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One Night Standards

Chapter Text

Tonight was the last night of Aelin’s life.

Perhaps that was a tad dramatic.

Tonight was the last night of Aelin’s life as a single woman. 

It was a strange and unnerving thought. That by this time tomorrow she would be engaged to a man she had never met, and then, in a few months, would be married to him. Forever. For-godsdamned-ever. It took everything Aelin had in her to not make herself sick at the thought. 

A month ago, arranged marriages were a thing of an archaic past, even for princesses such as herself. The rigid rules of ancient monarchies had faded away. Royals married as they pleased, people of whatever standing, should they wish. Though, most of the other royals Aelin had the pleasure of meeting in the past tended to marry well, simply because those were the people they were around the most. Politicians, socialites, other lords or ladies or counts. Old-fashioned titles that managed to wriggle their way into a modern world.

Aelin supposed it could be worse. She could put her foot down if she wished. Her uncle wouldn’t force her to marry if she truly couldn’t stomach it. He wasn’t cruel, he loved her immensely. It had been an idea he had brought up, a small plea to help their country.

Because Terrasen was broke.

It was almost laughable. Terrasen had been one of the strongest nations in the world for hundreds of years and then, within the last decade, a few bad decisions practically crippled them. It started with a sickness in their trees that nearly destroyed their timber industry, one of Terrasen’s main exports. They were a land of sprawling seas of towering pine trees, it had created a large industry and strong economy for years. Until now. They were slowly getting back on their feet but…

Businesses were closing, families were struggling, losing their homes, struggling to put food on the table...

They could use some help.

And so Aelin made the choice to get married to a prince from across the sea.

She knew nothing about him save for his name. He wasn’t a crown prince, but he was the nephew of the queen of Doranelle. He had significant funds, as did Doranelle’s queen, Maeve Adair. She had been eager to create ties with Terrasen for a long while, had been more than willing to offer up her nephew on a silver platter to do it. Aelin didn’t know how she convinced him of an arranged marriage. Maybe he craved the title that Aelin would bear one day. He wasn’t heir to anything. Being a king consort, having that much power, would be attractive to most. 

But, perhaps Maeve hadn’t given him much of a choice. 

It had all happened so quickly. The arrangements, the deal, and now, Aelin would meet her future husband tomorrow morning. 

She hadn’t allowed herself to search for any information about him, not even a photo. She didn’t want to give herself any expectations, would rather just deal with everything as it came. All she hoped for was that he wasn’t terribly homely. If she was going to be stuck with him forever, at least she deserved some eye-candy.

But right now, Aelin didn’t want to think about anything. Wanted to forget herself, forget her responsibilities, forget that she would have to get married, for one more night.

Which was why she was at a club.

She knew that it was a risk to be here. Partially for her life, but mostly for her image. Her family’s PR team was top notch, and had carefully sculpted a precise image of her since her youth. Prim and proper, an elegant and articulate future queen. Always put together, always doing the right thing.

Too bad it was complete bullshit.

Not that Aelin wasn’t intelligent. She was an excellent speaker, a good politician as well. She loved Terrasen and would do anything for her country. But, she wasn’t perfect. She wasn’t an impeccable little princess. She cursed and drank, had a nasty temper. If more people got to know her, knew that she was currently tipsy and wearing a sinful dress as she danced to filthy music, Aelin knew she wouldn’t be loved by Terrasen’s people as much. 

Not that anyone would ever know she was here.

Aelin looked nothing like she did in the photos released by the press. The photos that got published were always of her with her hair done neatly, wearing fine, elegant dresses. The most daring makeup she wore in those photos was a light pink lipstick.

And now Aelin looked like a different person.

Her hair was tousled and falling down her back, messy from running her hands through it. She wore dramatic eye makeup to ensure people wouldn’t recognize her, dark and smokey, nothing that anyone would ever picture her wearing. Her dress was short and skintight, barely covering her ass while showcasing her breasts.

Aelin had nice boobs, she knew. It was truly a shame she couldn’t show them off more often.

The club she was in was crowded and hazy, flashing lights briefly illuminating writhing bodies on the dance floor in glimpses of red and green and blue. It was extra insurance that no one would get a good enough look at her face to figure out who she was. Besides, most people were already a bit drunk and were probably more interested in looking at her chest or her ass than her eyes. 

To be fair, Aelin was also a bit drunk. But she was also having the time of her life.

The pounding bass of the music seemed to fill her entire body, leaving little room for anything else, any other thoughts or feeling besides the music. Every atom in her body jumped with the beat, swayed with the pulsing crowd. It was pandemonium, and it was a sweet, sweet oblivion. 

Aelin could have really made herself forget everything plaguing her. Within thirty minutes of being in the club, a sleazy man had held out a bag of white powder, invitation in his eye. She had considered it, far longer than she should have. Aelin wouldn’t let herself fall down that hole again.

Somewhere in the back of Aelin’s fuzzy mind she wondered if anyone had noticed she wasn’t in her room. Normally, no one bothered her this late, but her cousin had always had a habit of sticking his nose where it didn’t belong. Aelin loved Aedion, of course, but he was overprotective. Had always been. It could be suffocating at times. 

The fact that Aelin was able to sneak out of the palace at all was a feat that almost no one could have accomplished. But, she had twenty three years of practice of evading guards and her overbearing cousin. She was very good at not being seen when she didn’t want to be. It helped that she knew the palace like the back of her hand, knew every single nook and cranny she could cram herself into to avoid being seen. It was a fine and delicate art, perfected in her years playing hide and seek within the halls.

There was a guy dancing against her, holding her hips tight. He didn’t have an ounce of rhythm in his body, and Aelin could practically count every bone he had as she bumped against him. No, he was not a preferred partner. Not when she only had one more night of freedom.

She was graceful as she slipped away from him, gone before he even had a chance to realize that she had been lost in the sea of bodies. 

The rhythmic bass blasted through the air, rattling the walls and Aelin’s bones, but she welcomed the sensation. Within this sea of limbs, she was nobody. Just a body among hundreds of others. She savored the anonymity. Tonight, she was nothing more than a wraith, a shadow of a girl. She was no one and everyone.

Aelin’s eyes fluttered shut, tilting her head back and allowing the music to command her body. The swinging of her arms, the rolling of her hips. It was felt as natural to her as breathing. 

She lost track of time. She didn’t know how long she danced within the crowd, became one with the music and the movement. 

Two broad hands reached out and rested comfortably on her hips, drawing her back gently into a hard, warm body. It was slow, giving her the chance to step away if she wished. But she didn’t. Aelin wouldn’t shun an opportunity to be touched tonight.

When the man noticed she didn’t pull away, he tugged her hips harder against his own. 

Aelin leaned her head back, allowing it to rest on his shoulder as they moved. Oh, yes. She liked him. He moved perfectly against her, with her. Even without looking at him, Aelin could tell her was strong, could feel the strength in his chest against her back. And gods, did he smell good. Aelin normally wasn’t able to detect anything in clubs over the scent of beer and sweat, but his pine and snow scent was intoxicating, more so than the actual alcohol she had knocked back that night.

Aelin bit her bottom lip, pressing herself harder against him. She felt his fingers curl tighter into her hips. His breath was hot against the side of her neck. Aelin found herself longing for him to press his mouth against it.

Her eyes cracked open, at first looking down at the hands that held her. Her gaze inched up his strong forearms, saw the swirls of a tattoo on his left arm. She tilted her face up, trying to catch a glimpse of the man who was making her skin burn deliciously. 

He was handsome. Breathtakingly so. Strong, elegant lines of his face and jaw, short silver hair and his eyes… it took Aelin a few moments to figure out their color in the flashing lights before deciding they were green. Pine Green, heavily hooded, and looking at her.

She wasn’t stupid. Aelin knew what that gleam in a man’s eyes meant, with the way his body rolled against hers. But it didn’t bother her. Because she wanted the same thing.

Aelin’s arms rose up, hands resting on the back of his head, fingers threading into his silky hair, back arching slightly. She wanted to hum her pleasure, but refused to give him the satisfaction. Not so easily at least.

The longer they moved against one another, the more bold the man became. His hands started to move away from her hips, skimming up to the dip of her waist, over the tops of her thighs. She felt rough fingertips playing with the short hem of her dress before darting back up. Her blood was burning, heat building up in her core. She was getting close to breaking. Especially with the way the nose was skimming up and down the length of her neck.

Aelin felt his palms pressed against her ribs, higher, until his hands hit the sensitive undersides of her breasts. Her lips parted and she finally released a tiny groan. The man behind her tightened at the sound.

She looked back up at the stranger. His eyes were dark and intent, pinned on her with a familiar hunger. Aelin turned in his arms, pressing her front against his, before her fingers tangled in his hair and pulled his mouth down to meet his.

The kiss was near violent. Hard and desperate, all teeth and tongue. There was no room for gentleness, not tonight. 

Aelin moaned into his mouth as his tongue brushed against hers, biting down on his bottom lip. In retaliation, his hand bunched in her hair and tugged. Not hard enough to hurt, but hard enough to send a thrill racing through her body. She grinded her hips against his while his fingers skimmed over her ass.

She was almost desperate enough to tug him into the bathroom and do it right then and there. But this was Aelin’s last night of freedom. She intended to make it last as long as possible.

“Do you want to get out of here?” Aelin rasped against his ear, her voice husky and almost unrecognizable even to her.

“Your place or mine?” he asked, fingers trailing over the dip of her spine. His voice was deep, laced with a slight accent. Aelin wanted to hear more of it.

“Yours,” There was no way in hell she would be able to sneak a one-night stand both in and out of the palace.

His fingers trailed down her arm until they slipped between hers. “Let’s go then,”

He began leading her through the crowd, big enough that people moved out of his way easily. Aelin let her eyes trail down his body, getting a good look at him. Broad, strong shoulders under a well-fit black shirt and jeans that did wonders for his ass. His tattoos went down his left arm, stopping at his wrist. A smart design choice, made them easier to hide if needed.

Stepping outside of the club was like stepping into another world. The air was cool and empty, the night serene and quiet. Aelin could still hear the music pumping dully from behind the closed doors. 

There were cabs waiting along the street. They were quick to snatch one up. He even held the door open for her. A true gentleman.

The cab ride was tense, but thankfully short. The man was staying at a swanky hotel just a few blocks down. Aelin had been there a few times herself. Her family would host events in their ballroom from time to time.

Aelin felt terrible for the poor cab driver. She and the man didn’t say anything to one another, but his hand was resting high on her thigh, thumb skimming over the inside of her leg. He was clearly undressing her with his eyes, and Aelin wasn’t much better. She could only assume that the driver was thanking the gods when they finally pulled up to the hotel.

They walked through the gilded lobby as casually as they could, but Aelin was sure anyone who saw them had some inkling about what they were going to do. 

The man hit the elevator button a bit harder than necessary, but the doors slid open blessedly quickly. Even better, no one else joined them. The moment the doors snapped shut, he was back upon her, hands tangled in her hair, kissing her senseless.

“What’s your name?” he panted against her mouth.

Aelin met his eye. “I’ll be whoever you want me to be. For tonight,”

The implications of her words were clear. No names, no connections.

Those conditions seemed to work just fine for him. His mouth slanted over hers again, sealing the deal. One night of annonymous sex and then they would go their separate ways. 

Aelin moaned as he grabbed her breast over the thin fabric of her dress. She sincerely hoped no one was paying attention to the security cameras. Or else they’d be in for quite the show. Before she could ponder the possibility any further, the elevator signaled they had reached their destination.

They rushed from the elevator, the man leading her down the hall until he reached his room. He didn’t waste time before taking out his key, unlocking the door, and pulling her inside after him. 

The room was dark. Aelin couldn’t make anything out, not that she would have had the opportunity to anyway with how quickly he had her pinned against the door. She let out a tiny gasp as he swooped down, cupping the back of her knees. Aelin wrapped her legs around his waist as his mouth moved to her throat. She was barely aware of her skirt hiking up, becoming little more than a shirt.

“We can stop whenever you want,” he said. “Just say the word,”

But Aelin didn’t want to stop. Not as his tongue darted out as his mouth skimmed up and down her neck.

“Don’t hold back,” Aelin said breathily. 

He pulled back far enough to look at her. The gleam in his eyes would have made her knees weak if she were standing. And then, his mouth was back on hers, hard and demanding.

His hands were relentless, pushing whatever remained of her skirt up until it bunched at her waist. His fingers brushed over her lacy undergarments, making her jerk beneath his touch. Aelin could practically feel him smirking against her mouth as he continued to tease her, making her gasp. He took his time as he slowly pushed the lace to the side, finally trailing a finger down her center. She let out an almost embarrassing moan at the sensation.

“Excited, aren’t you?” he teased, no doubt reveling in the evidence of her desire he felt between her legs, knowing that it was from him.

His chuckle quickly turned into a hiss as Aelin reached down and cupped the generous bulge at the front of his jeans. 

“Goes both ways,” she said, raising a brow. 

Wicked woman, his eyes seemed to say. He kissed her again as his finger finally sunk into her, drawing another obscene sound from her lips. Aelin couldn’t stop her hips from thrusting towards him, wanting more.

He obliged, slipping in another finger.

He was unfairly good at this, working her up faster than any man had ever done before. She was just about to let herself fall over the edge when he stopped suddenly. 

Aelin opened her mouth to protest, but he lowered her to the ground. She didn’t stop him as he grabbed the hem of her dress and pulled it over her head, leaving her in nothing but the scrap of silk slung around her hips. His eyes greedily drank in every inch of bare skin, something nearly predatory within their depths. 

Aelin grabbed at his shirt, helping him shrug out of it, leaving his chest bare for her to freely ogle. He looked just as strong as he had felt, muscle cording over his chest and abdomen. She reached out and ran her hands over his hot skin before grabbing onto his shoulders and pushing him back towards the bed.

He looked amused as she took charge. Aelin knew she would wipe that smirk off his face soon enough. 

The back of his knees hit the bed and he sat. Aelin climbed up and straddled his lap, pushing on his shoulder again to get him to lean back fully on the white comforter. He reached out and ran his hands over her bare breasts, but she had other plans for him.

Aelin slowly and deliberately loosened his belt, deft fingers working the buttons and zippers of his jeans. She worked them down his strong thighs along with his undergarments, leaving him bare for her. A small smirk curled on her lips as Aelin took his length into her hand. The man let out a filthy curse, head falling back into the bed as she pumped him.

She leaned forward, her body hovering over his, watching his face. She felt immense satisfaction knowing her touch could get him to react like this. 

Aelin kissed his neck, the hollow of his throat. She could hear him panting, felt as he jutted up into her hand. Gods, did it make her feel powerful. 

But his hand caught her wrist, stopping her before she could continue. Aelin’s hand unwrapped from around him as he sat up slowly before flipping them over, pinning her into the mattress beneath them. The man hooked his fingers around the lace at her hips before slowly sliding them down the length of her legs, discarding them somewhere on the floor. 

He began to kiss down her body, over her breasts. Her breath hitched as he took a nipple into his mouth, tongue flicking over her expertly. Against her better wishes, Aelin was writhing beneath his massive body. 

His mouth traveled lower and lower. She felt his hands wrap around her knees and part her thighs, baring her for him. A shiver raced down her spine as she felt his breath against the inside of her thighs.

When his mouth finally lowered to where Aelin so desperately wanted it, her world was suddenly on fire. 

It seemed he was just as skilled with his mouth as he was with his hands. Her hips rutted up, wanting more, but his fingers curled into her hips, pinning her down and rendering her still, leaving her to his mercy. 

Just for a moment, Aelin wished she knew his name, so she could moan it. With the way his mouth worked against her, he deserved it. 

But every thought flew from her head as he slipped his finger inside her again, moving in tandem to his lips and tongue. With the two sensations nearly overpowering her, the man worked Aelin to her high almost embarrassingly fast. And when he sucked down on that sensitive bundle on nerves at the apex of her thighs, she finally shattered, legs trembling from the force of her pleasure.

He didn’t remove his mouth nor his fingers until her high had passed and her body had gone limp. 

Aelin was still trying to tame her breathing as she felt his body slide back up hers. Her eyes were only open slits, but enough to see his face, his pupils blown wide with lust. His hands brushed her messy hair from her sweaty face.

“What do you want me to do?” he breathed, fingers trailing down past her chin before wrapping around her throat and squeezing gently. 

A tiny sound of pleasure escaped Aelin’s lips at the sensation. She saw his lips curl up slightly, squeezing harder at her reaction.

“Just fuck me already,” Aelin gasped out, impatient and ready to feel his body pressed against hers.

Through the desire in his eyes, Aelin could have sworn she saw a glimmer of playfulness. Since you asked so nicely, he seemed to say.

He kissed her, deep and hungrily, broad hands drifting down the flesh of her thighs, hiking them up his hips. Aelin could him hard, pressed against her. She grinded her hips up, desperate for any kind of friction. But, he didn’t waste time with teasing her any longer. She felt him line up with her entrance, waiting a heartbeat before pushing in.

Aelin released a low, throaty moan as he continued to push in deeper and deeper until he had sunk in to the hilt. Her eyes fluttered shut, leaning her head back and exposing her throat. He took advantage of that tiny movement, hand wrapping around her neck once more as he pulled out inch by inch before rolling his hips back into hers. 

He started off slowly while they grew used to the feeling of one another. But it didn’t take long before Aelin desired more.

“Harder,” she demanded, dragging her fingers down the length of his back.

He complied, snapped his hips against hers with enough force to jolt her entire body. He continued like this, fucking her harder, faster.

