LADY OF SHADOWS
There was a thing waiting in the darkness.
It was ancient, and cruel, and paced in the shadows leashing his mind. It was not of his world, and had been brought here to fill him with its primordial cold. Some invisible barrier still separated them, but the wall crumbled a little more every time the thing stalked along its length, testing its strength.
He could not remember his name.
That was the first thing he’d forgotten when the darkness enveloped him weeks or months or eons ago. Then he’d forgotten the names of the others who had meant so much to him. He could recall horror and despair—only because of the solitary moment that kept interrupting the blackness like the steady beat of a drum: a few minutes of screaming and blood and frozen wind. There had been people he loved in that room of red marble and glass; the woman had lost her head—
Lost, as if the beheading were her fault.
A lovely woman with delicate hands like golden doves. It was not her fault, even if he could not remember her name. It was the fault of the man on the glass throne, who had ordered that guard’s sword to sever flesh and bone.
There was nothing in the darkness beyond the moment when that woman’s head thudded to the ground. There was nothing but that moment, again and again and again—and that thing pacing nearby, waiting for him to break, to yield, to let it in. A prince.
He could not remember if the thing was the prince, or if he himself had once been a prince. Not likely. A prince would not have allowed that woman’s head to be cut off. A prince would have stopped the blade. A prince would have saved her.
Yet he had not saved her, and he knew there was no one coming to save him.
There was still a real world beyond the shadows. He was forced to participate in it by the man who had ordered the slaughter of that lovely woman. And when he did, no one noticed that he had become hardly more than a marionette, struggling to speak, to act past the shackles on his mind. He hated them for not noticing. That was one of the emotions he still knew.
I was not supposed to love you. The woman had said that—and then she died. She should not have loved him, and he should not have dared to love her. He deserved this darkness, and once the invisible boundary shattered and the waiting thing pounced, infiltrating and filling him … he’d have earned it.
So he remained bound in night, witnessing the scream and the blood and the impact of flesh on stone. He knew he should struggle, knew he had struggled in those final seconds before the collar of black stone had clamped around his neck.
But there was a thing waiting in the darkness, and he could not bring himself to fight it for much longer.
Aelin Ashryver Galathynius, heir of fire, beloved of Mala Light-Bringer, and rightful Queen of Terrasen, leaned against the worn oak bar and listened carefully to the sounds of the pleasure hall, sorting through the cheers and moans and bawdy singing. Though it had chewed up and spat out several owners over the past few years, the subterranean warren of sin known as the Vaults remained the same: uncomfortably hot, reeking of stale ale and unwashed bodies, and packed to the rafters with lowlifes and career criminals.
More than a few young lords and merchants’ sons had swaggered down the steps into the Vaults and never seen daylight again. Sometimes it was because they flashed their gold and silver in front of the wrong person; sometimes it was because they were vain or drunk enough to think that they could jump into the fighting pits and walk out alive. Sometimes they mishandled one of the women for hire in the alcoves flanking the cavernous space and learned the hard way about which people the owners of the Vaults really valued.
Aelin sipped from the mug of ale the sweating barkeep had slid her moments before. Watery and cheap, but at least it was cold. Above the tang of filthy bodies, the scent of roasting meat and garlic floated to her. Her stomach grumbled, but she wasn’t stupid enough to order food. One, the meat was usually courtesy of rats in the alley a level above; two, wealthier patrons usually found it laced with something that left them awakening in the aforementioned alley, purse empty. If they woke up at all.
Her clothes were dirty, but fine enough to mark her as a thief’s target. So she’d carefully examined her ale, sniffing and then sipping it before deeming it safe. She’d still have to find food at some point soon, but not until she learned what she needed to from the Vaults: what the hell had happened in Rifthold in the months she’d been gone.
And what client Arobynn Hamel wanted to see so badly that he was risking a meeting here—especially when brutal, black-uniformed guards were roaming the city like packs of wolves.
She’d managed to slip past one such patrol during the chaos of docking, but not before noting the onyx wyvern embroidered on their uniforms. Black on black—perhaps the King of Adarlan had grown tired of pretending he was anything but a menace and had issued a royal decree to abandon the traditional crimson and gold of his empire. Black for death; black for his two Wyrdkeys; black for the Valg demons he was now using to build himself an unstoppable army.
A shudder crawled along her spine, and she drained the rest of her ale. As she set down the mug, her auburn hair shifted and caught the light of the wrought-iron chandeliers.
She’d hurried from the docks to the riverside Shadow Market—where anyone could find anything they wanted, rare or contraband or commonplace—and purchased a brick of dye. She’d paid the merchant an extra piece of silver to use the small room in the back of the shop to dye her hair, still short enough to brush just below her collarbones. If those guards had been monitoring the docks and had somehow seen her, they would be looking for a golden-haired young woman. Everyone would be looking for a golden-haired young woman, once word arrived in a few weeks that the King’s Champion had failed in her task to assassinate Wendlyn’s royal family and steal its naval defense plans.
She’d sent a warning to the King and Queen of Eyllwe months ago, and knew they’d take the proper precautions. But that still left one person at risk before she could fulfill the first steps of her plan—the same person who might be able to explain the new guards by the docks. And why the city was noticeably quieter, tenser. Hushed.
If she were to overhear anything regarding the Captain of the Guard and whether he was safe, it would be here. It was only a matter of listening to the right conversation or sitting with the right card partners. What a fortunate coincidence, then, that she’d spotted Tern—one of Arobynn’s favored assassins—buying the latest dose of his preferred poison at the Shadow Market.
She’d followed him here in time to spy several more of Arobynn’s assassins converging on the pleasure hall. They never did that—not unless their master was present. Usually only when Arobynn was taking a meeting with someone very, very important. Or dangerous.
After Tern and the others had slipped inside the Vaults, she’d waited on the street for a few minutes, lingering in the shadows to see whether Arobynn arrived, but no such luck. He must have already been within.
So she’d come in on the heels of a group of drunken merchants’ sons, spotted where Arobynn was holding court, and done her best to remain unnoticed and unremarkable while she lurked at the bar—and observed.
With her hood and dark clothes, she blended in well enough not to garner much attention. She supposed that if anyone was foolish enough to attempt to rob her, it made them fair game to be robbed right back. She was running low on money.
She sighed through her nose. If her people could only see her: Aelin of the Wildfire, assassin and pickpocket. Her parents and uncle were probably thrashing in their graves.
Still. Some things were worth it. Aelin crooked a gloved finger at the bald barkeep, signaling for another ale.
“I’d mind how much you drink, girl,” sneered a voice beside her.
She glanced sidelong at the average-sized man who had slipped up beside her at the bar. She would have known him for his ancient cutlass if she hadn’t recognized the disarmingly common face. The ruddy skin, the beady eyes and thick brows—all a bland mask to hide the hungry killer beneath.
Aelin braced her forearms on the bar, crossing one ankle over the other. “Hello, Tern.” Arobynn’s second in command—or he had been two years ago. A vicious, calculating little prick who had always been more than eager to do Arobynn’s dirty work. “I figured it was only a matter of time before one of Arobynn’s dogs sniffed me out.”