girl’s face, so gently. If this is what she thinks- “Clara,” Evangeline says, willing her voice not to shake. “It will be alright. Do you have grandparents?”

“Yes,” she murmurs. “I didn’t think before running. But nana leaves over there.” She points.

“Alright,” Evangeline smiles, though her whole body is shaking with fear. “I promise your mama will be alright, yes? I will take you to nana.”

“Will you call a healer for mama?”

“Of course, sweetheart. She will be just fine.”

But Evangeline knows she isn’t. If what she suspects is true, at least. She does not tell Clara that.

When she takes the little girl’s hand and turns, they both gasp at what they see.

“Mama,” Clara begins, her tears drying on her face.

Clara’s mother is a too-thin woman, with hollow cheeks and bright eyes. Her dress fits her awkwardly, and her vision seems blurred. In the night, she looks like death.

Evangeline pulls Clara behind her, ready to scream out-

“You know him,” the woman smiles, looking at Evangeline up and down. “You smell like him. I can scent his power on you.”

Evangeline’s eyes widen, her throat closes. The woman takes a step. Evangeline’s shoes are glued to the floor as Clara begins crying once again.

“That’s not mama!” Clara is saying. “That is not mama!”

The woman – the thing – does not seem to hear anything else. Those black eyes are stuck on Evangeline only.

“Who,” Evangeline grits out, one hand holding Clara firmly behind her, the other clinging to a pocket knife she keeps hidden on her cloak.

“The one we chose,” the woman grins, an animal smile, wild and deranged. Savage. “We are coming for him tonight. He will be our triumph.”

“Mama, please,” Clara begs.

“Stay behind me,” Evangeline warns the girl, and something about having to protect her child makes Evangeline want to show her claws. She sets her teeth, even though her arms are trembling. “What do you want? What are you?”

The woman cocks her head to the side. “His power has touched you.”

His powers have touched you.

For some unknown reason, the one thing her mind conjures is the memory of cool shadows, dancing around her. Hollin’s shadows.

Evangeline swallows the needles in her throat. “Hollin. You’re talking about Hollin.”

“Precisely.”

“What do you want from him?” Evangeline grits out, her voice shrill. “You will stay away or I’ll-“

“You will take me to him,” the woman says, gentle as a breeze, those black eyes almost feline in the darkness.

“No-“

But Evangeline does not have time to protest.

One second, she is holding onto Clara.

A second later – darkness.

And darkness only.

***

“All is silent,” Fenrys finds himself murmuring, gently swaying the small angel sleeping in his arms, as he looks out into the window. “Too silent.”

“Except for your Queen upstairs,” Vaughan scowls from the bed, eyeing the ceiling like he wants to go to war with it. “They have been at it for hours.”

Fenrys smiles, despite himself. “Leave them be. At some point, they had to hear you and me. Gods know Rowan had to back then, too.”

Vaughan makes a face. “Thank you for the reminder.”

“I am nothing if not a sweet reminder,” he winks.

Then his attention goes back to his daughter, still quietly asleep.

“She barely cries,” Vaughan says, and Fenrys feels his presence behind him, peaking over his shoulder. “Strange, she has such a wimp for a father.”

Fenrys gives him a look, though a smirk starts to form. “Do you wish to hold her?”

Vaughan looks suddenly panicked, embarrassed, even. “No, no. It’s fine.”

“You seemed pretty happy to hold her that first day.”

Vaughan pauses, shuffling his feet uncomfortably. “I’m…she makes me nervous.”

“She is a baby, Vaughan,” Fenrys laughs softly.

The other male rolls his eyes. “She’s too small. Fragile. I’m…rough. I don’t have hands that are soft or mild. I’m not…” and suddenly he says it all too quickly, like getting it off his chest. “I’m not worthy of holding her.”

Fenrys stares at him for a few moments, a few heartbeats, and then, before Vaughan can expect it, Fenrys is leaning down, turning his face this way and that, and touches his lips to Vaughan’s. The male pauses, breathing in, and then his hand comes up to cradle Fenrys’ cheek. They pull away, and Vaughan has a sheepish, gentle smile on his face, so rare, and so beautiful, that Fenrys is all too tempted to kiss him again, sweetly and fiercely.

But then their eyes tear from each other, and they are looking down at two little brown eyes, watching them with quiet serenity.

When Fenrys’ eyes raise to stare at Vaughan, the male looks as much in love with her as Fenrys is.

It makes Fenrys’ heart melt.

“Hold her,” Fenrys murmurs softly.