Part of Aelin wondered what had driven him to find a warm body this night. He clearly wasn’t from Orynth if he was staying in a hotel, but she doubted he was here on vacation. The way he held her, the ferocity in which he moved in her, made it clear he had stress of some kind to burn. Perhaps a business trip that wasn’t going according to plan.

If things had been different, maybe she would have asked him about it. 

But the less she knew of this silver-haired man the better. 

His teeth scraped and nibbled at the skin at her neck. Somewhere in the back of her mind, Aelin knew he was leaving marks she would have to cover the next day. It would be rather embarrassing if she met her future husband while having another man’s love bites all down her throat.

Aelin’s legs tightened around his hips as his thrusts grew sloppier. She could feel that tension building up deep inside her, threatening to snap at any moment. 

Her moans rose over the sounds of their heaving breaths and skin against skin. She could hear him groaning in her ear, panting into her neck. His hand traveled over her breast, skimming over the planes of her stomach, before coming where they were joined. The pads of his fingertips rubbed over that most sensitive spot and with that, Aelin came undone with a loud cry. 

Her nails no doubt broke the skin on his shoulders as she clenched around him, not that it seemed to deter him. He pumped in and out of her a few more times before, with one mighty thrust, he spilled himself inside of her.

They didn’t move for a few moments, both trying their damndest to catch their breaths. Aelin’s heart was pounding so hard she wondered if it would burst from her ribs. 

Her eyes slowly peeled open, looking at the man who still hovered above her. Clumps of his silver hair stuck to his sweat-dotted forehead, muscles loose and relaxed beneath her hands. He really was handsome, especially in the afterglow of pleasure. 

It was truly a shame Aelin would be engaged tomorrow. Perhaps she would have left him her number.

Chapter Text

There was incessant, impatient knocking at Aelin’s door. There was only one person with the audacity to do such a thing.

“I’m getting ready, Aedion!” she snapped, sliding the little diamond studs into place. 

“Are you decent?” her cousin called, voice muffled slightly by the door.

“Yes,”

She heard her door open and shut quickly as Aedion stepped into her room. She glanced at him briefly in the reflection of her vanity. His hair was brushed and he wore a crisp button down, something that only happened when they had an important guest.

Aelin supposed her future husband was considered an important guest.

She watched out of the corner of her eye as her cousin glanced around her room critically. There was a lump in her throat as he took in her bed. It was still made, but crumpled. Aelin had snuck back so late last night it was nearly early and had collapsed on top of the duvet, too tired to worry about getting under the covers. 

She supposed the thorough night of passion was to be blamed for the state of her room and the incriminating evidence scattered around it.

Aelin and the mystery man had gone a few more rounds last night, using up every minute they could. It had been good. Really good. The best sex Aelin had had in a long while. But, eventually, the dream had to end. He had fallen asleep, tangled within the sheets. The only thing that had stopped Aelin from following him into oblivion had been the knowledge that she had to return home that night.

So, she had shimmied back into her dress, scooped up her heels, and allowed herself one last glance at the massive man sprawled across the bed, slumbering peacefully. She had hoped that whatever awaited him the next day would be better than what Aelin had to endure. 

Her eyes skipped to the foot of her bed, to where her towering heels sat beside her skimpy dress, crumpled carelessly on the ground. Aedion followed her gaze, eyes that matched her own narrowing when he put the pieces together.

"Where the hell were you last night?" he demanded.

Aelin pursed her lips, looking away from the fury in her cousin's face back to her own reflection. "Out,"

"Are you serious right now?"

"Does it look like I'm joking?"

Aedion’s eyes were nothing but burning anger. “Are you out of your mind, Aelin? I thought you were past all of this. Did you take anything?”

She looked sharply over her shoulder and narrowed her eyes. “I didn’t take anything. Just some shots. Vodka,”

Her cousin shook his head disapprovingly. “What were you thinking?”

“I was thinking,” she worked out through clenched teeth. “That in half an hour I will be engaged to a stranger. I was thinking that I wanted to enjoy my last night of freedom,”

“And you spent it drunk and partying?”

“I spent it in a hotel room with the hot guy I hooked up with,”

Aedion made a loud noise of disgust before cautiously eyeing the dress that Aelin now wore. Heather grey, with capped sleeves. It fit her body nicely, showing off her curves in the most conservative way possible, hitting just at her knees. But the detail that her cousin was focused on was the thick, draping turtleneck.

He hooked a finger around it and tugged to the side, revealing the line of tiny bruises scattered along her throat. Aelin batted his hand away testily. 

“Gods help us,” he muttered. 

The rude response resting on the tip of Aelin’s tongue faded away at the polite knock on the door, the only warning before it opened. Lysandra swept in, looking as beautiful and put together as ever in a deep green dress, raven hair flowing down her shoulders.

“Are you two getting at it already?” she tutted.

“He started it,” Aelin grumbled.

“You deserved it,” he replied.

Lysandra shook her head. “You two are insufferable,”

She walked up behind Aelin, running an expert eye over her from top to bottom. Lysandra, besides being the princess’s closest friend, was also her stylist. She had an excellent eye and Aelin trusted her wholeheartedly, both with her closet and, in turn, with her life.

“You need a bracelet or something,” Lysandra muttered. “Silver, to go with the earrings,”

She went to Aelin’s jewelry box, rummaging around her jewelry box for a few moments before taking out a shining chain. A Tiffany bracelet, with a specially made charm bearing her family’s crest hanging from it. Aelin held out her wrist, allowing Lysandra to clip it into place. Her uncle had given it to her on her birthday years ago. 

Aelin stood, sweeping into her stuffed closet and grabbing a pair of pointed-toe pumps. She stepped into them before giving herself a once-over in the mirror.

It was a stark difference from the woman she had been last night. That woman had been wild and free. The one that looked to her now… she was calm and collected and put together. Aelin’s hair was neatly twisted back into a bun at the back of her head, two strands resting on either of her cheeks to frame her face. Mascara coated her lashes, making her turquoise eyes even more vivid. A simple, shining gloss painted her lips. The perfect image of a princess.

She breezed from her closet, finding Lysandra and Aedion murmuring between one another. Lysandra’s bright green eyes snapped to hers, raising a perfectly groomed brow playfully.

“Aedion tells me you had a full night,” she said. “Was he good?”

“Very. Not to mention hot,” 

It had been the best way possible to end her time as a single woman. Aelin didn’t know the next time she would be intimate with someone. Her future husband could very well want nothing to do with her. Or, conversely, he could want her very badly. Aelin knew she was an attractive woman, many men would give their left eye for a single night with her. 

Aelin held back the uncomfortable shiver that threatened to race down her body. Engaged or not, the prince wouldn’t get anything out of her she didn’t want to give.

She had been pondering her potential future for the past few days. This marriage was nothing more than a business arrangement. Aelin didn’t have much faith in men. She knew the chances of her future husband having an affair were high. She was sure it would be discrete but… it could very much happen. She didn’t know if she herself would one day be desperate and lonely enough to do the same but…

She would think about that later.

“Do I look alright?” she asked.

“You look beautiful, Aelin,” Lysandra said. “Prince Whitethorn is a lucky man,”

Yes, Prince Rowan Whitethorn of Doranelle. Her future fiancé. Aelin hadn’t thought his name since the first time she had heard it.

“He’s even luckier that he doesn’t even have to work for me,” Aelin said. “I’m being offered up on a silver platter,”

Aedion’s face fell at her words. “Aelin…” he whispered. “You know Orlon doesn’t mean-”

“I know,” she cut him off, voice soft but firm. “I didn’t mean it like that. I will do whatever I need to for Terrasen,”

Her cousin reached out and took her hand, giving it a comforting squeeze. The thick silence between them said enough.

Another knock at Aelin’s door. If they kept going at this rate, all of Orynth would be in her room by noon. 

“Come in,” she called. 

The door opened a crack, and Ren Allsbrook, the son of one of her uncle’s closest advisors, peeked his head in. His mouth was set grimly, face devoid of any playfulness. He opened his mouth and uttered two words that sent Aelin’s heart plummeting to the bottom of her gut.

“He’s here,”

The breath was stolen from her lungs, but she managed a stiff nod.

“Right,” Aelin said. “Well, best not to keep him waiting,”

Lysandra quickly embraced her, kissing her cheeks and promising to see her later that night. Aelin then looked to her cousin and nodded. It was finally time to take that final step.

They didn’t speak as they walked down the familiar halls that Aelin had grown up in. They were quiet today, no staff or guests fluttering about. The sound of her heels against the marble floor was nearly deafening, but it drowned out the thump of her pounding heart.

They grew closer and closer to the grand front room in which Aelin was to meet her future husband. She would assume her uncle was already down there, could hear voices echoing from down the hall. She could see the top of the grand staircase that would lead her down to the front room, but her sure steps faltered in front of a familiar painting.

It was a portrait of her parents, painted soon after they had married. They looked so young, so happy. Her father’s hair had been a deep brown, not streaked with grey as it had been the last time she had seen him. Her mother looked more or less the same, face perhaps a tad smoother, but her eyes, eyes that matched Aelin’s, were the same. Most importantly, they looked happy.

It had been three years since she had lost them. Three years since they had been assassinated at a charity event they had been hosting. Aelin had lost much that day, too many people she had loved.

Aedion noted that she had stopped, coming to her side. She knew he missed her parents just as much as she did. They had raised him alongside Aelin after his mother's passing.

“They would be proud of what you’re doing for your country, Aelin,” he said softly.

Proud, perhaps. And maybe just a bit sad. Aelin’s parents had loved one another immensely, supported one another through whatever troubles they had faced. She knew they always hoped that she would find that kind of love. It seemed the gods were not on her side.

Aelin couldn’t find it within herself to respond, simply turning heel and making that final march towards the staircase. 

At the precipice, Aelin glanced down at the room before her. She saw her uncle’s back to her, Darrow, his husband and head of their PR team, beside him. She couldn’t hear what they were saying, carefully taking the first step down. Her uncle was speaking to two people, both men. One had bronzed skin and wild, golden, curly hair he clearly had tried to tame to the best of his abilities. He was dressed too casually to be the prince.

Her uncle and Darrow turned when they heard her heels clicking against the stairs. The golden haired man looked up too, but he wasn’t the one that Aelin had eyes for.

Aelin could have sworn that time stopped as the fourth man tilted his face up towards her. 

She wondered if the gods had always had a cruel sense of humor, or if they were stepping out of their comfort zone for her.

The stranger she had been prepared to marry wasn’t, in fact, a stranger.

She recognized the strong, elegant planes of his face. The short silver hair, the pine green eyes, that powerful body partially hidden under a perfectly tailored suit. It seemed Aelin had worried for nothing. She wouldn’t be marrying a stranger.

She would be marrying her one-night stand.

The man she had shared the passionate night with, who she had danced against in the crowded club, was Prince Rowan Whiethorn.

Aelin quickly mastered herself, not wanted to falter and go careening down the stairs. Her eyes were trained on the prince, watching as his gaze trailed over her. For a moment, she wondered if he would even recognize her. She had looked like a different person last night. He had also been drinking. She remembered tasting the tang of whiskey when their tongues had tangled. Maybe his memory of the previous night was too blurry to place her.

Even from the steadily shrinking distance, Aelin saw the prince’s brows furrow, as if trying to remember how she was familiar. He studied her for a few more heartbeats before Aelin saw recognition spark in his eyes.

Her stomach dropped as Rowan Whitethorn’s eyes grew a fraction of an inch, lips tightening almost imperceptibly. But she noticed. 

He remembered her.

The trek down the stairs took far too long, her eyes not leaving Rowan’s the entire time. Maybe she should have googled him once she knew they would be married, then they wouldn’t be in this damned fiasco. 

But clearly he hadn’t recognized her last night either. 

Aelin barely noticed as her uncle smiled brightly at her. “Ah, Aelin! There you are,”

She forced her eyes from Rowan and looked towards her uncle, offering a tiny, pleasant grin of her own. “Good morning, uncle. Darrow,”

She smoothed her skirt as she came to a stop before them, trying to keep herself from fidgeting in place. 

“Aelin…” her uncle said. “Allow me to introduce Lord Fenrys Moonbeam and Prince Rowan Whitethorn of Doranelle,”

The golden-haired man, Fenrys, bowed respectfully at the waist. Aelin dipped her chin in response, barely noticing how handsome he was. Instead, she looked towards the prince. He reached out respectfully and took her hand within his.

Aelin hoped he didn’t notice how her breath caught in her throat, remembering how those hands had felt on her body last night, how they had made her gasp and moan.

Rowan bent at the waist and placed a kiss that was little more than a peck on the back on her hand.

“It’s an honor to meet you… Aelin,” he murmured.

“Likewise,”

The prince straightened and looked her in the eye again. They both barely dared to move, staring unblinkingly at one another. She wanted to say something, but any proper words seemed to elude her. 

She didn’t miss as Fenrys nudged Rowan with his elbow, making the prince blink rapidly as he started.

“You look very beautiful,” Rowan said a tad too quickly.

Aelin tried not to roll her eyes. He had said as much last night, but it was more along the lines of incredibly sexy , which was also true. 

“Thank you,” Aelin said, offering up a terse smile. 

“We’re honored to welcome you to Orynth,” Orlon said. “I hope your journey was pleasant. We apologize that we were unable to receive you last night,”

“It’s perfectly fine,” Fenrys said with a charming grin. “Our flight came in late. The hotel you booked was perfect and we were able to keep ourselves entertained,”

Aelin saw Rowan’s fingers curl into fists. To anyone else, the last phrase was nothing but innocent. But it seemed Fenrys was savvy to what Rowan had done last night. She assumed he wasn’t aware that the woman his prince had brought back the night prior was standing right before them. Aelin didn’t remember seeing him last night.

“Well, I’m sure you must be famished,” Orlon said. “Why don’t we take lunch?”

Aelin tried not to cringe. Gods, would this be an awkward meal.

She looked once more to Rowan, only to find he was already looking at her. They both looked away nearly comically quickly.

Aelin sucked down a sharp, bracing breath. She would survive this.

Rowan Whitethorn was screwed.

He was screwed because he had screwed the woman sitting across from him, who was currently sitting as stiff as a board. 

Maybe it was his fault for not researching his future wife upon agreement of the engagement. 

When his aunt had come to him with a preposition, Rowan found himself without much room to refuse. He was an unessential prince, not heir to anything. His family had been serving Doranelle for generations. If Rowan had tried to refuse, his uncle would have found a way to force his hand anyway, if Maeve didn’t first. His queen had wanted to build connections with Terrasen for as long Rowan could remember, and she had found a way in through him.

So Rowan had made it easier on himself and everyone else and agreed. Apparently, he was already self-loathing enough that it barely bothered him. He wasn’t in love with anyone, hadn’t been for years. He didn’t know if he would ever be able to love anyone again. Not after Lyria. 

Rowan had been unfeeling enough after agreeing to the arrangement that he hadn’t bothered to think much about the woman who he would be wed to. He had heard her name before, as heir to a kingdom, it was impossible not to. He supposed he had seen photos of her here and there, in magazines, online, but nothing that had stuck in his head.

Besides, last night, she had been an entirely different woman. 

Rowan remembered seeing her across the bar, her hair messy in an enticing way, falling down the open back of her skin-tight dress. She had moved within the center of the dancing mass as if she were the only person there. He had observed her from his perch in the bar longer than he cared to admit as he nursed whiskey after whiskey. 

He and Fenrys had gone to the club the moment they had stashed their belongings in their respective hotel rooms. The lord had come with him partially for politics, partially to make sure the prince didn’t go batshit before the wedding.

Rowan hadn’t gone to the bar expecting to go home with anyone. He had been tired and resentful enough of his situation that he wanted to drown his woes in amber liquid. 

But then he had seen her. 

Aelin. He had seen Aelin.

It seemed he and the princess had a similar idea of how she desired to spend her last night of freedom. 

Rowan couldn’t pinpoint the exact moment his inhibitions had flown out the window, but he remembered knocking back the rest of his drink, telling Fenrys not to wait up, and striding into the crowd towards the woman who had held his eyes.

He couldn’t believe that the fine lady sitting before him, taking dainty bites of her salad, was the same woman who had pressed her body against his last night, whispered obscene things against his ear, had begged him not to hold back.

And now she was rather quiet. So was he, to be fair.

Aelin’s uncle helped fill the silence, Fenrys doing his fair share to keep the conversation going. Aedion Ashryver, Aelin’s cousin, simply looked at him as if he could see all the way through his skin. Clearly, he wanted to know about the man that would be marrying his cousin.

Rowan thoroughly ignored the pointed looks Fenrys kept throwing his way, trying to prompt him to say something, to ask the princess something about herself. Even if Rowan wanted to, he didn’t know what he would say. Was that your favorite club? How often do you sneak out and hook up with strangers? 

He couldn’t ask any of that. So he stayed silent and let his companion drive the conversation.

Rowan barely remembered eating, mostly running on muscle memory to force the food down his throat. Their plates were quickly and quietly cleared away by the staff until they were all alone again in the pleasantly lit dining room. 

Rowan noted as the king looked to the man on his right. Weylan Darrow, the king’s husband and PR director. They shared a quick, meaningful look before Darrow laced his fingers together and leaned forward.

“There are a few matters to discuss regarding the engagement,” he said, glancing between Rowan and the princess a few times.

Rowan nodded. He had expected this talk upon arrival. They were at least courteous enough to wait until after they ate before getting into it.

“Now, although this marriage is arranged,” Darrow began. “It would be best to display it as a real relationship to our people. Arranged marriages are… tricky in the public’s eye. We want this to be as peaceful a transition as possible,”

Rowan noted Aelin’s lips press themselves into a tight line. “How do we explain this sudden engagement, then?” she asked.

“We’ve thought that through,” Darrow said. “I was thinking somewhere along the lines of a summer romance, kept on the low to keep out of the spotlight. Say something about Prince Whitethorn valuing his privacy, since that already follows with what most of the public knows of you. That is, if you are both alright with that,”

Rowan looked towards Aelin at the same moment she looked towards him. 

“It’s fine with me if it’s fine with Prince Rowan,” she said.

“I have no qualms with it,” he said.

“Very well then,” Darrow said.

“The announcement will be made tomorrow,” Orlon explained. “And from there… you two will be very busy, I’m afraid,”

“Busy?” Rowan asked, raising a brow.

“Interviews, statements, planning,” Aelin said casually, tracing shapes on the tablecloth before her with a well-manicured finger.

Rowan had forgotten that in Terrasen, and in some other places, Aelin Ashryver Galathynius was somewhat a celebrity. He was sure cameras and press had been following her around since she was born. A beautiful, young princess. It was no wonder the public would be enamoured with her, why they may dislike the idea of their precious princess giving her hand away in marriage, despite the fact that it was done in their best interests.

And now that Rowan would be getting married to her, he would have to get used to being in the public's eye as well. 

“We can finish particulars about… everything tomorrow,” Darrow said, pushing to his feet alongside the king. “We shall give you two time to settle in,”

“Thank you,” Rowan said, rising as the others around the table did as well. Then, he spoke before he could truly think, “Allow me to walk you back to your chambers, princess,”

Aelin paused and blinked, the most surprise she would let herself show. She mastered herself quickly, smiling politely at him.

“Of course,”

Rowan rounded the table, holding out an arm for the princess to take. She placed a delicate hand on his forearm, but was barely able to meet his gaze. He allowed himself a quick glance down at her, noting the high neck of her dress. He knew it was to cover the bruises he had left scattered over her throat last night. He hadn’t thought twice of it then. 

“I’ll see you this evening,” Aelin said to her family in farewell.

Rowan tried to ignore the stiffness in his limbs as he walked the princess out of the dining room.

“Which direction?” he asked.

“To the left,” 

They marched side by side in a tense silence until the voices from the dining room faded into faint rumbles. And then, it was simply a waiting game to see who spoke first.

It was Aelin.

“So,” she spoke softly, but didn’t seem to have anything else prepared.

“Yeah,” Rowan agreed.

She wet her lips and looked up towards him. “This was… unexpected,”

“That’s a bit of an understatement,” he sighed. “You, uh… you didn’t know what I looked like?”

“No,” she admitted. “I hadn’t wanted to make any expectations, I suppose. But, you didn’t know what I looked like?”

“Even if I had, you do not look like the same person you did last night,”

Aelin shook her head, looking at him in bewilderment. “How could you not know what I looked like? My photos are everywhere. News sites, magazines, social media. You can't go to the damned grocery store without my seeing my face on those trashy tabloids surrounded by pregnancy rumors,”

Rowan could only shrug. “I don’t pay much attention to those sort of things,”

“Right,” Aelin breathed, letting her head droop. “Well… I’m not quite sure what to say,”

Neither was Rowan, but he spoke anyway. “Do you often sneak out to clubs and go home with strangers?”

The moment the words left his mouth, Rowan knew they were the wrong ones. He didn’t even have time to hang his head in shame, to try to apologize, before Aelin had skidded to a stop and whirled towards him, face alight with a bright fury.

Excuse me? ” she hissed in indignation. “I distinctly remember you doing just the same! When you were due to be engaged the next day!”

All ideas of a swift apology flew from his head at the insinuation. Rowan narrowed his eyes. “You did just the same, princess. Don’t throw stones,”

She took a belligerent step forward. “I’ll throw whatever I damn well please! Did you even wait five minutes before leaving your hotel and looking for someone to fuck?”

“You have a filthy mouth,”

Said filthy mouth curled into a cruel smile as she took another step forward, close enough so they could share breath. She placed a finger on his chest.

“You sure as hell didn’t mind my filthy mouth last night,” she drawled. “When it was all over you ,”

Rowan took a sharp step back. “Is this a joke to you?”

He was practically getting whiplash from the different facets of the princess, trying to figure out who she really was. From the wild, desperate women she was last night, the prim little princess this afternoon, to the infuriating, sour person before him.

Rowan had expected to tie himself to a polite, perhaps a bit pretentious, princess. It hadn't been his ideal woman, but he would have managed.

But Aelin Ashryver Galathynius was not what he had expected.

That wasn't necessarily a good thing.

The princess let out a bitter bark of laughter, shaking her head. “Kinda, yeah. You don’t find this whole situation a cruel sort of irony?”

“I think marriage is rather serious, no matter the circumstances,”

“Please,” she scoffed. “This marriage is nothing more than a business deal. Terrasen is broke and I’m whoring myself out so my people don’t starve,”

“That’s a rather astute comparison, actually,”

The resounding smack echoed through Rowan’s ears before the burning stinging on his cheek registered. He blinked once, looking at the princess before him, eyes alight with a fiery rage unlike the which he had ever seen. 

And she had slapped him.

Aelin’s nostrils flared, her chest rising and falling deeply, as if she were trying to reel in her emotions. Surprising. She had a temper.

Fuck you, ” she spat.

Rowan had no response to the venom he found in her voice, only holding her gaze for a heartbeat longer before she swiftly turned and swept away, the clicking of her heels fading into the distance. 

He ground his teeth, his glare nearly burning a hole into the spot where his future wife had just stood. 

Gods help him.

Chapter Text

Aelin had to continuously remind herself that murder was very frowned upon as she stormed back to her chambers. 

But gods did her fingers inch to wrap themselves around Rowan Whitethorn’s throat and squeeze. 

The things he said to her… the sheer audacity he had. It was unbelievable. That he had the nerve to berate her about her choices, to insinuate that she was a whore. Part of Aelin wished for the days of monarchies past where she had the power to order Rowan to the gallows. 

Aelin slammed the door to her rooms close behind her, stomping towards her vanity and plopping down hard into it. She immediately set to brutally removing her jewelry, tugging her hair free of pins, allowing it to fall down her back freely. 

Her eyes snapped up to her own reflection, scowling, before pushing to her feet. She tugged off her dress swiftly, changing into a sports bra and leggings. She needed to work off some steam before she did something incredibly stupid.

She supposed she couldn’t truly do anything more stupid than what, or who, rather, she did last night.

The knock on her door nearly set her off.

“What?” Aelin snapped.

The door opened, Aedion and Lysandra peeking their heads in. 

“Oh, you’re back already,” her cousin commented. “I half-expected you to be out on a romantic stroll with Prince Whitethorn,”

Aelin ground her teeth, ripping open her drawers and near-violently tearing out the first pair of socks she got her hands on.

“Is there a reason you’re so mad?” Lysandra asked, quirking a brow. “Aedion tells me your future husband is quite handsome,”

Aelin lowered herself onto one of the low couches in her sitting room, tugging on her socks in a tense silence.

“Was it just me,” Aedion asked, sitting beside her. “Or was that entire thing incredibly awkward? I never knew you to be shy,”

“I’m not shy,” she grumbled, shoving her feet into her sneakers. 

“Oh, we know you aren’t,” Lysandra said, elegantly sitting down before Aelin on the edge of the coffee table. “So what’s got your panties in such a twist?”

Aelin worked her jaw, looking back and forth between her friend and her cousin. She groaned, hanging her head and hiding her face in her hands.

“I knew him…” she whispered.

A beat of silence. “Did you crack and google him last night?” Aedion asked.

Aelin shook her head slowly, feeling her cheeks burn. “No, not quite…”

They looked towards her expectantly, and so Aelin bit the bullet.

“The guy I hooked up with last night,” she whispered. “It was him. It was Rowan Whitethorn,”

The silence that followed her confession was all-consuming. She couldn’t bring herself to look up at her friends, to see whatever expressions they wore on their faces, fearing judgement of some sort.

But then there was a bark of laughter from her side.

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Aedion said. “That is just too damned funny,”

Aelin leaned back in her seat. “It would have been funny if he wasn’t such a godsdamned prick,”

“You weren’t saying that this morning,” Lysandra commented. “What made you change your tune so quickly?”

“We didn’t have a conversation until five minutes ago,” Aelin said. “And now I don’t ever want to speak with him again,”

“Well, tough shit,” Aedion said. “You’re getting married to him. What did he say to get you so pissy?”

Aelin considered telling them of the foul things Rowan had said, but thought better of it. Aedion would probably contemplate marching into Rowan’s rooms right now and pushing him through the nearest window. It would be more trouble than it's worth. Besides, Aelin could handle him herself. 

“He’s just a prick who likes to pick fights,” is what she settled with.

“That actually sounds like you,”

Aelin slugged Aedion in the bicep, hard enough that he hissed his discomfort. He raised his brows at her, as if to say, See?

She tried not to glower at her cousin, but couldn’t stop herself.

“Maybe you just got off on the wrong foot,” Lysandra added. “I mean, it was one conversation. And I’m sure you’re both under a lot of stress. Just… give it another go?”

“If I give it another go I think I’m going to break his jaw,” Aelin said.

“Save it until after the wedding,” Aedion said. “That way he won’t have his jaw wired shut for the photos,”

“That actually sounds preferrable,”

Rowan was trying to think of every possible way he could avoid his future wife as he threw open the door to his room. He had been looking forward to brooding silently in his space until responsibilities called him away, but it didn’t seem he would get that sort of luxury.

Fenrys was lounging in the sitting room, scrolling to his phone. 

Rowan would have to give it to the King of Terrasen, the rooms that they had been given were nice. Spacious and well decorated. There was a sitting room filled with plump couches and chairs, a coffee table covered with those fat, boring books that no one really read. The bathroom was the size of a small apartment, and the bed was wide and stuffed with pillows. Truly, they were luxurious.

Which made Rowan wonder why the hell Fenrys wasn’t in his own rooms. 

“There you are,” Fenrys grinned, putting his phone down. “You’re back faster than I expected. Didn’t want to spend more time with your incredibly hot future wife?”

“What do you want, Fenrys?” Rowan growled, shrugging out of the restricting suit jacket.

His companion blinked at his snappy tone.

“What’s wrong with you?” Fenrys asked. “You’re grumpier than normal,”

Rowan didn’t respond, testily unhooking a few of the top buttons of his crisp formal shirt. At least it didn’t feel like it was strangling him any longer.

Fenrys pushed to his feet, looking towards him warily. “Seriously, what happened?” 

Rowan sighed, bracing his hands on the edge of a mahogany dresser. He ground his teeth as he worked up the right words to say.

“The woman I took back to my room last night,” Rowan said. “She… it was the princess,”

He felt Fenrys looking at him, dared to look over his shoulder at his friend, seeing the disbelief and bewilderment on his bronze face. 

“You’re… you’re being serious right now?” he asked. 

Rowan sighed, turning around and letting himself lean his weight against the dresser, feeling the edge of wood dig into his lower back. He crossed his arms over his chest and nodded gravely.

“Unfortunately,” 

Fenrys held his gaze for another moment, just to ensure that he wasn’t joking. The moment Fenrys seemed to deem Rowan truthful, he cracked. He snorted loudly, doubling over as his body was seized with laughter. 

“It’s not funny,” Rowan ground out.

“Oh, it absolutely is,” Fenrys laughed, wiping the tears from his eyes. “I mean, it’s simply Shakespearean,” 

“I don’t think Shakespeare wrote about one-night stands,”

“Oh, but it’s not a one-night stand anymore is it?” Fenrys said, dragging a hand down his face. “Did you speak to her about it?”

“Well, it certainly wasn’t a civilized conversation,” Rowan griped. “She’s belligerent, infuriating, and the biggest brat I’ve ever met,”

“You’re talking about Terrasen’s little angel there, Whitethorn. Are you sure you met with the right princess?”

Rowan simply looked to him dryly. 

“Come on, Rowan,” Fenrys urged. “Surely she’s not that bad,”

“She is,”

“You do realize that you’re in a position that other men would kill to be in, right? You’re about to snatch up the most eligible bachelorette on the continent,”

“Well, with her temperament, it’s no wonder why she’s still single,” 

Hey, ” Fenrys snapped, face covered with a rare sort of seriousness that didn’t often make an appearance. “Have you considered that the girl is under a fair amount of stress right now? Her country is on the brink of an economic depression and she just gave up her chance of a loving marriage. She’s barely into her twenties. Give her a break,”

For the first time, Rowan felt shame flush through him, mulling over every word he had uttered to her. Their entire argument had been fueled by both of their volatile tempers, exasperated by stress and a night of little sleep. Perhaps he had been too hard on her. Fenrys was right, she was a young. Rowan was sure that in Aelin’s eyes, her entire life had just ended. 

He supposed that she had been through much in her short years. Rowan remembered three years ago when her parents had been killed during a charity event. It had been an attempt on the entire royal family, Aelin and her uncle escaping with their lives, her parents not so fortunate. The story had been playing on every news channel, plastered across papers and trending on social media for weeks.

As loathe as Rowan was to admit it, Fenrys was right. The girl had lost much in her life already. Perhaps he was a bit hard on her.

The next time he saw her, managed to get her alone, Rowan would apologize.

But it wouldn’t be tonight. He had enough of niceties for one day.

When Aelin woke the next morning, her limbs were filled with a dull, throbbing soreness that dragged a little groan from the back of her throat. Perhaps she had gone a bit too hard in the gym yesterday. 

But, as she pushed herself into a sitting position, she found herself welcoming the pain. It was punishment for being stupid enough to fuck Rowan Whitethorn the other night.

Aelin rubbed the sleep from her eyes, peeking towards her window. Through the thin, white curtains, buttery morning sunlight was already filtering into her room. 

Today, they would announce her engagement. She and Rowan would make a short appearance before her people, smile, allow the journalist to snap a few photos, and then they would be done. For the day, at least. They would have much more to do in the near future.

She grabbed her phone from the bedside table, checking the time. 7:30 in the morning, meaning she had half an hour before Lysandra came to help her dress for this special occasion. 

Aelin threw back the covers and lumbered into the bathroom, turning on the shower while she stripped out of her nightclothes. As the water warmed, she glanced at her neck, running her fingers over the steadily fading marks. Either another high-necked dress, or strategically placed makeup today, then. She’d let Lysandra worry about the minute details.

She turned away from the mirror, opening the glass door to her spacious shower, stepping unflinchingly into the near-scalding water. The heat felt heavenly against her sore muscles, the steady stream of water helped to brace her for the day.

And for Rowan Whitethorn.

He hadn’t made an appearance for dinner the night before, claiming he was tired from the journey, still trying to adjust to the time difference.

Aelin knew he was full of shit. Fenrys had been there and he was just fine. In fact, he was downright perky. 

Aelin found that she greatly liked the young lord. He was funny and smart, had nearly made her snort wine up her nose near the end of the night. It was a damned shame that he wasn’t the one she would be marrying. They got along well enough, plus he was handsome.

But, no. She was marrying the silver-haired prick who was too scared to show his face after a tiny squabble.

Well, maybe it was more than a tiny squabble. She had slapped him, which wasn’t one of her finest moments. Maybe she had bruised his pride.

She should probably apologize for that.

Aelin scrubbed her body down with her favorite lavender body wash, exfoliated her face, and begrudgingly left the shower. Apparently, it had been a tad too hot, and had left the entire bathroom hazy with steam. 

She snatched up a towel, wrapped it around her chest, and got to the task of drying her hair.

By the time she finished, Lysandra was there, garment bag draped over her arm.

“Good morning!” she chirped, laying the bag over her crumpled bed.

“Morning, Lys,” Aelin called from the bathroom as she began her skincare regimen. 

“Have you eaten yet?”

“No, not yet,”

Lysandra tutted disapprovingly. “You need to eat. Besides, I think we’re both going to need coffee before we deal with this day. I’ll have some brought up,”

Aelin didn’t bother arguing with her friend. She was right. It was smarter to eat something now, even if the thought of food made her stomach turn slightly. And coffee, of course. Coffee would be much appreciated. 

She finished applying her moisturizer before leaving the bathroom, swiftly crossing her suite and unzipping the garment bag, eager to see what her friend had picked out for the day.

“It’s beautiful, Lys,” Aelin cooed, running the tips of her fingers over the fine, white fabric. 

The dress had a fitted top, a line of delicate white buttons descending from the point of the v-neck to the waist. The skirt was a-line, falling just down to the knee. Lysandra had brought along a satin belt of Terrasen green to wrap around her waist. 

“Thank you. As you already know, my eye is impeccable,”

Aelin snorted, but couldn’t argue with that. Lysandra always did pick out the best pieces. 

"Now, go put a robe or something on," Lysandra urged. "And then we can get started on your hair and makeup,"

The princess complied, dropping the towel as she swept towards her closet. She didn’t balk at the bareness, especially not in front of Lysandra. Her friend had seen her naked more than any other person alive, which Aelin wasn’t sure was funny or strange. She didn’t bother to ponder it any longer, grabbing a pale pink robe and wrapping it around her body.

Ten minutes into hair, breakfast was brought up. Aelin ate what she could manage, sticking mostly to fruit and toast, things her stomach could handle. But the coffee was truly needed. She had downed two cups within half an hour.