And then Vaughan is gently pulling the baby into his arms, all too carefully, all too delicately. And then the apprehension is gone, and all that is left is them, Fenrys smiling gently, Vaughan with incredible wonder in his eyes, and little Luna watching them quietly.

Fenrys nuzzles his face into Vaughan’s shoulder, laughing quietly.

“What?” Vaughan blurts out. “Am I doing something wrong?”

“I think you are doing it all too right,” Fenrys smiles. “I think I might have fallen terribly in love with you all over again.”

Vaughan suppresses a smile, though Fenrys can see the male’s face change completely. His eyes are brighter than ever.

Fenrys looks up then, as the strong winds whistled outside. What was joy turns into slight worry.

And Vaughan does not need to ask.

“Let it be silent,” Vaughan says. “Maybe they are gone, and we needn’t worry anymore.”

Fenrys shakes his head lightly, but the gesture seems heavy all the same. “I’m afraid they aren’t, Vaughan. I’m afraid they are silent for a reason. These Valg are planning. Waiting. For what is what I would like to know.”

Vaughan approaches him with the baby in his arms, and gently touches his nose to Fenrys’. Vaughan kisses him lightly on the lips before saying, “Just concern yourself with what you have in front of you now, Fenrys. The rest – we will solve it when it comes.”

Fenrys gives him a look full of meaning. “We?”

Vaughan seems to hold Luna a little bit more protectively to his chest. “Yes,” he says as Fenrys bends down to kiss him again. “We.”

***

The Prince of Adarlan is ready to leave his rooms and begin shouting orders at the guards to see for Evangeline’s safety when, all of a sudden, she is right in front of him.

He stands there, half-dressed, his undershirt and trousers crumbled, his mouth agape as he holds the door of his office open.

“I…you took so long,” he says, watching her intently.

Evangeline smiles, though the muscles on her face are strained. “May I come in?”

At that, Hollin’s blood goes cold.

What he does next is so fast he barely even finds himself thinking on it. With one simple movement, he pushes her by her elbow into the room and then his forearm is pinning her throat to the wall.

She gasps, out of breath, though her eyes remain the same, unblinking. Unnatural.

The darkness in him flows freely through the room, and his magic sings in answer, drums in his blood, plays sharp chords in his mind. It says, danger danger danger. It warns him, Something is not right.

And it is correct.

“Who are you?” He growls at the creature, right in its face. “Where is she?”

It looks through him, almost. Wonder and affection in its gaze. Evangeline’s golden eyes are gone.

“I am-“ The creature tries to speak.

“You’re not her,” he spits out, mad with worry, mad with fury. “She would never ask me to come in; she’d simply do it. I will ask you again before I tear you to pieces: where is Evangeline.”

The creature finally recognizes the situation that it is in. It is finally afraid. Hollin’s dark satisfaction manifests itself in the shadows swirling about the room. He does not have to look behind him to see four pencils hovering in the air, ready to strike at his command.

“This…is still…her body,” the creature gasps out.

Hollin lets go, but invisible hands pin the creature to the wall. He’s never controlled it so well until today; has never tried to do such a thing until he truly needed it-

Hollin does not have time to be amazed at himself. Instead, he says, his voice like thunder, “Speak.”

“We have come to reclaim you, my Lord,” the creature smiles slightly, looking half in love with him.

Hollin pauses. “We?”

“My people.”

“Evangeline – what have you done to her?”

“Her mind is weak,” the creature says softly. “As is her heart. It was not difficult. She has many memories of you. All of them stricken with happiness. She craves you. Longs for you. Like we do.”

Hollin’s throat closes, his mind goes blank.

“Bring her back.”

“When we collect you, I will leave her shell,” the creature says. It is Evangeline’s voice, and yet nothing like it.

“Collect me why,” Hollin rages. “Who am I to you, parasites?”

The creature smiles. “You call us Valg, but we are so much more. We have evolved, you see. We have developed a wonderful love for this world when we were trapped inside it ten years ago. These shells we inhabit…well, they are not great, but they suffice for their purpose. As for you, my Lord...”

“Your kind burned those villages in the north. You killed families,” Hollin says, his voice brimming with viciousness.

“We were sending a message.”

“You were leaving behind tracks,” Hollin says. “False clues. Leading us to one place, while you moved to another. And now you are here. This was always the place you wanted to come to, wasn’t it?”

A smile forms itself on Evangeline’s face, brighter and brighter. “Your mind is…a treasure to behold, my Lord. Look behind you.”