Lysandra expertly finished her hair. Half of her golden tresses were swept to the back of her head, pinned back with two pearl-encrusted berrets. The rest of it fell down freely in soft waves. 

As usual, the makeup was understated. Nothing heavy, a swipe of mascare, a dusting of blush. There was a shimmer of light eyeshadow meant to drag attention to Aelin’s eyes, and then a light pink gloss. By the time she stepped into her dress, she saw the image Lysandra had carefully crafted.

In the white dress, she was the perfect, blushing, future bride. The picture of innocence, a girl about to have her fairytale wedding. 

But, she did look beautiful.

The look was completed with a pair of pearl earrings and white pumps with delicate straps wrapped around her ankles. 

Aelin let Lysandra fuss for a few more moments, letting herself become her friend’s life-sized doll as she completed the finishing touches. Fluffing up her hair, another layer of gloss, ensuring her belt was centered, and then, she seemed to deem her work done.

“You look lovely, Aelin,” 

The princess looked at herself in the full-length mirror, smoothing her pleated skirts. The picture of innocence. A pretty little mask. 

But Aelin didn’t bother Lysandra with her own self-loathing.

“As always, your work is phenomenal,” she grinned at her friend.

Lysandra glanced at the delicate watch that rested on her wrist. Apparently, she deemed that they had enough time to gossip, sitting down on the edge of her bed.

“Have you prepared all the ways you’re going to make Rowan Whitethorn miserable today?” she asked with a teasing smile.

Aelin rolled her eyes. “He dislikes me so much that I don’t think I need to do a lot to make him miserable,”

“Well, that’s not necessarily true,” Lysandra argued. “He did like you enough to hook-up,”

“That doesn’t mean he likes me. It means he thinks I’m hot,”

“That’s a start!”

Aelin grumbled mostly to herself, plopping down beside her friend on the edge of her bed. She felt her friend reach out and take her hand within her own with a strong, comforting squeeze.

“I know it feels like the end of the world,” Lysandra murmured. “But we’re all here for you,”

Aelin made a face. “I don’t think the world is ending. I think it’s just beginning. And I’m wary of the direction in which I’m heading,”

She didn’t dare look to her friend, fearing the pity she might find there. She didn’t think her pride would survive it, nor her emotions. She wasn’t about to allow her frustration to take over and ruin the makeup Lysandra had worked so hard on.

Aelin’s phone chimed from the nightstand. She snatched it up, finding that Aedion had sent her a quick message. Rowan was already ready and waiting.

She sighed, but pushed to her feet. 

“It’s time, I’m presuming?” Lysandra asked, mimicking her movements. 

“Yup,” Aelin said, glancing at her manicured left hand, eyes boring into that teasingly bare finger. “I hope the ring is nice, at least,”

The ring was nice. Beautiful, actually. 

A bright, gleaming emerald of the purest green embraced on either side by diamonds that shone like stars. The band was made of a silver so bright it was nearly white.

Rowan had put the ring on her finger himself, which was already a bit awkward for both of them. Thankfully, it was done with little fanfare, as if it were simply a chore. 

Aelin ignored the way Aedion and Lysandra watched them, no doubt picking apart every movement and twitch of their lips, trying to understand the already messy tangle of a relationship that existed between her and Prince Whitethorn.

Aelin figured that her fiancé must have told Lord Fenrys the truth about their less than ideal circumstances. His onyx eyes flicked back and forth between them rapidly, as if he were watching a tennis match. 

But, she and Rowan were nothing but tensely polite to one another. Orlon, Darrow, and the rest of her uncle's team of advisors wouldn't guess that the strange air between them was anything more than two strangers interacting with one another. 

"Is the press ready?" Orlon asked, rubbing his hands together in anticipation. 

"They're all waiting outside," Darrow said, casting a sweeping glance at everyone scattered throughout the room. "Is everybody ready?"

Aelin's body locked up involuntarily, but she gave a stiff nod, looking up towards Rowan for confirmation.

"All ready," he stated. 

Physically and mentally. They knew what image they were expected to present the minute they stepped through the gilded glass doors. To pretend to be deeply in love, to be excited to be married. They would have to look comfortable around one another, to pretend not to be the near-strangers they actually were.

Orlon gave a single nod. “Right, well, let's do this,”

Aelin looked towards Rowan once again, hoping that she seemed more at ease than she actually felt. He reached out slowly, as if she were a spooked animal, before he took her hand within his own.

Aelin briefly wondered where the calluses on his palms came from. Most princes had hands smoother than her own, but not his. 

She didn’t bother to ponder what activities that led to hands like his, instead facing forward and fixing her posture. She sucked down one more deep, steadying breath, before hissing towards the prince at her side, “Don’t make me look bad,”

Aelin didn't look towards him to see if he was offended, instead plastering a wide, charming grin on her face as her uncle pushed through the doors into the bright, late-morning sun. 

There was a podium with a microphone set up, rows and rows of reporters, journalists, and photographers moving to the edges of their seats as the king came before them. Aelin, hand in hand with Rowan, followed closely behind him, stopping a few steps behind her uncle to his right, Darrow beside them on Orlon’s left.

Aelin heard hisses of whispers as they saw her standing with Rowan, no doubt trying to decipher who this strange man was and why he was suddenly standing beside their princess in a place of honor. She heard the clicks of cameras almost instantly.

“Have you done this sort of thing before?” Rowan murmured softly as Orlon greeted their visitors.

The first words he had uttered to her since she had slapped him the day before. It was a neutral enough statement, and she could tell he was feeling a bit awkward standing before so many people.

“Appearances like this?” Aelin whispered back through her grin. “Only since I popped out of my mother’s womb. I’m an expert, so do try to not look like you’re being held hostage,”

He only grunted half-heartedly, but he relaxed his body ever so slightly.

“We are thrilled to announce,” Orlon spoke grandly, in a manner he had perfected in his years of ruling and speech-giving. “The engagement between my niece, Princess Aelin Ashryver Galathynius, and Prince Rowan Whitethorn of Doranelle!”

As one, she and Rowan stepped forward and began to wave as the cameras clicked even more rapidly. 

Aelin hardly listened as her uncle spoke more about the union between Terrasen and Doranelle, making sure her smile was still dazzling, tossing her hair over her shoulder. She adjusted her pose slightly, placing her left hand on Rowan’s chest so the photographers could get a glimpse of the dazzling ring. 

“You’re so tense,” she said softly. “Am I making you uncomfortable?”

It was a genuine question on her part. Although her side pressed against his, a soft hand on his chest, wasn’t nearly the most intimate they had been, they were now in public. It added an entirely different dimension to their already complicated relationship. 

“No,” he assured her. “I’m just… unused to all this,”

She could understand why it would seem overwhelming to him. The journalists and photographers were practically a mass of wild dogs, crawling over one another to get the better photo, the better story. The air was saturated with their murmurs, all vying for their attention with calls of Look here, Prince! or This way, your highness!

“Kiss my hand,”

Rowan was clearly startled by her sudden request. “What?”

“Kiss. My. Hand,” Aelin said again. “They’ll eat that up,”

The prince only hesitated another heartbeat before he raised their intertwined fingers and placed a chaste kiss on her knuckles. Judging by the frenzy of camera clicking, Aelin had been right about their reaction. 

Her uncle finished his spiel by tossing in a few bits of the lie they had concocted, explaining why the engagement came on so suddenly. Wanting to stay out of the spotlight, valuing their privacy while their relationship grew, and all that bullshit.

When Orlon finished, he peeled off to Aelin’s side, allowing Darrow to answer a few questions thrown at him while they stood for photos. The picture of the past and future of Terrasen. 

It was maybe another ten minutes before Darrow closed the session for questioning, much to the annoyance of all the reporters. Aelin noted how many of them immediately went to their phones, contacting bosses or colleagues, no doubt trying to be the first to book an interview with their princess and her new beau. 

Aelin waved goodbye to the small crowd, Rowan following suit while still holding her hand tightly. They walked side by side towards the glass doors, which shut promptly behind them once they were all inside.

Almost immediately, Rowan dropped her hand. Aelin refrained from making a snippy comment about it. There were too many people around them to get into another argument now. Maybe later, though. The day was young.

Orlon looked towards where she and Rowan stood, giving the prince a sideways smile.

“That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

Rowan let out a dry laugh and shook his head. “No, your majesty. It wasn’t,”

“Please, you can just call me Orlon. I grow tired of niceties too quickly these days,”

“Why couldn’t you have had that attitude when I was growing up?” Aelin said with a pout.

“Because your manners were atrocious,” Aedion piped up. “Actually, they’re still pretty bad,” 

“Oh, as if yours are any better!”

Darrow shook his head, frowning even though there was fondness in his eye. “You two truly have not changed. Still fighting like siblings… worse, actually,”

Aedion laughed, marching over to Aelin and tugging her into his side, pinching her upper arm to piss her off. She tried rather unsuccessfully to shove him off.

“You know it’s all out of love,” he laughed. “You know she needed to be bullied a little bit, or else she would have been insufferable by now. She needed the humility,” 

“And I suppose you let Aelin bully you right back because you need the humility too?” Lysandra asked snarkily. 

“Aelin bullies me because she’s a bit-”

“Do not finish that sentence, young man,” Orlon scolded, drawing laughs from those around him, unable to stop himself from smiling right alongside them. He gave a deep chuckle before turning his attention to Rowan again. “Do you have any siblings, Prince Whitethorn?”

“I’m afraid not, but I have more cousins than I can count,” he shrugged.

Aelin blinked, allowing herself a quick glance at the prince. It was the first and only thing she had learned about him since they met. She briefly wondered how much he knew about her, or how much he thought he knew about her. Plenty of bullshit stories had been published about her through the years. Had he heard any of them?

Aelin didn’t follow that train of thought, instead checking the time.

“Well, I have lessons with Brullo in half and hour so I think I’m going to grab something quick to eat and then de-glam myself,” Aelin announced, ignoring Lysandra’s sour look at the idea of the princess already ridding herself of the hard work she had done. “I’ll see you all for dinner,”

Chapter Text

Faster, princess, ” Brullo urged her, face flushed and sweaty. “I know you can do it better,”

Aelin huffed away an errant strand of golden hair that didn’t seem to want to stay in her braid. Brullo was right, of course. She could do better, but she had been distracted. She held up her gloved hands, eyes focusing in on the pads Brullo held out for her. 

Her muscles sprang to life, flying through the jabs and punches, moving fluidly through the bobs and weaves, until she had finished the combination. 

Brullo gave a firm nod, satisfied by her performance, and lowered the pads.

“There you go. Good job, your highness,”

Aelin sighed and snatched up her water bottle. “When will you stop with the titles? You’ve only known me since I was, like, ten!”

Brullo laughed, tossing the pads to the ground alongside the other equipment they had been using. Weights, prop weapons, and pads were all scattered throughout the floor of the studio where they had trained for the past two hours.

“And you’re still a princess, princess ,” he teased. "It’s your title,”

Aelin raised a brow, gulping down the rest of her water. “And I’m sure you have a list of more creative titles that you keep in her head,”

“Nothing that I will admit to,”

Aelin snorted softly, grabbing a towel and wiping the sweat off of her face.

Brullo had been training her in basic self-defence since she was a child. As a princess as well as heir to the throne, Aelin’s life would be in constant jeopardy. Her parents had recognized that and had sought to teach her how to defend herself as soon as she was able. At first, Aelin hadn’t understood why she needed to learn self-defense. They had guards everywhere at all times. But, she had done it without complaint. She had grown to like how it kept her fit, gave her something physical to do. 

But then her parents were shot. And everything changed.

She had insisted Brullo train her harder, show how to defend herself and others from fists and weapons. She wanted to know everything he did, which was a lot considering he used to be in Adarlanian special forces. He had been hesitant at first when Aelin had shown such a fire and determination to wring everything from his head, but eventually, he agreed.

It took her over a month to convince him to show her how to shoot a gun. Brullo had firmly put his foot down at first, convinced it wasn’t a necessary skill for her to learn. But, she had eventually worn him down. She was sure her teacher saw the days at the shooting range as nothing more than satisfying her curiosity, but Aelin took it seriously. There could be a day when that training would come in handy.

Now they trained throughout the week. Aelin looked forward to every single one of their sessions.

Aelin plopped down on a bench and began peeling off her gloves and wrappings. Brullo groaned as he lowered himself down beside her. He constantly griped about old age slowly catching up to him, but he didn’t show it. In his mid forties, Brullo was still in shape, and still rather handsome. He still had a full head of hair, albeit starting to grey, but still attractive enough to gain the attention of many of the middle-aged women who worked in the palace.

“So when do I get to meet him?” Brullo asked.

Aelin made a face, bunching up her wrappings. “Meet who?”

“The man who gave you that pretty ring?”

She stiffened and looked down at her hand. She still wasn’t used to the sight of the ring on her finger, nor the feeling. Aelin had completely forgotten about the engagement the moment she stepped into the gym.

“You can meet him today, if you like,” she shrugged. “He’s about here somewhere,”

“You should invite him to train with us,”

Aelin snorted. “As if he could keep up,”

Brullo released a bark of laughter, nudging her shoulder with his. “Does he make you happy, Aelin?”

Her entire body locked up at the question. Brullo didn’t know it was arranged, he knew the story they had spun. It hurt her heart to keep it from him, but her family had decided that the less people who knew the better. Aelin looked over to her teacher, seeing the glimmer of hope in his eye. And so, she lied again.

“Yes. He makes me very happy,”

Brullo grabbed her hand and gave it a squeeze. “Good. Let me know if he ever makes you cry, because then I will make him cry even more,”

“That’s a sweet sentiment, but if he makes me cry, I can manage to make him sob on my own,”

Aelin bathed, ridding her body of the sweat that the workout had brought about, before drying her hair and preparing herself for dinner. It wasn’t a formal affair by any means, but they still had guests. She didn’t mind dressing casually when it was only her friends and family, but Lord Fenrys and Prince Rowan didn’t know her well enough to see her wandering the halls in her pajamas.

So, Aelin settled with a bulky cream sweater and a nice pair of jeans. It wasn’t the finery she had worn for her appearance this morning, but it was considerably nicer than her ratty t-shirts and shorts she more often than not wore for family dinners.

Her family and Fenrys were already seated by the time Aelin swept into the dining room. She chirped her hello’s, claiming her seat to her uncle’s right.

“Wine?” Aedion asked, holding up the bottle.

“Please,”

As her cousin filled her glass, Aelin looked towards the empty seat across from her. She wondered if Rowan was going to be a no-show once again. Maybe he would make himself as scarce as possible and then she truly wouldn’t have to deal with him.

But it seemed that her hopes wouldn’t be fulfilled. 

As if her thoughts had summoned him, Rowan breezed through the entryway of the dining room, fixing his jacket as he approached his seat.

“I’m sorry I’m late,” he said as he sat down.

“Nonsense,” Orlon said. “You’re not late at all. In fact, you’re right on time,”

With that, the staff filed in, bearing steaming plates of food. Just the sight of it had Aelin’s stomach grumbling irritably with hunger. She always worked up an enormous appetite after training with Brullo.

“I’ve already been contacted by multiple news sources asking to book an interview with you two,” Darrow announced, slicing into his roasted chicken. “Clearly, we won’t be having you two interview with all of them, but one should suffice,”

Aelin nodded as she chewed. “Not Buzzfeed,”

Darrow looked towards her incredulously. “Do you think I’m an ametuer?” 

“No, but I love seeing you make that face,” 

Her uncle chuckled as his husband sighed deeply. “I’ll keep you two updated,”

The dinner was uneventful. Rowan found himself chatting with Orlon and Darrow, answering all of their polite questions. But, it was impossible to ignore the raucous snark and laughter coming from the other side of the table as Aelin, Aedion, and Fenrys spoke. 

It seemed his companion had fit right in with them, matching their fire and spark. At least one of them wasn’t constantly uncomfortable.

It had taken an hour to shake off the stiffness that the short appearance had left in his body. To Aelin, it had seemed like second nature, as easy to her as breathing. But, with years of practice, Rowan would assume one would gain that sort of confidence.

Fenrys had sent him the links to the first articles that had been published with the announcement. It had been strange to see his photos all over the internet, his name suddenly popping up everywhere. The photo of him pressing a kiss against the back of Aelin’s hand was the most popular. She had been right about that. 

And now, there was sure as hell no going back. 

As their plates were cleared away, the room began to go their separate ways. Orlon and Darrow shuffled off to bed, Aedion went with Fenrys to show him to the gym, leaving Rowan alone with Aelin again.

As Fenrys and Aedion’s barks of laughter faded into the distance, Rowan looked to Aelin, finding her gnawing on her bottom lip slightly, as if words evaded her just as they evaded him. 

“I could… walk you to your room, if you’d like,” Rowan offered, trying not to cringe at the memory of how it had gone last time he tried to do that.

But, Aelin tucked her hair behind her ears and gave a stiff nod. “Yeah, sure,”

This time, Rowan didn’t offer her his arm, instead walking side by side through the gilded hallways. The cold moonlight cut through the windows that stretched down the long halls, giving a brief glance at the beautiful gardens outside.

“I think we got off on the wrong foot…” Rowan said at length.

“Oh really?” Aelin snorted. “What gave you that impression? When you insinuated that I was a whore, or when I slapped you?”

Rowan ground his teeth. She wasn’t going to make this easy.

“What I wanted is to say is that I realize now that you’re young, and I’m sure it seems like the end of the world, but-”

Aelin skidded to an abrupt stop, whirling towards him. “Are you serious right now?”