Those invisible hands tighten on the arms of the creature – of Evangeline – as Hollin moves to the small window.

What he sees almost brings him to his knees.

Before he can respond, a scream comes from outside, and then the stables boy is running up to his office-

He stops once he sees him – and the creature – his eyes wide and terrified. Instantly, he knows it is not Evangeline. Not the one he knows. Objects hover within mid-air, and at seeing such a thing, the boy looks ready to be put below ground.

“Your Highness,” the boy jokes out. “Outside, at the gates-“

An army.

Ordinary people – shells, the creature called them. Valg.

“Warn the soldiers,” Hollin growls at the boy. “Tell them to be at the ready, to keep their positions, just like I ordered. NOW.”

The boy runs off, looking as pale as chalk.

Hollin turns to the creature. Seeing Evangeline’s face, Evangeline’s body, pinned up to the wall like that by his own hand is enough to leave him sick to his stomach, but the fact that those eyes, the eyes he cherishes, are now black as the universe… “Why.”

“You still do not know the power you possess within your grasp, my Lord. This,” she gestures with her chin to her pinned hands. “This is nothing compared to what you can truly do. You know it too, do you not? You feel it. It is like you could destroy the world. And you can. You would.” The creature smiles at him. “We have been waiting a long time, my Lord. Waiting, all these years, for your power to grow, for we knew a magnificent gift could be bestowed only to you. Your father…”

“Don’t say a word about my father,” Hollin clenches his fist, and the pencils hovering in the air shake and twist with his rage.

“Your father was powerful,” the creature continues. “We knew your older brother, the King, would have never gotten the graceful powers of our kind. No. But you did. With your bloodline, and our bloodline together…you are invincible. You can join us in taking this world, bit by bit, until it belongs to us again.”

“My brother has Valg blood too,” Hollin says.

“It is dormant, and always will be,” the creature reveals. “Mala’s bloodline runs strong in him. While in you…you are darkness reborn. Destined to free us from our cage. The stronger brother. The one true King.”

Hollin takes two steps, hearing the screams outside, the swords clashing. His blood thrums, boiling, until he feels tears behind his eyes from the heat coming off him.

He grabs the creature’s chin harshly. It gasps, yet that sick adoration is still there-

          One simple sentence. He does not recognize his voice: “Bring me my Evangeline back.”

          “She will not understand you,” the creature whispers. “None of them will.”

          “I am not you.”

          “No,” it says. “You are better. Stronger. More powerful than you will ever know. Let me show you.”

          Shadows gather.

          Darkness reborn indeed.

          Hollin believes the Valg creature. He is powerful.

          More powerful than they will ever know.

          With one brutal step, Hollin takes its cheeks – Evangeline’s cheeks – and presses his lips to hers.

          The shadows envelop them, taking them to nowhere and anywhere.

***

          The inn he stops at has the most uncomfortable mattress he could ever think of.

          Honestly, Dorian thinks, I might as well sleep on the floor. It might be more comfortable.

          On the other hand, his body is still sore from being on horseback the whole day. Sighing, Dorian turns to his side, pulling his blankets over him, closes his eyes, and tries to at least get some rest before-

          Suddenly, he hears a commotion down at the main entrance. He sits up in bed, pulling his hair away from his eyes. When he fails to hear what that is about, the King lifts himself up, and opens his door.

          “…the palace.”

          “Goodness. When?!”

          “Just now…hundreds…attack-“

          Dorian’s heart falls to his chest. He’d been ready to fall asleep on his horse the moment he crossed Rifthold, and it had been too long of a journey to keep going, so he’d ended up staying on an inn not too far from the outskirts of town. Now, from what he is hearing, his palace is under attack-

          Dorian grabs his jacket and his sword, flinging himself out of his room as fast as his tired body can carry him. Outside, gasps are heard at the sight of him, but Dorian pays them no mind. He touches a man’s arm, and stops him on his way.

          “Pray tell, what is going on?” He asks.

          The man looks as dumbfounded as everybody else, but manages to blurt out a little, “Y-Your Majesty…it appears a hundred people have gathered outside the castle. Some folk say they have not been acting right. Some people are missing, and-“

          Dorian does not need to hear anything else.

          He runs outside to the stables, and jumps on his horse, paying no mind to the pain in his body. His heart urgent, his head pounding, he galops through the crowd gathering outside, making his way to the palace of glass.

          One thing is for certain – Dorian knows this is the moment they have all been dreading, during all those weeks of having found nothing. Because these were not people gathering at the front of his gates.

          They were Valg.