The tone she used instantly told him that he had said something wrong. Again. If she was going to throw a fit, then he would have to try to keep a level head.

“I’m trying to apologize,” he forced out as calmly as he could.

“You’re apologizing to me by condescending to me,” Aelin hissed. “Is that all you think of me? A child throwing a temper tantrum? That my life is over?” she scoffed bitterly. “My life is so much bigger than a simple marriage,”

“Then why are you so godsdamned pissed off all the time?”

“I’m pissed off because my people are starving and the only thing I can do about it is get married!” she spat out. “There’s no evil I can defeat, no war to win. I can’t go out into my kingdom and make sure everyone is healthy and happy and it infuriates me. So, does that answer your question?”

Rowan didn’t respond, simply meeting her burning her gaze and refusing to shy away from the burning inferno he found there. The gold around her pupil seemed to glow like fire as she raged. He waited for her to relent, to apologize for her reaction, but she didn’t. And when she saw Rowan wasn't keen to say sorry either, she turned heel and began swiftly striding away.

“Hey!” he called out, acting before he could really think it through.

In one fluid move, he grabbed Aelin’s wrist, turned the knob of the nearest door to his hand, and dragged her inside with him.

The room turned out to be nothing more than a cleaning supply closet, with one old, measly light to illuminate the suffocating darkness. But, even though it was small and musty, it did the job. It provided a bit of privacy so no one else could watch them tear into one another.

Aelin looked down at the hand that was still banded around her wrist, something nearly dangerous in the clench of her jaw and the slight cock of her head.

“If these were the old days I would’ve immediately ordered the guards to cut off your hands for handling me so roughly,” 

Rowan chuckled darkly, not releasing her arm. “If my memory serves me correctly, you like to be handled roughly,”

He couldn’t forget the first night they had spent together, how different they had been. He remembered the sting on her nails as they dragged down his back, how she had reacted when his hand was wrapped around her throat, the feeling on her hips against his as he had rocked hard into her. 

Against his better judgement, Rowan’s eyes flickered down towards her body. The baggy sweater didn’t do her physique any justice, but the jeans fit the curves of her legs nicely enough. 

It was then Rowan noted how close they were standing. Her shoulders were pressed against the back of the door, head tilted up to look him in the eye, baring the elegant sweep of her throat. His eyes skipped down from her angry eyes to the slopes of her lips before jumping right back up. He hoped she hadn’t noticed the slip in his attention.

Oh, but she had.

Those damned lips curled up in a wicked smirk, her entire demeanor changing within a heartbeat. She angled her body closer to his, close enough that Rowan could feel the barest hints of her curves. Aelin looked up at him through her long lashes.

“You’re still thinking about it, aren’t you?” she said, her voice nothing more than a sultry rasp. “That night we spent together,”

Rowan didn’t deign to respond, only tracking every move she made as she slowly reached out and placed a delicate hand on his chest.

“We had fun then, didn’t we?” Aelin continued, dragging that hand down his chest chest lower and lower. She moved her body forward even more, so she was pressed flush against him. “It had been a long time since someone had fucked me like that,”

Rowan was infuriated by the heat that flashed through him at her filthy words. He wanted so badly to be unbothered by her, to not fall under her allure but… with her breath ghosting across his face, hips pressed against his, and her fingers tapping on his belt, he found himself fighting the urge to slant his mouth against hers.

“It’s a shame, really,” she continued. “We got along so well then. And now…” the tip of her index finger feathered down from his temple to the corner of his lip. Aelin rolled to the tips of her toes, mouth brushing against the shell of his ear, as she hissed. “ I can’t stand you,

Almost before the words had finished ringing through the air, Aelin had opened the door, slamming it loudly behind her, and took her delicious heat as she vanished into the night.

Rowan blinked at the spot the princess had just stood before scowling. He banged his fist on the door, reining in his growl of frustration. He had never met anyone that had dragged him through such volatile emotions in such a short period of time. From guilt, to anger, to lust, and back to anger again. Not to mention the uncomfortable strain in his pants.

Rowan tilted his head back and sent a silent pray to whatever god was listening, beseeching them for the patience to deal with Aelin Galathynius.

 A few days passed by in which Aelin tried her damndest to avoid her future husband.

Although she wasn’t completely successful, she managed to keep their interactions at a minimum. She was sure her endeavor was assisted by the fact Rowan didn’t want to see her either.

Aelin understood that he had been trying to apologize the night, but he had done so in such a condescending way, treating her as nothing more than a child. Typical of men, to apologize by belittling. She wouldn’t be putting up with any of that nonsense, and now Rowan knew that. 

What little interactions they had were either tensely polite when surrounded by others, or filled with hissed snips and insults to one another when they were sure no one else could hear. 

Aelin knew she was being petty. But so was he. 

They would be hosting a small engagement party, inviting some of the minor nobility of Terrasen, politicians and notable citizens from around Orynth. It wouldn’t be grand, but it would be formal. Not only that, but she would actually have to spend time with Rowan again. And pretend like she didn’t want to tear his throat out with her teeth.

Gods, she would need a good deal of wine to get through the night.

But, despite how dismal she felt about Rowan, she was excited to see some of the guests. Most importantly, her distant cousin Elide, who lived a few cities over in Perranth. It had been far too long since they had seen each other.

Elide had arrived to the castle early at Aelin’s behest. The princess selfishly wanted a few hours with her before the party to catch up.

Aelin had snatched Elide away to her rooms the second she arrived, Lysandra already waiting for them with a small spread of snacks and drinks. 

Elide looked just as she always did. Perfectly put together in a pretty violet cashmere sweater and high waisted white trousers, her sheet of dark hair falling freely down her back. There was a happy glow to her creamy skin as she plopped down into one of the oversized armchairs in Aelin’s sitting room.

“I swear this chair gets bigger every time I sit in it!” Eldie commented, toeing off her embroidered flats and tucking her feet beside her.

“Maybe you’re shrinking?” Lysandra suggested.

“Funny,” Elide said dryly, used to the remarks about her small stature. 

“I’m so happy you’re here, Ellie,” Aelin grinned, lounging across the couch and nibbling on a plate of melon. “We’ve missed you so much! How is everything?”

Elide rolled her dark eyes. “Are you seriously asking me how everything is going? Aelin, you’re the one getting married! How are you?

Aelin struggled to keep that grin of her face. For the most part, she didn’t have trouble with lying. Except when it came to family. She would carefully conceal or avoid, but Aelin hated straight up lying to her loved ones. Which was what she was about to do. “Oh, you know… just thrilled about it all. I’m so lucky-”

“Don’t bullshit me. It’s arranged, isn’t it?”

The princess blinked dumbly at Elide’s blunt statement. Although she phrased it as a question, the look on her face told her that she didn’t really need the confirmation. Aelin’s cheeks flushed with shame as she hung her head.

“Yeah… it’s arranged. How’d you know?”

Elide scoffed. “Please. I’ve seen the pictures of Prince Whitethorn. If you were dating a man that hot, you would have shown me a picture by now. Or bitched about him. Or both,”

“I’m sorry I didn’t tell you,”

“It’s not your fault, I understand how sticky this situation is. You never have to explain yourself to me,”

Aelin was grateful for her cousin. She should have known that Elide would have figured it out sooner or later. She was too observant, too clever, for her own good. She saw through every lie, could work her way through any problem, and was a godsdamned whiz at riddles. It blew Aelin’s mind. 

“But now that it’s in the open…” Elide said slowly, raising her brows. “What is he like?”

Aelin’s eyes flickered towards Lysandra’s for a moment. Her stylist had been the one she went to first to complain about Rowan. She knew every detail about every encounter that they had, and often talked her out of doing something foolish to piss him off. Such as her idea yesterday morning to break into his room and steal every left shoe. Nothing dangerous, just enough to know it would leave him fuming.

But, Aelin told Elide everything. From the club, to the hookup, and then every insult and argument from meeting again until now. Her cousin listened with rapt attention, gasping at the dramatic parts, looking insulted when she should. It was as if she were watching a soap opera.

“It’s shitty luck that he’s such a bastard, considering how hot he is,” Elide mused.

Lysandra nodded her agreement, surprising Aelin.

“Lys, I thought you only had eyes for my cousin,” the princess said.

Lysandra’s ivory cheeks flushed pink. “I’ve already told you, it’s not like that,”

Aelin made a face, finding Elide making a similar one. They knew bullshit when they heard it. The moment Aedion and Lysandra had met, Aelin knew in their gut that they would be married one day. She figured they would’ve gotten hitched before she did, but it seems like the universe had its own plans.

“Well, would you look at the time!” Lysandra breathed, glancing at her watch. “It’s about time we got you ready for tonight!”

Aelin snorted and pushed to her feet. “Smooth deflection there. Almost didn’t notice,”

Lysandra shook her head at the princess and ignored her final piece of snark as well as Elide’s poorly hid snort. 

“Do you have something picked out yet?” Elide asked, popping a grape into her mouth.

“Not yet. Why, do you have an idea?”

A wicked little smirk curled onto Elide’s lips, a rare sight. Aelin knew that when that look made an appearance, she would love whatever her cousin was about to say.

“You want to torment Rowan Whitethorn?” Elide said. “I know just how to do it,”

Chapter Text

Rowan was dreading this engagement party more than he had ever dreaded anything before in his life. 

To begin with, he had always hated parties and large social gatherings. He had little patience for small talk and saw through the thin, pleasant facades most people wore. He had grown tired of watching people smile kindly before whispering nasty things behind their ‘friend’s’ back. 

It was a battlefield, where people wore fine clothes and jewels as armor, used their words as weapons. It was violent and nasty.

Not to mention, he would have to deal with Aelin the whole night. They would have to pretend like they didn’t want to maim one another, to smile and act as if they were in love while chit-chatting with all of the guests.

One of the cavernous ballrooms was being used for cocktailing before dinner. It was a beautiful space, with a glimmering crystal chandelier, arching ceilings and artfully carved beams. The floor was polished enough that Rowan could almost see his reflection in it. There was a small string band in the corner, playing a soft, pretty melody for the guests to talk over. 

The room was filled with people in their finery, women bedecked in jewels floating around with husbands, socializing amongst their peers. Rowan knew that this was the high society of Terrasen. From this brief glimpse, he never would have suspected that the kingdom was on the precipice of economic ruin. But, such troubles never truly affected those with money. It was harder on the common people, those who survived paycheck to paycheck. Rowan had yet to wander the city, but he had read reports of higher unemployment, more and more businesses shutting down every day.

Rowan clenched his wine glass, listening half-heartedly as Fenrys drove the conversation with Aedion Ashryver and a few of the other visiting nobility of Terrasen. Aelin had yet to appear. She was supposed to be there fifteen minutes ago.

Knowing her, she probably strived to be fashionably late, thriving off of the attention. 

Rowan glanced around the room, trying to remember the names of the men they were talking to. One of them was Ren, who spent his time between the palace and the city where his family hailed from. The other was his grandfather, whose name Rowan had already forgotten. He felt slightly guilty. The old man was nice enough. There were a few other people who hadn’t made much of an impression on the prince but still spoke every once in a while.

Rowan was contemplating quiet corners he could sneak off to when he felt a soft hand land on his shoulder.

“There you are, love,” the unmistakable voice of Aelin Galathynius cooed before she pressed a chaste kiss to his cheek. “I was looking for you,”

Rowan forced a tight grin onto his face before looking towards the woman, and that smile faltered at the sight of her.

Aelin looked like sin in her little black dress. Well, it wasn’t necessarily little, it went down to her knees as was expected of someone of her status. But, that modesty was offset by how it hugged each and every curve. It drooped off her shoulders, the back dipping into a sharp point just below her shoulder blades, a small silver chain with a single pearl hanging in the open space, drawing eyes to the golden expanse of skin. Her hair had been swept up in an elegant french twist, a pearl choker around the long swoop of her throat, her full lips painted a striking red.

Judging by the gleam in her eye, and the serpentine curve of her lips when she saw his reaction, Aelin knew damn well how good she looked. 

Apparently, so did everyone else. Rowan didn’t fail to notice how many eyes lingered on her. Young men, old men with wives on their arms, women who couldn’t seem to decide whether they wanted to be her, be with her, or kill her. Even Fenrys gave the princess an appreciative sweep from head to toe.

“Forgive my tardiness,” Aelin said, her hand still resting on Rowan’s shoulder, engagement ring glimmering in the light of the chandelier. “My hair didn’t want to cooperate tonight,”

“You can’t really be late to your own party,” Fenrys pointed out. 

“Wise words,” Aelin said, smoothly snatching a flute of champagne from one of the waiters as he passed by.  She took a small sip of the sparkling drink before her eyes trailed him from head to toe. “You look very handsome tonight,”

Rowan clenched his jaw, noting Aedion reeling in a sigh and Fenrys biting back laughter. It seemed that Aelin was intent on making tonight harder than it needed to be.

“And you look beautiful,” Rowan said with a smile that was little more than baring his teeth. “But I’m sure you already knew that,”

She took her hand within her own, squeezing hard enough to cause some discomfort. “Of course, but you know how much I adore hearing it from you!”

Rowan knew that Fenrys, Aedion, and Ren, who were aware of the truth behind their arrangement, were watching every interaction as if it were a sporting match. He was sure that her cousin was tensed and prepared to step in if things got ugly.

There was a challenge in Aelin’s turquoise eyes. I’m sorry, am I bothering you? I didn’t realize you were so sensitive.

Rowan didn’t break her gaze, knocking back the rest of the wine in his glass. Try me, princess.

Aelin knew that she had made the first move in a game that would span the rest of the evening. The dress was risky for a princess, but she did it anyway. It wasn’t a public affair, so photos wouldn't be sent out to news sites and social media. If anything, she only had to endure a few disapproving looks from Darrow and some of the senior members of her uncle’s council. But, none of them dared to say anything.

She knew the risk had paid off when she saw the way Rowan’s eyes bulged slightly at the sight of her in the gown. She had noticed where his eyes lingered, saw them become slightly glassy as if he were remembering what she looked like without it on. She would give Elide credit, it was her idea to wear something sultry tonight.

To Rowan’s credit, he did also look quite good tonight. His suit was a deep grey, a white button down stretched against his strong chest. Aelin was guilty of running her eyes over his body more often than she should, remembering the muscle that corded him, the tattoo that snaked down his left arm so carefully hidden by what he was wearing tonight. She wanted another look at it, despite herself. 

Most of the cocktail hour consisted of introducing Rowan to all of their guests. Aelin used every opportunity to press herself against the prince, put a hand on his chest or shoulder, or wrap her arms around his torso. To all of their unsuspecting guests, they were nothing more than a pair of lovers completely enamoured with one another. But to the people who knew the truth…

Lysandra and Elide watched from afar, thoroughly enjoying the show Aelin was putting on. 

The more Aelin drank, the more bold she became. Pressing small kisses to Rowan’s knuckles, watching how it made him tense up and scowl at her when no one was looking. 

It was just before dinner was served when it seemed Rowan decided to act back. A hand on her lower back that would skim down past the point of properness, a hand wrapped around her ribs with his fingers just barely brushing the undersides of her breasts. Aelin hated how it made her blood burn, hated how her body began to crave his touch.

Well, maybe not his touch exactly, but anyone’s touch. He just happened to be the one giving it. 

When they sat down for dinner, Aelin placed a hand on his thigh. It was as solid and strong as the rest of him. When his eyes flickered towards hers as she stroked it absentmindedly, Aelin expected to find ire. But instead, they were dark and hazy with lust.

Halfway through the meal, Rowan then placed his hand high on her thigh, making her breath hitch slightly in her throat. He knew damn well exactly what he was doing, and what it was doing to her.

They both drank their fair share of wine throughout the night, more than Aelin normally would. It started out as a way to deal with the endless stream of flippant questions her guests were asking about her and Rowan, their engagement, and plans for the wedding. Gods, Aelin hadn’t even thought about the wedding yet and was in no rush to begin. 

But, the wine also loosened her inhibitions, made her do things she never would have done in the past. Such as after dinner, when they had moved to cocktail yet again. Aelin had made to slip past Rowan, but as she did, she ensured her ass brushed against his crotch, just enough to tease. 

As the night wore on, Aelin would find herself looking towards Rowan, finding him across the room even when they weren’t glued at the hip. She recognized the dark gleam in his green eyes, the way his tongue would dart out and wet his lips as he looked to her. It was nearly predatory, but it sent a thrill through her body nonetheless. 

People began to filter out and head home, which Aelin was thankful for. She had been itching for the whole thing to be over. 

Aelin wasn’t sure exactly what had come over her that night. Whether it was the wine, or the mindless touching that had sparked something within her, but she met Rowan’s eye from across the room. She licked her lips, knew her eyes were heavily hooded as she studied the impressive man that would be her husband.

Aelin still hated him. But she didn't hate the way it had felt when they hooked up. Her body was craving that rush once again. 

Her gaze flickered to the door before she raised a single brow. An invitation, if Rowan wanted to take it. She didn’t wait for him to move before she gulped down the rest of her wine and slipped from the crowded ballroom into the quiet halls.

Aelin didn’t make it far before a warm hand rested on her back and the scent of pine and snow wrapped around her. 

It seems Rowan Whitethorn had accepted her invitation.

Aelin wasn’t sure how she got there, but she found herself pressed against the dresser in Rowan’s rooms. 

He kissed her hard, sloppily. There was nothing tender about it, they were done pretending to be a young couple in love. The kiss was nothing more than tongue and teeth, biting lips and tasting the tang of blood. But, it made Aelin moan nevertheless.