***

          The world Hollin finds himself in is not at all his own. But, on the other hand, he recognizes the hazy gleam of his office, his body’s own contours.

          He knows his instinct led him here. His magic led him here. He trusts it, even if he is surrounded by fog.

          He turns to his side, and a crying Evangeline meets his eyes. Hers are wide as she sees him, and when she flings herself into his arms, it is like they have been lost in a maze, trying to find each other for years.

          Hollin holds her close, his strength keeping her there with him.

          “Where are we?” She murmurs against his shoulder, her chest heaving up and down with her sobs. “Hollin, I can’t escape, I can’t, it wants to hurt you, it wants for its own. The Valg-“

          “Shh,” Hollin wipes at her cheeks, looking into her eyes. “It will be alright. It will not hurt you again.”

          “How did you reach me?” She asks, blinking. “How can I-“

          He does not know.

          He followed his magic, and it led him to her. To the real Evangeline, hidden behind a wall of Valg magic.

          “I am going to get it out of you,” he says. “I need you to stay with me.”

          “Hollin,” she murmurs to him. “I am so scared.”

          “I am here,” he says, because it is the only thing he can say. “I am here.”

          Shadows move around them as Hollin touches her cheeks. Her real cheeks. Flesh and bone, and oh so human. So Evangeline. Her scars, her freckles, the colour of her lips…

          Hollin’s magic sings – but not with darkness.

          With incredible light.

          “You’re…” Evangeline whispers, eyes searching him. Shadows and light move off him, surrounding them both, wrapping them in a cocoon of safety. “You’re…” she tries again.

          Light and darkness both.

          And so much more, if he wishes. If he dares.

          Hollin says to her, “Do you trust me?”

          And Evangeline does not miss one heartbeat as she responds, “I always did.”

          Even in this place of nowhere and anywhere, where their conscious meet, Hollin’s heart seems to clench at the words. He closes his eyes then, keeping her close, so close, trying to reach deep inside himself for the kernel of magic. A hand is stretched out to him, calling to him, wanting to pull Evangeline away from his arms.

          He grabs on to it.

          And yanks.

          The creature inside Evangeline seems to freeze for a couple of seconds. Begging. Hollin yanks harder, tugging at that darkness, not trying to run from it – but meeting it halfway.

          Just to destroy it.

          With Evangeline’s hands still clinging to him, Hollin strikes. A blow is felt through the world, an invisible thunder bolt clashing down onto his body. He feels the shadows and the light push at him and Evangeline, keeping them close, while the Valg screeches in the distance.

          When Hollin opens his eyes, he is back in the room.

          Everything is in shambles. His books on the floor, his desk broken in two, all his furniture in ashes-

          Everything ruined, destroyed. Except Evangeline. Whole, perfect Evangeline, who immediately falls into his arms, her eyes fallen closed, her body limp.

          Hollin gasps at what he’s just done, his body shaking with adrenaline. He holds her to him, picks her up in his arms. “Evangeline,” he says. Begs. If he hurt her-

          Hollin sits on the broken cot with her in his arms. Suddenly, he does not care that there is an army outside those gates. He pays no mind to his soldiers fighting and dying in the gardens, amongst the roses. He only cares about the girl lying still in his arms.

          “Breathe, breathe, breathe,” he begs her in broken whispers, touching her cheek, her lips. “Please, please, please.”

          But she does not.

***

          She wants to reach him.

          Evangeline wants to reach him.

          But she has no strength left.

          She is an empty shell of a girl, and like a fallen, forgotten leaf, she flows quietly away with the harsh wind.

***

          A hundred witches bow.

          Warriors, each one of them. Not bred for battle, like their ancestors once were, but prepared for it. The moment they heard the news, they lowered their heads and gave their Queen their swords.

          Rhiannon watches, her small body half hidden behind her mother’s cape. It is a sight she has never seen once before. She looks up at her mother, and finds no trace of the smile she knows. No trace of warmth. Only ruthlessness.

          It makes Rhiannon feel strong.

          “Mount,” the Queen says. And the witches move, each to their wyvern.

          And then the Queen turns to her daughter.

          “My treasure,” Manon says to her, squatting down to her height. “I am going to war.”

          “Father’s country is in danger,” Rhiannon murmurs. “What if he is, too? What if you are in danger, as well?”

          Manon touches her daughter’s cheek. “Your father is no lesser warrior. And I am Queen for a reason.”

          “Maybe.” A tense pause. “But he is no witch,” Rhiannon whispers.

          Manon pulls her daughter into her arms. She can offer her daughter no lies. No comfort, either. But she tries. As a mother, it is all she has left to do.

          “I will bring him home safe. We will both come back to you,” Manon says to her. “I promise you.”

          “Manon.”

          Manon straightens, lifts herself, and faces her second. Alma’s expression is all hard lines and fierce eyes.

          “You cannot go,” Alma murmurs. And her eyes turn to Manon’s belly – to the life growing there.

          “It is Dorian,” Manon says through clenched teeth. For once, she finds her hands shaking, her instincts crying out for her to leave, to save her partner. Yet torn all the same, for leaving her daughter begins to leave a terrible ache in her bones.

          “Let us go in your place,” Alma says. “Stay safe with your daughter.”

          “No,” Rhiannon says, with incredible determination in her eyes, her voice.

          The witches stop, looking over at the princess.

          “Mama will bring him back,” Rhiannon says to Alma. “She will win. She has to go. Papa needs her.” She looks up at her mother. “Mama, please.”

          Manon swallows hard, and looks over at Alma. “I leave with you my life. Take care of her.”

          With a kiss to her daughter’s forehead, the Queen walks out of the safety of her kingdom, and heads for battle.

 

***

 

          Hollin Havilliard has been called a monster his entire life.

          Little monster, the servants say behind closed doors, as he presses his ear to them.

          Good for nothing, his father – not his real father, in truth, but the Valg that inhabited him – scoffs at him.

          Someday, you mark my words, that boy will become worse than a monster, he hears once, as he walks through Rifthold in perfect disguise.

          He always agreed.

          Because even then, Hollin knew he was not the same as his people. He was not even the same as his brother. He’d become the sickness that overtook his father’s body. He’d grown into that blood. Into that darkness.

          And if the world thinks you are a monster, what good does it do to change their minds?

          If the world turns away from you, curses your name and belittles you, what reason would you have to become anything else?

          But Hollin did want to become something else.

          Because there was one person in all of the world who hadn’t scoffed or cursed at him, belittled him, or given up.

          Evangeline slowly opens her eyes to him, and Hollin’s heart feels as if it might collapse on his chest. He holds her to him, letting out a breath of mad relief. She touches his arm gently, blinking slowly.

          And Hollin only notices he’s speaking when he tastes his own tears.

          “You were not breathing,” he is whispering, almost inaudibly. “You were not breathing.”

          “Hollin,” Evangeline murmurs, her voice hoarse, as if she has been screaming for years without being heard. “Oh, Hollin.”

          She buries her face on his neck, and he trembles, wild with the thought of almost having lost her in his arms.

          “I thought I had-“ He stops himself, horrified at the thought. “I thought I had killed you.”

          “It would not let me move,” she whispers, her knuckles bone white as she holds on tight to his shirt. “It caught me in the street, and I could feel my body moving, I could feel myself speak, and none of it were my own actions.”

          Hollin touches her cheeks, making sure she is real. He is looking at her, through her, and Evangeline has never loved a pair of eyes so much as she loves his.

          He touches her scars, the curve of her mouth, his heart slowly calming.

          “How did you…?” She begins.

          “I don’t know,” he shakes his head. “I destroyed the Valg. I don’t know how.”

          “You were glowing,” she says to him, eyes searching his. “You were burning as bright as the stars.”

          “I could’ve killed you.” The realization hits him in the face, a sharp, icy wave setting in his bones, pulling him down into colder depths.

          “No,” she protests quietly.

          “Yes,” he says. “Yes, I could have. I almost did. You were-“

          Evangeline takes his face, and touches her lips to his. His voice dies just at the slow press of her lips, so gentle. She pulls away with tear-stained cheeks and murmurs, “This is how you got to me.”

          Hollin stares at her, bending down again, his forehead against hers-

          But the words never leave his mouth, for a thunder-like sound booms from the outside. Hollin turns his eyes to the window, and resists the urge to pull Evangeline closer to him.

          “I need to go,” he says. “Stay here.”

          He places her gently on the bed, moving to the door-

          “No,” she says, strained, moving out of the bed in clumsy steps to go to him. “I am not leaving you.”

          “This is not up for discussion,” he mutters, pulling a sword out of the broken closet of his office. One of the only things he hadn’t shattered in this room.

          Evangeline wipes at her face angrily. “Exactly. So I am coming, too.”

          “You will not step out of this room.”

          “Try to stop me,” she dares, pushing past him and through the door that had been pratically pulled off its hinges.