She tugged at his jacket, nearly tearing it from his broad shoulders before her greedy fingers set upon his shirt, quickly and efficiently undoing the buttons, giving her access to that bare, hot skin she desired. The brutally beautiful tattoo etched into Rowan’s flesh was immediately forgotten as his mouth moved to her throat, leaving a trail of messy, open-mouthed kisses. 

Aelin groaned as Rowan palmed her breast over the thick velvet of her dress. 

Rowan’s hands were impatient and demanding. Aelin knew that this joining would be done with little ceremony, not that she cared. She had little desire to be romanced or teased tonight. All she wanted was Rowan. Hard, fast, immediately

It seemed the prince had similar ideas.

He whirled her around so her back was against his chest. His hips pinned hers against the dresser, hard enough that the wood dug into Aelin’s bones nearly uncomfortably, not that she really noticed when she felt the evidence of his arousal pressed against her backside.

Rowan’s hands skimmed down her thighs until they reached the hem of her dress, wasting no time before pulling it up until the velvet was bunched around her waist. One of his hands found its ways between her legs, teasing her over the fabric of her underclothes. Aelin was so desperate for any kind of friction she found herself grinding against his palm, tiny, breathless gasps escaping her mouth. 

Aelin heard the small, metallic clinks, telling her that Rowan was ridding himself of his belt. Good. She didn’t want to wait until they had shed the rest of their clothes. 

Rowan pushed her underclothes to the side. She could feel him prodding at her entrance, and just before Aelin could snap at him to get on with it, he sunk in with one, powerful thrust. 

The moan that left her mouth was loud enough to cause embarrassment, but Rowan didn’t give her the opportunity to allow the emotion to sink in. His fingers curled tightly into her hip before he set a brutal, bruising pace.

There was nothing artful about this. It wasn’t the kind of joinings that poets would write pretty, meaningful words about. It was nothing more than the crashing of volatile emotions, a storm spurred on by hatred and lust and wine. 

Aelin knew she would have bruises on her hips the next morning. Both from the tight grip Rowan had on it, and from the stinging bite of the edge of the dresser. She sincerely hoped that there was no one on the other side of the wall. The dresser banged into it in rhythm to Rowan’s thrusts, creating a strange cacophony of sounds. The crashing against the wall, their breathy moans, the sound of skin against skin. 

Aelin’s eyes were screwed up in pleasure, biting down hard on her bottom lip to try to keep herself from being overly loud, though she could feel herself nearing her peak.

Rowan’s teeth dug into the bare skin of her shoulder, no doubt leaving another mark on her. If she wasn’t being fucked senseless, then maybe she would have been irked.

Aelin braced herself on the dresser, knuckles turning white as she gripped the edge with every ounce of strength she possessed. Her lips parted as she finally came undone, her legs nearly giving out beneath her as the force of it barreled through her every atom.

Rowan wasn’t far behind her. After a few more sloppy thrusts, he shuddered, breath fanning across Aelin’s cheek, as he spilled himself inside of her. 

Aelin didn’t know how long they stood there, breathing heavily as their hearts pounded beneath their ribs. She felt sweat dotting her brow, a bead of it dripping down her throat into the dip of her breasts. Her eyes slowly peeled open, catching a glimpse of her reflection in the mirror above the dresser.

In the gloom, Aelin saw a few hairs falling out of the twist, sticking to her sweat-glazed forehead. Her lipstick was smudged a bit around her mouth. And her eyes were blurry with that post-lust haze. 

Aelin wiped away her messy lipstick, smoothing her hair back. She barely gave Rowan a second glance as she stepped away, tugging her dress back down and smoothing away any wrinkles that may have formed. She didn’t want to seem too haggard before risking seeing another person.

Aelin sucked down one more breath before she strode away, leaving Rowan’s room without a word.

She didn’t look back to see his expression.

Aelin almost made it back to her rooms without encountering anyone, but just as she turned that final corner, it seemed her luck dried out.

Lysandra and Elide were stumbling to their respective rooms, giggling amongst themselves, fair cheeks flushed from joy and drink. They laid eyes on her simultaneously, faces breaking out in matching grins as they made their way towards her.

“There you are!” Lysandra greeted.

“We were wondering where you went,” Elide said. “You were there and then suddenly you were gone and…”

Elide’s dark eyes swept over her from head to toe. It seems that even when tipsy with drink, it didn’t dull that sharp mind. Aelin saw the moment when her sudden disappearance and current dishevelment clicked into place.

Aelin, you did not-!”

“Shh!” Aelin hissed, looking over her shoulder to ensure that there were no prying eyes. She narrowed her eyes at her friends. “Not out here,”

The women didn’t require any more encouragement before rushing in the direction of Aelin’s suite, seemingly keen to end the night with a bit more gossip. She tried not to roll her eyes at their antics.

They tumbled into Aelin’s room, Lysandra flicking on the light before kicking off her heels. She wouldn’t be surprised if her stylist ended up sleeping beside her on her bed tonight. Aelin doubted Lysandra would have the energy to catch an Uber back to her apartment tonight. 

Lysandra and Elide collapsed onto the thick duvet of Aelin bed, crossing their legs as if they were no more than young girls at a childhood slumber party, eager to spend the night talking about boys. 

Aelin toed off her pumps, beginning the tedious process of ridding herself of her finery. First, the earrings, then the necklace. Letting her hair loose of the elegant twist was euphoric. 

“Well, don’t just stand there!” Lysandra objected. “Did you really go off with Rowan? Elide thought so when you both disappeared at the same time but I was skeptical and-”

“I went back to his room and I fucked him,” Aelin said rather blandly.

However, her delivery didn’t seem to deter her friends’ reactions. 

You did not!” Elide gasped.

Aelin!” 

“What?” the princess shrugged. “I don’t see what’s wrong with having consensual hate-sex with my fiancé,”

Aelin heard the words she spoke, understanding the absurdness of her situation. She let out a frustrated groan and pressed her forehead against the doorframe of her closet. How did she get into this situation?

"So, did you two talk things out?" 

“We didn’t talk at all,” Aelin grumbled, wiggling out of her dress and pulling on a comfortable pair of pajamas. Although she normally enjoyed wearing silky little nightgowns to bed, tonight felt more like a sweatpant sort of night. 

At all? ” Elide repeated. “So you two didn’t say anything? Not even when you were done?”

“Nope. I just… walked out,”

Her two friends simply blinked silently at her, faces painted with bewilderment. Aelin groaned and dragged her hands down her face, thinking about the pile of steaming shit her life had become.

“We just made things a hell of a lot more complicated, didn’t we?” Aelin asked, unable to bite back the cringe on her face.

Her friends’ pointed silence was answer enough.

Rowan was slumped over in an armchair, a crystal glass of half-finished whiskey dangling from his fingers. He had been content to brood silently in the dark, to bemoan his situation and the foolishness of his actions.

However, it seemed he wouldn’t be lucky enough to continue with his solitary pity-party.

His door banged open. Rowan didn’t even bother to crane his neck to see who it was. There was only one person who would stroll into his suite as if it were his own.

“Honestly, Rowan, I don’t understand why you don’t like Aelin,” Fenrys Moonbeam slurred loudly. Clearly, he had indulged himself tonight. “She’s smart, she’s funny, and not to mention, she’s hot as hell. If you weren’t engaged to her, I probably would have already tried to get in her pants,”

Rowan ground his teeth.

“Why are you brooding?” Fenrys asked, flickering on the lights, finally allowing him a glimpse at Rowan’s disheveled appearance. 

The prince knew exactly what he looked like. Hair messy, unbuttoned shirt hanging from his shoulders, angry red lines running down his chest and shoulders, courtesy of Aelin’s well-manicured nails. His belt was still undone, but he had at least zipped his pants back up. He knew he looked like he had just had wild sex. There was no point into trying to keep it from his companion.

“You didn’t…” Fenrys said disbelievingly. “I was wondering where you guys slipped off too! It was with Aelin… right?”

Rowan dug his fingers into his temple. “Yes,”

“Why do you seem so grumpy if you just got laid?”

Rowan bestowed a venomous glare upon the young lord, not breaking his gaze as he gulped down the rest of what was in his cup. “It was a mistake,”

“Was it really?” Fenrys asked dryly. “You said that last time and yet you did it again,”

“Well, it won’t happen another time,”

“Does Aelin know that? Did you two even manage to have a conversation?”

Rowan’s lack of a response was answer enough. 

Fenrys shook his head, a disapproving look on his face that reminded Rowan of his uncle during his youth. If he had been feeling less miserable, maybe Rowan would have said something nasty. But he didn’t have the fight in him tonight. 

Fenrys went towards the door, clearly uninterested in hanging around when Rowan was in a mood. 

“I don’t know how you two are going to do it,” Fenrys threw over his shoulder. “But you and Aelin have got a lot of shit to figure out,”

With that, Fenrys swept from the room, shutting off the light and closing the door behind him, leaving Rowan entombed in his chambers once more. 

He hated that Fenrys was right.

Chapter Text

They didn’t speak of it. 

Not a word or even a look that would suggest that either of them had fallen victims to their passions. Even though Aelin’s companions nettled her for details, hoping to hear some juicy bits of gossip, probably hoping that she and Rowan would get over themselves and try to get along.

But, it wasn’t looking promising.

Aelin avoided Rowan, and Rowan avoided Aelin. It was a perfect arrangement.

Elide left to go back to Perranth within two days, promising that she would return soon to help keep Aelin sane during wedding planning. She would surely need all the help she could possibly get.

Five tense days passed where Aelin saw Rowan only when necessary. Mostly during meal times or when they had a guest. It wasn’t the most ideal situation, but it was manageable. 

That is, until the day came where she and Rowan would have their first interview together.

Darrow had been drilling them on the story they had concocted, making sure they both knew the details. They didn’t want others to pick up on any inconsistencies, leading them to question the engagement. 

Aelin wasn’t looking forward to another day of pretending to be in love with Rowan. Her only saving grace was the fact that she felt a bit more awkward than murderous around him as of late. Still, a bit murderous though. It just wasn’t on the forefront of her mind.

Maybe it would have been better if they had talked about it. Their desperate joining, the constant hostility towards one another. Maybe they just needed to rip off the bandaid and then things would be easier.

But Aelin would be damned if she would be the one to start up that conversation.

Lysandra had spent the morning preparing her for the cameras. She had dressed the princess in a loose, deep green sweater and a white, knee-length pencil skirt that highlighted her waist. Her hair was left loose save for a few strategic pieces pinned back with silver clips. As usual, the makeup was sweet and subdued.

Aelin was seated beside Rowan in a comfortable armchair in the studio. Darrow had booked the interview with one of the most prestigious news stations on the continent, ensuring that it would be conducted well and broadcasted far.

One of the makeup artists brushed powder across Aelin’s forehead, eliminating any hints of unwanted shine. She then moved to Rowan, who tried rather unsuccessfully to hide his cringe. Clearly, he was unused to being fussed over in such a manner.

This wasn’t the first time Aelin had spoken in front of the camera, and although she was used to it, she had never been able to find a way to get rid of the small pit of nervousness that always sank to the bottom of her stomach before doing something like this. 

At least Rowan looked nice today. Freshly steamed button down and a dark blue suit. If people were going to see her fiancé, he could at least look good.

Aelin caught a glimpse of them in the screens, a bit of test footage. Objectively, they were an attractive couple. Both immensely good-looking with high positions within society. Power-couple, Aelin had seen thrown around a few times on the internet. 

If only they knew the truth.

A pretty, dark haired woman donned in an immaculately tailored dress swept by Aelin, taking the seat before them and giving a thousand-watt smile.

"Good morning, your highnesses," she greeted, jutting out a hand. "It's truly an honor to meet you both. I'm Kaltain Rompier, I'll be conducting the interview today,"

Aelin took her hand and gave a firm shake. She had seen the young reporter before. She was pretty on television, but even more stunning in person.

"It's great to meet you too," Aelin said earnestly.

Kaltain shook Rowan's hand before settling back in her seat, gathering up her folder, and crossing her ankles delicately.

"So, are you two ready to go?" she asked.

Aelin reached and grabbed Rowan's hand, hoping to give them an air of intimacy. 

“I think we are!”

Kaltain then motioned to the film crew, who jumped into action at the mere flick of the wrist. 

Aelin looked towards Rowan, and although she had a pretty little smile on her face, she knew her eyes said enough.

Don’t fuck this up.

Rowan ground his jaw slightly, the only sign that he had received her message and was less than happy about it.

At least the interview wasn’t live. There was no crowd, only some staff and the film crew who would hear what they had to say. Aedion was in the corner, fully gorging himself on the table ladden in refreshments. He seemed content to sit back and watch her and Rowan squirm. She would find a way to make him suffer later.

The cameras flickered on. And then it was time to go.

“First, allow me to say it’s an honor to be sitting down with the two of you,” Kaltain began. “And congratulations on the engagement!”

She and Rowan nodded their thanks. 

“The first thing I’m sure everyone has on their mind is how suddenly this engagement came on!”

“Yes, well, it wasn’t actually sudden for us,” Aelin explained. “We met last summer when we both vacationed in the Southern Continent,”

It was a piece of the pretty little lie they had concocted. A sweet love story, fitting for a prince and a princess. In reality, it was little more than a fairytale.

“So long!” Kaltain gasped. “And we never got to hear of it?”

“Well, we wanted a bit of privacy,” Aelin explained. “Rowan, he’s not used to all of the press that I get. We wanted to stay out of the public eye while our relationship grew,”

Kaltain placed a hand over her heart. “That’s very sweet. How did you two meet?”

Aelin squeezed Rowan’s hand, letting him know it was his turn to deliver some information. 

“A mutual friend of ours invited us sailing,” he said. “We met there, started talking…”

“A summer romance! How lovely!” Kaltain cooed. “Tell me, was it love at first sight?”

Aelin struggled to hold back the unladylike snort that threatened to escape. Love at first sight… what a beautiful, tragic joke. If only people knew how their first meeting truly went.

“Well, he surely left an impression,” Aelin said. “He jumped into the water and immediately lost his trunks! There’s no way I could forget him after that,”

Rowan clenched Aelin’s hand nearly painfully hard, but her facade didn’t crack. He clearly wasn’t pleased with her little fabricated lie, though it amused her to no end. Even Aedion couldn’t hold back his bark of laughter from the corner. She squeezed Rowan’s hand back just as hard.

Kaltain gave a dainty laugh, but not enough to offend Rowan by over-enjoying his misery.

“Prince Rowan, when did you know she was the one?”

Oh, Aelin couldn’t wait to see what Rowan came up with for that little query. It wasn’t a question they had prepared for, Darrow hadn’t woven a glamorous story for it. Now it was all up to Rowan.

He at least didn’t seem to want to be violently ill at the question. 

“Well, we were having lunch together, and I said something that made her laugh so hard that her milkshake came out of her nose,” Rowan said simply. “She wouldn’t admit that it happened, but she looked so cute anyway. That’s when I knew,”

Aelin ground her teeth, thoroughly contemplating jabbing her elbow into Rowan’s gut and giving the station some truly interesting footage to use. But, she managed to reel in her fury before she became a PR disaster.

She looked towards Rowan, hoping the cameras captured an image of a woman looking lovingly at her fiancé rather than a woman contemplating murder. He met her gaze and gave a tiny, condescending smile masked as a sweet one that practically invited her to bash in his teeth.

The rest of the interview went by smoothly, neither one of them trying to sabotage the other again. Kaltain asked about the proposal. They told her he had booked them a rooftop garden for the night and got down on one knee once desert was finished. 

She asked of wedding planning, if they had set a date. (Planning was just getting started, and they were shooting for the beginning of winter. Maybe a Yulemas wedding!)

She asked Rowan about how the transition to Terrasen had been. He answered with another lie, saying that it had been wonderful and everyone had been so welcoming.

Aelin was thankful as the interview began to wrap up. She wanted out of there and away from Rowan as soon as possible. 

"This is a fitting ending for you, princess," Kaltain said. "After all that you've endured, you're finally going to get your happily ever after!"

The pang of sadness that flashed through Aelin was hard to keep to herself. There had been a time when she had her happily ever after within her grasp, but he was taken away from her at the same moment she lost her parents. And now… Aelin didn't think she had a second chance at a happily ever after.

But she forced a smile on her lips and nodded, rubbing Rowan's knuckles with her thumb.

"Yes… I suppose I will,"

The last statement had shaken Aelin more than she liked to admit, dragging her back to a dark place she had struggled so hard to get out of. Her eyes were downcast, lips angled down in a frown.

Aedion noted her change in demeanor instantly. He did his best to try and coax a smile onto her lips, but his efforts were for naught. All Aelin was able to offer him was a small twitch of the corners of her mouth. She saw it in Aedion's eyes that he realized no amount of cheerfulness would get her out of the funk.

It happened from time to time. When Aelin would think too hard on all she had lost and all she could have had, if she saw or heard something that reminded her of the people who had been torn from her too soon. The funks didn't last for more than a few days for the most part, but they were deep, and only Aelin herself could yank herself out of their depths.

Rowan was oblivious of the dimness in her eyes. She saw him drinking a cup of coffee and speaking with Kaltain. 

Gods, she just wanted to go home. 

And soon they did. The dark sedan was waiting for them outside of the studio. It was a silent ride back to the palace.

Aelin spent the afternoon in the library, hoping to lose herself in the pages of a novel for a few hours before dinner. The trashy romance novel at least kept her distracted, kept her mind from wandering too deep into itself.