          Hollin follows her, touching her arm to stop her. “Listen to me. Gods fucking damn it, Evangeline, listen to me. There are a hundred or so Valg outside this fucking palace, and one of them nearly killed you. I will not have you leave this room until it is safe-“

          He can hear his soldiers’ cries from the outside and a part of him wants to run and hide like the scared little boy he is. He is not his brother. He is no King, no soldier. He will not win this war all alone with his brother most likely miles away.

          Evangeline stares him down. “I have hidden before. I have seen my friends die through a window before. Never again. And if you try to stop me, Hollin, I will never forgive you for it.”

          “I would rather have you hate me than have you killed,” he says to her.

          Evangeline steps up to him. “Then I promise not to die. Promise me the same.”

          Hollin stares at her, her eyes full of unspoken emotion. He can see himself reflected in those golden depths. He looks like a joke of a prince. “I promise,” he says, because there is nothing else he can tell her.

***

          The shifter stares at the Queen of Terrasen as she reads the note.

          “Is it true?” Lysandra asks, biting the nail of her right thumb. At her side, her husband looks as pale as moonlight. The court nervously waits for the Queen’s reply, similar expressions on each face.

          “Yes,” Aelin says, her voice shaking slightly. “Yes, it is true. Adarlan is under attack.”

          “I don’t understand,” Fenrys says. “We thought the Valg wanted you.”

          “Apparently their war is not with Aelin, nor with us,” Rowan is the one to speak, placing a soothing hand on his wife’s back.

          “With who, then?” Aedion mutters.

          “I haven’t been able to shift since…” Lysandra murmurs, and touches her belly. “Aelin, I can be useful another way-“

          “No,” both Aelin and Aedion say at the same time, but Aelin is the one to continue: “I will not have you journey to Adarlan in your state. I could find you much more useful here, Lys, with Fenrys.”

          Fenrys, who swallows the knot at his throat. He is almost tempted to disagree with the Queen, to say that he will make that journey too, but now he has someone else he needs to care for, someone who needs him – and Aelin knows it too.

          “We will protect Orynth,” Fenrys nods his head at the Queen. “Be rest assured.”

          “We travel now,” Aelin says.

          Vaughan interjects: “You can leave right this moment and not be fast enough to reach Adarlan in time. You know that, right?”

          “Do you expect me to sit here while they burn?” Aelin sneers.

          “I expect you to think clearly,” Vaughan says, level-headed. “We have gotten the reports that Manon’s witches are heading to Adarlan. “Send your troops, Aelin. But leaving your own territory at this time is not an intelligent move.”

          Aelin turns her head away, hating to admit that he is right. “Nothing assures me that there isn’t an army coming for Terrasen too. I will send the troops to Adarlan. Make them reach Rifthold by sunrise. As for the rest of us…” Aelin sighs. “Let us protect our kingdom.”

          “How do you plan to kill them?” Aedion says then, almost under his breath. “They are still people. Even if a Valg demon has infested them. How do we kill them without killing your people? Yrene Westfall is not here, and even if she was, she could not do it all herself. Not like last time. What do we do?”

          Aelin pauses, and with a heavy heart she murmurs, “I don’t know.”

***

          Outside, the world is painted in a black fog.

          A hundred pairs of eyes meet his through the palace gates, shining in recognition. And his magic shines too – whispering, reaching out to the demons ready to swallow his whole world. It recognizes them, it says, I am like you, one of you.

          Evangeline, at the sight of all those hungry gazes, seems to shrink next to him.

          Hollin feels sick to his stomach.

          “Hold your fire! Keep your positions!” Hollin shouts at the archers and at the soldiers, as he moves to speak to the Captain of the Guard. “Tell me.”

          “Your Highness,” the Captain says, breathless. “Your brother, the King, has not yet reached us. But reports from the North claim the Queen of Witches is coming for your aid.”

          Manon.

          “She will not reach us in time,” Hollin says. He looks at the gates. “It will not hold them for long. They are here for me.”

          “For you, your Highness?” The Captain says wearily, eyes wide.

          “We need to kill them before the break down the wall,” Hollin says, his body beginning to trembling. Not in fear, he realizes with great surprise, but with need.

          The darkness wants to kill.

          Hollin advances towards the gates.

          “Hollin,” Evangeline touches his hand. “Stop.”

          He turns to her, glaring. “We need to end this now. I know how to end it-“

          “They are still people,” Evangeline says. “A sword will kill the body, not the Valg.”

          “It is a risk I am taking,” Hollin spits out.

          “No, you don’t mean that,” Evangeline says to him. “You wouldn’t sacrifice a hundred human lives.”

          At that, Hollin’s magic seems to be stifled. His blood burns. “Well maybe,” he says to her, harsher than he intends, as he takes a step towards Evangeline, “you don’t know me as well as you think you do.”

          A feeble, cruel way to get her to leave him, but a path he had to take anyway. Once Evangeline sees what he is planning to do, she will never look at him the same again.

          She will be terrified of him – of what he can do.

          So will all these people – his soldiers. They will know what he is.

          Dorian would not take this path.

          But his brother is not here, is he?

          The gate gives in, breaking in half, and the world seems to be swallowed in darkness. He hears Evangeline call out his name, and his soldiers’ unsteady breaths as they await his orders. Her safety drives him, the wild need to keep her protected allowing him to wade through the darkness inside him, like he did before.

          Closing his eyes, Hollin takes a breath.

          And he feels every point of connection inside him. To the Valg, to their dark magic, to the world beyond. He sees every human soul, and every demon squeezing the life out of them. He sees threads, and beams of light.

          Is a monster truly a monster when he can still see the light in the darkness?

          “No,” Evangeline murmurs, a broken sound falling out of her as she sees what he is doing. The soldiers wait, strained, clinging to their swords and their arrows, confused and frightened. But Hollin ever gives out the order.

          He won’t.

          Because Evangeline finally understands what he is doing. He’s never planned to kill all those people. He knows he is the only person they will not harm. And so it must be him.

          It must be him.

          “No,” she says again, watching his back, clinging to her own sword for dear life. “HOLLIN, NO-“

          The world seems to come to a stop.

          As if in slow motion, Evangeline watches every single person in this night freeze, and it is like she is in a dream, in an alternative reality. Her heart slows, her movements slow, as different shadows flow out from Hollin’s hands. Shadows, and light, and ice, and fire – all of them.

          The world seems to become silent.

          In one single gesture, Evangeline knows.

          She knows he will not kill those people. He will extract the Valg, like he did with her.

          Even if it kills him in the process.

          “You promised,” she whispers.

          Hollin turns his face to the side, watching her, and she can see his profile, beautiful and haunting, dark blue eyes reflecting the ice and the fire he creates.

          It is like they are the only two people in the world – the rest is just a blurry background.

          Far away, Evangeline thinks she can hear Dorian call out his brother’s name. He might be flinging himself off his horse, screaming at the top of his lungs, but she cannot know for sure. She is suspended in that moment.

          For some reason, the look Hollin gives her looks like a goodbye.

          And then, the prince clenches his fists.

          The world seems to end.

          An invisible tidal wave goes through her body, slow and hard, pushing the air out of her lungs. It goes through the land like a huge drum beat, echoing like thunder clap. It sends her flying backwards into the grass, slow, so slow, and for one second, it seems as if gravity has no effect on her. Her back touches the grass as if Hollin himself had laid her there- soft and tender.

          Evangeline gains back her breath as she stares at the sky.

          She sees no stars. Only shadows.

***

          “HOLLIN,” Dorian is screaming as he reaches the palace walls.

          And then, everything stops.

          He thinks he can hear wyverns in the distance, but he cannot look. His eyes meet Hollin’s for a second that lasts forever, and then he is being flung back. His body reacts, his magic spreading out around him protectively. But it is like a wall has been drawn in front of him. Dorian realizes, with dumbstruck shock, that Hollin is doing all of this.

          His brother. Covered in shadows. And light. And fire. And ice.

          Dorian’s magic pushes, but Hollin pushes back.

          His magic says, Stay back.

          And Dorian is stuck to the ground, unable to move, as the world seems to be tearing into two.

***

          He tugs, and pushes, and yanks, and kills.

          Bite, after bite, cutting off the threads all around him.

          Snap. Snap.

          His brother’s magic touches him, urgent and confused, and he pushes it away, as if swatting off a fly.

          Snap. Snap. Snap.

          His magic fills him up, spreading through his body, flowing to the ends of his fingertips. Power. This is power.

          The earth itself shakes underneath his feet, and Hollin finds himself thinking, as he tugs and pushes and yanks and kills, that whoever gave him this much amount of power must have been completely mad in the head.

          No one, he thinks, should be this powerful.

          But he is.

          The demons tug at him, hard and demanding, wanting him for his own.

          But Hollin is darkness reborn.

          As quick as the power came to him, it surely begins to run out. He feels his body give in, begging for him to stop, for his mind will surely collapse and his heart will explode. But he cannot stop. He does not know how to.