She scoffed at her book, as the two main characters squabbled over a miscommunication. It was ridiculous, really. All this angst simply because they didn’t know how to communicate. It would be so easy to fix if only they would talk and-

Aelin blinked once and groaned, squashing her face into the pages of the book. 

She supposed she had her answer on how to fix things with Rowan. Though the idea of sitting down and having a real conversation with her made her stomach churn.

Aelin checked the time on her phone. Whatever confrontation was on the horizon, it would have to wait until after dinner.

Orlon asked about the interview as they ate.

Aelin managed to smile and speak light-heartedly about it, but she felt Aedion's eyes on her, intently studying her face as if any moment she would shatter. Part of her wanted to snap at him that he was being overbearing, but she didn't feel like starting an argument over dinner.

Darrow was rambling about publicity, stories he had seen published, future events and appearances. Aelin barely listened, instead looking across the table at Rowan.

He was quietly and efficiently slicing into his chicken. He seemed as grumpy and stoic as ever. But that was his normal.

Aelin knew that when he was really angry, he would clench his jaw and glare daggers at his plate as if it had personally offended him. He had done that plenty of times after they had shared short, hissed arguments before dinner.

So Aelin supposed he was in a good mood. Or, in as good of a mood as Rowan could achieve. 

Which meant she had the best luck talking to him tonight as she would ever have. 

Aelin barely had the stomach to pick at her desert, which was rare for her. Instead, she was rehearsing what she was going to say to Rowan.

Once the plates had been cleared away, they all said their goodbyes and began to disperse. Aelin hung back a heartbeat to see which direction Rowan was going and if he was alone. Once she was sure Fenrys wouldn't be heading with him, Aelin started towards her fiancé.

"Rowan! Wait up!"

The man slowed to a stop, raising an unimpressed brow at her as she reached his side. 

"Is there something you want?" he said shortly.

"I- I was hoping we could talk,"

"Does this have something to do with why you were so mopey today? What, did the reporter not give you enough attention?"

Aelin pressed her lips in a tight line to keep herself from spitting something nasty at him. 

"Listen, I don't want to get into an argument tonight-"

"Oh, really?" Rowan cut her off. "I thought that was your favorite pastime, besides being a whiny brat,"

Aelin clenched her jaw and glared. "You're an asshole, you know that right?"

"I don't particularly care," Rowan said. "And I don't give a shit what you think of me, so call me whatever you'd like."

"Who shoved that stick up your ass?" Aelin spat, suddenly forgetting what she had sought him out for. No one could get her blood boiling as fast as him. "Or were you born with it?"

"There's no need to take your pissiness out on me just because I won't put up with your bullshit," he continued, completely unfazed by her rage. "Better get used to it now,"

With that, he turned heel and began to stride away. But Aelin wasn't done with him.

"You're a miserable man, Rowan Whitethorn," Aelin called after him, making him pause and glance at her over his shoulder. "You're lucky that this is an arranged marriage, because no one else would have loved you enough to suffer being your wife,"

Aelin knew the words were mean, straight up nasty, coated with venom. They had been rude to each other in the past, but she had never uttered anything so malicious before.

And Rowan flinched.

He flinched.

The anger in his face was wiped away, replaced with a sort of hollowness that was familiar to Aelin. She had worn that expression on her face plenty of times before.

Aelin didn't know what she wanted him to do, to yell, to say something equally disgusting back, but he only turned around and walked away without another word.

And it still managed to infuriate her.

Aelin's fingers curled into tight fists before storming off down the halls, intent of fuming alone in her room where she wouldn't snap on anyone else.

She slammed the door behind her, hearing the sound echo loudly down the empty halls. Aelin stomped over to her bed, snatched up a pillow, pressed her face into it, and screamed.

This was impossible. He was impossible. They had nothing in common beside hating each other. Even if they had a thousand years together, Aelin knew they would never come to an understanding. 

Traitorous tears welled in her eyes, thinking about being married to him forever. Maybe Rowan had been right those weeks ago, maybe some childish part of herself still longed for true love and her world was ending. 

Because this… 

This wasn't right.

Aelin rubbed irritably at her eyes, settling back into the pile of pillows resting against her headboard. She pulled the screaming pillow to her chest, hating how small and defeated she felt. 

She supposed this was fitting, considering how she had treated Rowan when he had tried to apologize before.

Their conversation played on a loop in her head, Aelin's face flushing in shame as she recalled the final words she had spat at him. Rowan had seemed genuinely hurt by it. Maybe she was the asshole.

No, she was definitely the asshole.

Another thing to add to the list of things to apologize for. 

She would need an entirely new gameplan, a new approach. Clearly, what she had done hadn't worked. 

The first thing she could do was actually try to learn about him.

Aelin reached to her bedside table and grabbed her laptop. She settled in, throwing a fluffy blanket over her shoulders as she put in her password. 

And then she opened up google and typed in Rowan Whitethorn .

At first glance, it was all news about the engagement. Pictures of her and Rowan, announcements about the arrival of their interview with Kaltain. It was all noise and nonsense, not the stuff Aelin was searching for.

She filtered the search by date, going back before they had announced the engagement. Suddenly, there were far fewer results. Barely any, actually. Rowan really hadn't been in the spotlight. Not even a single social media account under his name. Just another… regular person.

Aelin sighed and clicked the first result. A Wikipedia page. It was staggeringly small, barely more than an old photo and basic information about him.

The photo of Rowan seemed to be taken at an event, probably one of his many cousins' weddings. He didn't seem thrilled about having his photo taken. Seemed about right, based on her interactions with him so far.

Aelin looked towards the sad well of information . Prince Rowan Whitethorn of Doranelle. Nephew of Queen Maeve Adair of Doranelle. Parents: Deceased. Siblings: None. Age: 27 years old. 

Aelin frowned. There wasn't much there and yet, she had found some common ground. Both of their parents were dead. Rowan had said nothing about it, and there was no information about how they had died. Maybe it had been natural causes? It was perhaps a bit morbid, but at least they had something to talk about.

Oh your parents are dead? Mine too! Did you do an open casket funeral? We didn't.

Aelin made a face and cursed. No, they couldn't do that. Why was this so damned hard?

Aelin back out of Wikipedia and went back to the search results. Family tree, family tree, list of eligible royalty (clearly, out of date)... and then, a news article dated four years ago that caught her eye.

Her brows furrowed as she clicked on it. The headline was bolded, written loudly in all caps:

Doranelle Prince's Fiancée Dead in Head-on Car Crash!

The photo underneath the headline showed a demolished black car, still steaming, surrounded by policemen and firefighters. The car had been rendered nothing more than a heaping mess of twisted metal and broken glass. Aelin cringed. There was no one who could have survived that.

Aelin scrolled down and began skimming through the article.

Apparently, it had been a rainy night, the roads slicked. One car crashed into another, the black car pictured tumbling off the side of the road into a telephone pole. Just plain awful.

But that wasn't the worst of it.

Aelin's heart stopped as she read the next line.

The victim, Lyria Primavera, was the fiancée of Doranelle's own Prince Rowan Whitethorn, due to be married within the year. Upon autopsy, it was revealed that Miss Primavera was three months pregnant. Tragically, there were no survivors of this crash.

This time, when Aelin felt her eyes burn with tears, she didn't wipe them away.

Rowan had been engaged once before, had been an expecting father. He had been in love, had been ready to get married. He had been happy.

No one else would have loved you enough to suffer being your wife, Aelin had said to him. 

She was the scum of the earth. 

A wave of nausea flushed through her. Aelin stumbled out of bed into the bathroom, bracing her hands on the white marble sink before splashing some water into her face.

Aelin sucked down deep, slow breaths, trying to keep her dinner in her stomach. Her heart was pounding in her ears, drowning out any other sounds. 

She released one, long breath before her eyes flickered open, looking at her reflection in the mirror. Red rimmed eyes and a pathetic face. Gods, she was a monster.

Aelin grabbed a hand towel and dried off her skin. She had to go and apologize immediately, beg for forgiveness if necessary. She knew what it felt like to have the one you loved ripped away in such a manner. 

And what she said must have put a dagger into a wound that would never fully heal.

Aelin didn't even bother to put on a pair of shoes, instead venturing out into the halls in her fuzzy socks. 

At least it was empty, everyone retiring to bed by this time of night.

She skidded to a stop in front of Rowan's door, knocking rapidly and urgently on the wood. 

She was more nervous than she cared to admit as she waited for him to answer the door. The sounds of footsteps came from within the room, steadily growing closer and closer. 

The door flew open, and there stood Rowan.

He was more casual than Aelin ever remembered seeing him. A black t-shirt stretched over his broad chest (gods, why was he so muscular?), a baggy pair of gray sweats, with his silver hair slightly unkempt. She got a glimpse of the lower part of the tattoo on his left arm, looking at it only long enough to deduce that it was written in the Old Language, which Aelin had never learned to speak.

When he recognized her, his eyes immediately narrowed.

"I'm not in the mood right now, Aelin," he grumbled, already shutting the door. 

"Wait!" she gasped, stopping the door with her hands. "Please… I-I just wanted to say that I'm so sorry- "

"I don't care. I don't want to hear it,"

" Please, Rowan, " Aelin said, hating how pathetic it sounded on her lips. "I didn't know-"

"Whatever you're trying to do here, I want nothing to do with it," Rowan said, his voice so cold that it stung. "In fact, I want nothing to do with you, "

Despite herself, Aelin felt her body recoil at the venom she found in his tone. 

"Whatever you're trying to find in this fucked up relationship, it's not here," he continued. "You're nothing but a spoiled, pretentious brat. There's nothing I can give you. There's nothing I want to give you,"

Aelin could only blink. She couldn't dredge up any words to defend herself. That easily, Rowan Whitethorn had rendered her speechless.

He glared at her for another heartbeat before slamming his door in her face.

That was it then.

Aelin stared blankly at the dark, wooden door, trying to pick through her whirlwind of thoughts.

His reaction to seeing her was expected after what she had said. She couldn't blame him for that.

But…

He had crushed a hope she didn't even know she had held. She did want to fix things with Rowan, to at least start on the path towards friendship before they were married. To have some sort of companionship. 

But, he had made it clear. He didn't want that, especially with her. 

Aelin's throat tightened, her eyes burning as she finally tore herself away from the door. She felt the hot tears stream down her cheeks when she realized that she had lost it. Her last chance to understand, to be understood, down to her very soul. There had been someone who had known every atom in her being and loved each and every one. 

But Sam was gone. 

A great, dark chasm yawned open below and swallowed her whole, dragging Aelin down to their deepest depths that she had fought so hard to escape three years ago. And she let it.

She had been foolish to hope that deep down, Rowan was hurting just as much as she was.

And just like that, Aelin felt the light flicker out within her.

Chapter Text

It was well past one in the morning when Rowan was torn from his sleep by a rapid knock on his door. 

He blinked away the grogginess in his eyes, wondering who the hell was at his door at this time of night. If it was Aelin again, he would slam the door immediately in her face. After what she said… he didn't have the patience to deal with her.

The knocking continued, louder this time.

"I'm coming!" Rowan snapped, throwing the blankets off his legs and padding to the door, not bothering to shrug on a shirt.

Rowan ripped the door open, prepared to turn Aelin away again, only the person standing on the other side of his door wasn't the princess, but rather her cousin.

"Is Aelin with you?" Aedion asked, foregoing any greetings or even an apology about disturbing his sleep. He seemed frightened, manic almost.

"No," Rowan said, trying to hold back the sneer at the thought of her spending the night with him. "Why would you think that?"

"I saw her come after you when dinner was over," Aedion explained. "Did something happen? Was she upset?"

"Angry," Rowan shrugged. "The first time, but she came back later tonight and…" he trailed off, remembering the look on her face as he ripped into her when she had come to apologize. It wasn't undeserved, considering she had done the same to him. But the pain he had seen in her eyes before he slammed the door…

"And?" Aedion prompted him. " And what?"

Rowan sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose, leaning his shoulder against the doorway. "We argued, it got nasty. She left looking a bit… I don't know, sad? Defeated?"

Aedion unleashed a filthy curse. "What did you say to her?"

Normally, Rowan would assume Aedion would ask that so he could kick his ass for being mean to Aelin. But something in his tone told Rowan that it wasn't about that.

"Something along the lines of not wanting anything to do with her, or the relationship. That I have nothing I want to give to her…" repeating the words allowed Rowan to hear just how vile they truly were. "Like I said, it got nasty,"

"Fuck," Aedion hissed. " Fuck, "

Rowan furrowed his brows at his reaction. "Is something wrong? Is she not in the palace?"

"She's not here," Aedion confirmed, mouth set in a grim line. "And I think she's going to do something stupid and get herself in trouble. Or worse,"

"Do you have any idea where she is?"

Aedion sighed, but nodded. "Yeah. Unfortunately I do,"

He made to leave, but Rowan did something that surprised even himself.

"Wait!" he called, making the Ashryver prince freeze in his tracks. "Let me help you,"

Aedion looked at him suspiciously for a beat, trying to figure out why on earth Rowan would volunteer his help, before giving a single nod. It would seem he didn't have the time to think too long about it. "Meet me in the garage as soon as you're ready"

Rowan put on a shirt and a real pair of pants before rushing down to the underground garage. It was filled with rows of near-identical black sedans, no doubt equipped with bulletproof glass. Aedion was already there, tucking his golden hair into a plain, black cap. Once he laid eyes on Rowan, he tossed a similar one to him.

"Put this on," Aedion said shortly. 

Rowan listened, sensing that now was not a great time to get on Aedion's bad side. 

He unlocked the closest car, climbing into the driver's side. Rowan slid into the passenger's seat, Aedion barely waiting for the door to close before putting the car in drive and tearing out of the garage. 

Aedion's jaw was clenched tightly as he drove through the near-deserted streets. 

"Where are we going?" Rowan dared to ask.

"Downtown," Aedion ground out. "I think I know what club she's at,"

"Club? Why would she be there?"

Aedion dragged a hand down his face with a heavy sigh, the anger on his face melting into sorrow.

"This isn't really my story to tell," Aedion rasped. "But, when Aelin's parents died, she lost someone else very important to her as well. It… it hit her hard. She resorted to drinking, drugs, sneaking out…"

Rowan couldn't keep his shock to himself at his words. Aelin had been an addict? Clearly, their PR team was top-notch to keep that little story out of the papers.

"She got help after a while, it took work but she got clean," Aedion continued. "But today, she got this look on her face that she gets when she thinks too hard about what happened three years ago, and then the argument might have pushed her over the edge… I think she's currently making a big, big mistake,"

Against his better judgement, Rowan felt a hint of guilt. If his words were what sent Aelin spiraling down again…

He hadn't known it about her. The drugs, the loss. Aedion didn't give much details about who exactly she had lost alongside her parents, but he assumed it was someone she had loved. 

I didn't know- she had said. Rowan hadn't given it much thought after what she had implied earlier, how it hit the wound that Lyria's death had left. She had been trying to tell him that she hadn't known about it, had wanted to apologize.

Because she knows what it feels like.

Gods, Rowan had made a mistake.

Aedion had pushed the speed limit as he drove them downtown. He seemed to know exactly where to go.

There was a long strip of clubs and bars. They went past the one Rowan and Aelin had met at, going a few more blocks down before Aedion swerved off to the side and put the car in park.

It most certainly was not a legal parking spot, but Aedion didn't seem to care. He swiftly hopped out of the car, Rowan hot on his tail.

The prince made a bee-line for a towering club, a long line of people curling around the building, waiting for their chance to get it. The Vaults glowed in a neon sign above the door. Aedion didn't pay the line any mind, marching straight towards the bouncers at the door. 

Rowan expected him to pull the prince card to get in, but he didn't untuck his golden hair from his cap, angling the visor to hide his face as much as possible.

The hulking bouncer crossed massive arms over his chest and raised a brow at Aedion. It was a feat that he managed to look down his nose at both Rowan and Aedion, considering they were the same size as him.

"We're here to see Archer," was all Aedion said.

The bouncer gave a firm nod, and opened the doors for them.

Rowan tried to keep his confusion to himself as they stepped into the dark club. It was like stepping through a wall of murky black and noise. The music pounded, reverberating through his chest. 

The club was huge, with towering ceilings and brick walls. The darkness was sliced through by beams of brightly colored lights, illuminating writing bodies on the dancefloor. 

It was a nice club, clearly catering to the more wealthy patrons. Nice clothes, expensive watches, and designer shoes were scattered throughout. People whispered as they caressed one another at the white marble bar while a darkly dressed bartender moved as quickly and quietly as a shadow, making their drinks. 

Rowan glanced upwards, where scantily clad women danced within gilded cages. One of them noticed his stare, running an appraising eye from head to toe before winking.

But Aedion paid no mind to the opulence and debauchery around him, instead heading towards a set of stairs that seemed to lead up to another, private room. There were glass walls, one-way. Rowan couldn't see into it, but he would bet they could look down into the happenings of the club.

Rowan was one step behind Aedion as they climbed the stairs. 

There were two personal guards stationed outside the door. They had a different sort of coldness about them that the bouncer lacked. Rowan bet that under their dark suits, they each had a gun.

Gods, what the hell was Aelin doing?

Aedion reached into his pocket and withdrew an impressive wad of cash, flashing it before the guards' eyes.

"We're here to buy," 

Apparently, that was all they needed. The guard on the right nodded and opened the doors for them.

The VIP section was a large, square room, playing their own selection of music from the private DJ in the corner. There was another bar pressed against the wall, far less busy than the one downstairs. Rowan had been right about the long windows that looked down on the club below.