          He does not want to, either.

          Dorian tries to reach for him again, his magic an extension of himself, but Hollin pushes him away.

          You have given enough, brother.

          It is my turn.

          Snap. Snap. Snap.

          Until the end of the world.

          Until the end of him.

***

          A hundred bodies fall to the floor. A hundred more. And then-

          And then one more – Hollin.

          The fog lifts, and the shadows return to Hollin as if his very soul sucked them. The prince of Adarlan falls to the grass, and does not move.

          Evangeline sits up, watching him. The commotion starts, soldiers lifting themselves off the ground, rubbing their heads, confused and nauseated, looking around at each other. The people – the shells, the Valg hosts – begin to wake, frightened, and very much alive.

          Human, again.

          Through her hazy vision, Evangeline sees Dorian in the distance, trying and failing to get up, his body swaying to one side, then the other. When he regains his balance, he runs to his fallen brother.

          The night gets darker. Wyverns – wyverns’ shadows above her. The soldiers marvel and point, some shrink and hold up their swords.

          Evangeline tries to crawl, holding herself to the grass, her head heavy. Someone beside her relieves the content of their stomach.

          Her vision slowly comes back to her, and her body begins to move faster, until she is stumbling to Hollin.

          Dorian is holding his brother to his chest, lightly slapping at Hollin’s cheek.

          “Dorian,” Evangeline gasps. “Dorian, did you see-“       

          “Yes,” Dorian is saying, pale as ash. “He is breathing.”

          Evangeline touches Hollin’s arm, but he does not wake.

          “Did you know?” Dorian murmurs.

          “Yes,” Evangeline says. “Yes, I knew.”

          Dorian does not say anything else, but a spark of guilt shadows his face.

          “They are alright,” she murmurs, watching the people rise from the grass, their eyes back to normal. “He did it. He saved them.”

          Dorian murmurs, “He saved us all.”

***

Four days later…

          He keeps gaining and losing consciousness.

          Evangeline sits at his bedside whenever she can. When she is not holding his hand, she sits with Lysandra, trying to keep her food down.

          Aelin’s soldiers arrived not even hours later. They were met with a few nauseous people, a fallen Prince, and no Valg in sight. It was as if Hollin had absorbed them all, or thrown them out of this universe, and into the next. She does not know how he did it, but she does not care.

          The Queen of Terrasen arrived two days later with the rest of her court, and soon enough, the Lady and Lord of Perranth join them. Chaol and Yrene Westfall stay for two weeks as guests. For the first time in forever, they are reunited – all of them. Dorian and Evangeline tell them the story, over and over again, and they fail to even believe it.

          No one expected the Prince of Adarlan to save Erilea in one night.

          They sit together, all of them as a family, in the palace of Adarlan for those days. Evangeline falls asleep with her head on Lysandra’s lap, her heart happy to be reunited with them once more, but heavy all the same, for it calls out to the Prince that still has not truly woken up.

          The healers cannot explain him, his powers.

          Neither fae or witch can, either.

          But despite that, the word begins to spread. In the streets, they sing songs about the Prince who saved the world; men of letters write poems of his bravery – the brother in the shadow of the king, now the prince standing in the light.

Singers and actors perform plays in town squares, and though all stories are different, they always have the same meaning. They bring homage to the kings and queens, the ones who saved their world the first time, and they bestow their blessings upon their heirs, praying to the gods to keep them always in the light of the sun.

          She can still hear the cheers outside the walls from Hollin’s chambers.

          The sun is shining.

          Evangeline touches his face gently, pushing away the locks of ebony that fall into his eyes. He does not stir. She tries not to worry, for the healers told them it was simply the Prince’s body claiming its desperate need for rest.

          She called for his office to be repaired, and some days she spends hours organizing his books, putting them back on the shelves. Sometimes she reads to him about the stars.

          Winter is on its way, harsh and demanding, but the sun keeps on shining. And gods know they have earned that sun. That light.

***

A week later…

          Hollin opens his eyes on the first day of snow.

          She is holding his hand, a book opened on her lap, her eyes scanning the lines. Her face is etched into a concentrated frown, and she bites the inside of her lower lip, as if she finds whatever she is reading terribly intriguing.

          He watches her.

          It is when she finally notices-

          Her eyes widen, her hand tightens on his. Hollin is sure he can hear the sound of her heart.

          They stay there, watching each other for a second, for an eternity.

          Then Hollin, so quietly, murmurs, “I promised.”

The End (for now).