The air reeked. Cigarettes and weed and other foul things Rowan couldn't identify. 

In the middle of the room, there were a handful of low, white leather couches. People lounged on them, drinking, smoking. On the gleaming black table before them, Rowan saw neat lines of an unmistakable white powder. 

And then Rowan saw her.

Seated in the middle of the room on one of those low couches was Aelin Galathynius, looking the same way she had when Rowan first met her. Skimpy black dress, long hair loose and messy. Even from the distance, Rowan could see the dullness in her eyes that she had tried to mask behind smokey makeup. 

She knocked back one shot, then another, before leaning back. Only then did Rowan notice the blond man beside her, a casual yet proprietary arm stretched over the couch behind Aelin. He was handsome, but unfortunately, he knew it. And that made him leak a sort of sleeziness that made Rowan want to break his nose.

The man looked over at Aelin, running a hand through her hair, brushing it back to bare her neck and shoulders. She looked towards him with her empty eyes and the man grinned. He produced a tiny pill between his fingers and waited. Aelin seemed to understand what to do. She stuck her tongue out, allowing him to place the pill on it. Her eyes fluttered shut, throat bobbing as she swallowed. 

She slumped back, the man running his nose down the length of her neck before tracing the path with his lips. His fingers curled around her jaw, tilting her face towards him, dragging the pad of his thumb across her bottom lip. 

Rowan recognized that look in the blond man's eyes, appraising Aelin like she was some new toy for him to play with. Disgusting.

Rowan felt Aedion bristling beside him. The Ashryver prince marched right over to where his cousin sat, unceremoniously snatching away the drink she had been reaching for.

Aelin blinked slowly at the spot her drink had been resting before she turned her face up. Her eyes were hazy, pupils blown wide. Those same eyes narrowed when she recognized her cousin.

"Fuck off," Rowan heard her say. 

"It's time to go home," Aedion said. " Now, "

"Three years and you haven't been able to shake this jerkoff, Laena?" the man beside Aelin said. "I can get rid of him for you. And his new friend,"

"Not necessary, Archer," she worked out, finally looking towards where Rowan stood. He didn't know what he had expected from her, anger, sadness… yet there was nothing but that hollow emptiness in her eyes.

Aedion turned his attention towards the man, Archer. "What did you give her, Finn?"

Archer hooked his hand around Aelin's waist, skimming his thumb over her ribs. "Whatever she wants, as usual. I haven't seen her in so long, it was my treat. Where have you been hiding her for these past two years?"

Aedion disregarded his question, looking back towards Aelin, face hard and unyielding. "Let's go. Don't make me drag you out of here,"

Aelin ground her jaw, but pushed to her feet. She swayed dangerously, looking like she was a heartbeat away from crashing into the floor. But Archer stood, reaching her before Aedion, much to the prince's ire. Archer had his hands on Aelin's bare shoulders. 

"Careful there, Laena," he said, smirking at how Aedion glowered at him. He spun Aelin (Laena, apparently, to him) around to face him. "Listen, if you manage to shake these two assholes, find me. I'm getting a shipment of some crazy new Synth shit from Pangera soon. First round is on me,"

If Aelin responded, Rowan didn't hear. She turned around and shuffled away, not sparing him or Aedion a second glance before heading towards the doors.

Rowan trailed behind her, carefully watching each step she took. It was a miracle she managed to walk in those towering heels when she was sober but now… Rowan was tensed and ready to catch her if she tumbled.

She clumsily threw open the doors, but paused at the top of the stairs, looking down at them as if they were her mortal enemy.

Rowan cleared his throat and held out a hand, hoping she wouldn't rip into him for trying to help. But, she seemed to understand that this wasn't a feat she could accomplish by herself in her current state. Aelin grumbled to herself, but ignored his hand, instead clutching his arm in a vice-like grip, pressing herself to his side.

"You're so strong, " Aelin mumbled, running her hands down his biceps. "Why the fuck are you so strong? No princes are built like this…"

She continued to prattle on, but her words didn't make sense and her voice slurred. Probably an effect of the booze she had downed and whatever that pill was she swallowed. Ecstasy maybe? Rowan wasn't an expert on such things. And he wasn't even sure if that had been the only thing she took.

But she was talking a lot, and fast. Not to mention, very touchy. Even when they had conquered the stairs, she was still holding on to him.

"I mean, I thought Dorian was fit, but he's a stick compared to you," she babbled.

At least it was something Rowan could understand. She spoke of Prince Dorian Havilliard of Adarlan, Terrasen's southern neighbor. Their kingdoms had close ties.

Suddenly, a violent shiver wracked her body. Stange, since the club was warm, the air heated by the mass of bodies that stuffed it to the brim.

"Are you cold?" Rowan asked.

"No. Yes? I don't know. I was just so hot in there and now…" another shiver.

Rowan noted the sweat dotting her forehead. He pressed the back of his hand against the clammy skin, finding it hot. She was feverish. A knot of worry grew in the pit of his stomach.

"What did you take?"

But all that came from her was a tiny strangled sound from the back of her throat. Her eyes screwed shut, pressing her face into his arm.

Rowan's heart twisted in his chest at the sight. Aelin seemed so small, so sad, finally letting those broken pieces of herself show. 

His throat tightened as he realized that this was his fault. His words, his anger, his malice, had driven this girl to self-destruction. 

He was an asshole. 

Rowan slung his arm around Aelin, tucking her into his side. He felt her arms wrap around his torso, felt her body tremble like a leaf in the wind. 

It was then that Aedion caught up, lingering behind a beat to apparently give that Archer Finn a piece of his mind. 

"Is she okay?" he asked, peeking at his cousin.

"She's shivering and burning up," Rowan said.

Aedion sighed and shook his head. "Let's just get her home."

Rowan nodded, trying to get the princess out of the club as quickly and quietly as possible. People barely gave them a second glance, too busy dancing, drinking, or lip-locking to notice.

They slipped from the club into the quiet night air, swiftly passing the long line of people waiting for the chance to get in. 

Aedion unlocked the car, and Rowan tried to maneuver Aelin into the back seat, but she seemed unwilling to release him. He sighed, and slid into the back beside her, making sure she was properly clipped into her seatbelt.

Aelin was slumped against him, brows pinched in the middle even as she rested her eyes. Aedion looked like he wanted to scold Aelin, but once he saw the state she was in, he simply shook his head and put the car in drive.

They were only five minutes into the journey when Aelin sat up and rubbed at her eyes. She reached over and rolled down the window a crack, letting in some of the cool night air as she angled her body away from Rowan.

Aedion heard this, his eyes flashing towards her in the rearview mirror.

"This was really stupid of you, Ace," he said. "Really fucking stupid,"

Rowan glanced towards Aelin, but she was only looking out the window, eyes unfocused, seeming content to sit in silence. 

"I thought you were past all this bullshit," Aedion grumbled from the front.

Again, no response from the princess.

It seemed that Aedion was growing past the point of disappointment and racing towards fury.

"You parents would be so sad to see you like this," Aedion snapped. "What do you think they would say? What would Sam say?"

"They won't say anything because they're fucking dead !" Aelin cried out, devastation lighting her face. There was something so raw and vulnerable in her voice. For once, no hint of swagger or cockiness. Just baring her still-bleeding wounds. " They. Are. Dead. And my miserable , unlovable ass is still here!"

There were tears streaming down her face, smearing her makeup. Rowan wished there was something he could do, something he could say, but he knew now was not the time to intervene. 

"I don't know what I'm doing," she sobbed. "I'm lost. I'm so, so lost and I don't know the way and I-"

Aelin cut herself off with a sharp gasp, whirling towards the window, sticking her head out, and vomiting. 

Her body shook with the force of it. Rowan reached out, bracing one hand on her waist and using the other to hold her hair out of her face. She retched again. He ran a hand down her back, trying his best to soothe her in any way he could manage.

Aedion didn't stop the car, meeting Rowan's gaze in the rearview mirror.

"Just let her get it out,"

Chapter Text

Aelin wasn’t at breakfast the next morning.

Rowan didn’t really expect her to be, but her absence was a sharp reminder of all that had happened last night, and all that he had realized.

Fenrys had noted the princess’s absence, raising a brow towards Rowan in question, but he didn’t feel like explaining. And Aedion looked miserable enough as he picked at his eggs that Fenrys wouldn't be likely to approach him either. 

It was well-past three in the morning when they had finally arrived back to the palace. By the time they had pulled into the garage and put the car in park, Aelin had been completely, and utterly drained. When she had finished hurling up the contents of her stomach, she had slouched back in her seat, head lolling to the side as she dozed.

Rowan tried his best to keep her conscious, attempting to make small conversation. Sometimes, her eyes would peel open, looking at him through her mascara-coated lashes. But, she wouldn’t answer. 

Rowan had helped her out of the car before Aedion took her from him, helping her stumble off into the palace, presumably to her suite. He didn’t think his help was needed any more, nor did he want to intrude. If Rowan knew Aelin, she would already be pissed once she realized the state he had seen her in last night. Better to spare her any more mortification.

Aedion looked like shit, exhaustion weighing heavily upon his shoulders. 

Rowan didn’t look nor feel much better himself. Even after he had parted ways with the cousins the night before, he did not find sleep again. Instead, despite himself, all he could think about was Aelin. What she had been through, who she had lost.

Sam, Aedion had said. During the night, Rowan had put his restlessness to use and tried to search something up about this man. Of course, he had no last name to work with. So he had typed in Sam and Aelin’s name into the search bar, hoping to find something.

But his search was fruitless. He couldn’t find any ties between Aelin Galathynius and a man named Sam. 

Maybe it was better that way. Maybe it was a tale better told by Aelin herself. 

He didn’t seek her out right after breakfast was finished. The long, rough night had probably taken a toll on the princess and she deserved some uninterrupted rest. 

But, once late afternoon hit, Rowan ventured from his rooms and headed towards Aelin’s. He hoped that this would be the conversation that would work, that they would finally be able to talk without screaming for once. Because, for the first time, Rowan found himself truly hoping that they could make this work out. Falling in love was out of the question but a friendship was entirely possible. To learn to work together, to support one another… that was the goal.

“She’s not there,” someone called when Rowan was only a few doors away from Aelin’s room.

He glanced over his shoulder, finding Aedion standing at the corner, clearly on his way out for one reason or another.

“Where is she?” Rowan dared to ask, hoping Aedion would tell him.

Though the prince had no reason to help Rowan. Not after his words, the spat that he had helped instigate, had caused Aelin to spiral the night before. No, Rowan wouldn’t blame him if Aedion hated him for the rest of their lives. 

The Ashryver prince seemed to debate whether or not to tell Rowan where the princess was, no doubt thinking about all the nasty things Aelin must have told him about their arguments. But, Aedion must have seen something in him that made him relent.

“She’s in the gym,” he said. “West wing, third floor,”

Rowan nodded his head in thanks. There was nothing more he could say at this point.

He had been to the gym a few times, normally going late at night when sleeplessness plagued him and there was no one else in there. It was a top of the line facility, with the best equipment, plenty of space and weights, and any kind of fitness gear the heart desired. Rowan had to admit that it was nice.

Even before he pushed open the doors to the gym, Rowan could hear loud, thumping music pulsing through the walls, courtesy of the fantastic sound-system they had set up. The full effect of the volume hit him like a punch to the face the moment he stepped through the doors.

Rowan scanned the sprawling space. She wasn’t on the treadmills, nor over by the free weights. Aelin wasn’t sprawled out on a mat doing yoga stretches or doing leg presses. She was…

Rowan blinked, as if his eyes were deceiving him.

But they weren’t. Aelin Ashryver Galathynius, crown princess of Terrasen, was kickboxing. 

He couldn’t stop himself from staring.

Her form and technique were perfect, eyes narrowed and brows furrowed in concentration as she abused the hanging bag. Her hair was tied back in a tight, long braid, whipping back as forth as she moved as swiftly as the winds. There was sweat dotting her brow and her toned body, which was on display in the sports bra and spandex shorts she wore today. Above the bass of the music, Rowan could hear her grunting and hissing in effort.

He never would have suspected that this was how the princess spent her time in the gym, looking like she could walk into the octagon tomorrow if she wished.

If Rowan had known she could fight like that, maybe he would have thought twice about antagonizing her. 

He dared a few steps closer, and only then did she notice him. Those stunning eyes snapped towards him, still burning with whatever fire was fueling her fists. She straightened, lowering her hands and just looking at him.

Her face was cold and unreadable. Rowan could tell she wasn’t angry or sad… but she looked tired. Dark circles weighed down her eyes, making her face look more gaunt. Clearly, the previous night had taken a toll on her.

“If you’re here with pity,” Aelin said at length. “I don’t want it,”

Her words lacked their usual spark, as if the fight had been pulled out of her. She sounded fatigued, as if, for once, she didn’t feel like starting an argument.

“No pity,” Rowan said earnestly. “I just want to talk,”

Aelin blinked at him, as if she were trying to decide whether or not he was telling a lie. She jerked her head to the hanging bag. “I’m in the middle of something,”

Rowan shrugged. “Fine then,” he strode forward, taking two hand pads off the wall and slipping them on before planting himself before Aelin, feet spread solidly. “You can workout and talk,”

Aelin raised a skeptical brow. “Do you even know anything about kickboxing? Or any kind of martial art? What, did you take karate when you were twelve and you think it stuck?”

“I was in the military,” Rowan said baldly. “Airforce, to be exact. I have an idea what I’m doing,”

Her eyes grew a fraction of an inch, clearly surprised by what he had said. It reminded him of how little they truly knew of one another, and how much they had to learn. Both of them.

“Oh,” said Aelin simply, brushing a few sweaty strands of hair from her face. “Well, I suppose we can do that,”

Rowan held up the pads, raising a brow as if to say, Ready when you are, princess.

Aelin’s gloved hands rose up in front of her face, gaze zeroing in on the pads, before she began to move. Simple jabs and crosses to start out with. 

He allowed her to fall into a rhythm, nothing but the dull smack of her gloves hitting the beaten leather pads and her panting breaths to fill the air. It was strange. When Rowan had imagined Aelin throwing punches at him, it was never this calm.

“How are you feeling?” he asked at length.

Aelin didn’t look away from her targets. “Like shit. But, what can you expect? I deserved it anyhow, for the crap I pulled last night,”

“Are you… okay?” 

Rowan didn’t know how else to word it, hoping that Aelin would receive the nuances from the seemingly simple question. There were things he wasn’t sure how, or if, he should say aloud to her.

Aelin’s shoulders slumped as she sighed. “I guess. Or I will be, eventually,” she finally looked away from the pads, meeting his eye. Her lips were pressed together tightly, giving away the guilt he now knew she felt. “I’m sorry that you got dragged into all that mess. I thought I was over it… I should have been over it. I just fucked up,”

“You’re allowed to make mistakes,”

Aelin released a bark of bitter laughter. “Not mistakes I’ve already made before.”

“I’m sorry for what I said last night,” Rowan murmured carefully, hoping she wouldn't throw his apology back into his face. “I didn’t mean… I didn't know...”

“I know you didn’t,” said Aelin gently, in a tone Rowan had never heard her use before. “How could you? As if our publicity team would let people know that Terrasen’s perfect princess went on a drug spree,” she looked to him, wetting her lips, hints of nervousness cracking through her normally impeccable mask. “And I’m sorry for what I said to you. I was being a miserable bitch. I didn’t know about what happened to her. Your fiancée, I mean. I’m so, so sorry,”

Rowan’s heart panged at the mention of Lyria. He had done so well at blocking out thought about the woman he had been prepared to marry, knowing it would only make him more miserable given the situation. He sucked down a bracing breath.

“Lyria… I had been so in love with her,” Rowan began in a whisper. “I was so excited to marry her, but I- I didn’t treat her the way she deserved to be treated. I was planning on going on another tour back a few years ago when we were at war with the Akkadians. She begged me not to go, but I did anyway,” he hated how his voice began to break as he told his story. It had been so long since he had to regale it to anyone, to even utter Lyria’s name. “She got in that crash a week after I had left. I can’t help but wonder that if I had stayed, if I had been there… maybe Lyria would still be alive,”

It was then that Rowan noted how silent the gym had become, that even the loud music had ceased playing. He swallowed hard before looking up towards Aelin, wondering what he would find written on her face. He worried he would see pity, but instead, there was only deep, unrelenting sorrow. 

She was silent for a few moments, looking forlornly at her gloved hands before she released a deep sigh and wordlessly sat down on the padded floor, tucking her knees up to her chest.

Rowan slowly lowered himself across from her, ridding himself of the hand pads. 

He had been wrong to call her a girl. Yes, Aelin was young, but she had been through much in her years. The weight of all of it seemed to press down on her in a way she didn’t deserve. 

“When I was nineteen,” Aelin began in a rasping whisper. “We got a new member of our security team. He was young, not much older than I was, but he was good,”

“Sam?” Rowan asked softly.

She nodded. “Yeah. Sam. Sam Cortland…”

Rowan could hear it in her voice, see it in her face, that he had meant a great deal to her. And that he was gone.

“We got to know each other, started spending time together outside of when he was working,” Aelin continued. “He was my best friend, but then, one day, I just… kissed him. And things changed a little, but not a lot. It was good. Great, even. I was so happy with him I didn’t think it was real…

“And then one night, about a year after we had met, we’re together in my room, and Sam says he loves me,” a tear drips down her cheek, though a shaky smile makes its way to her lips. “I was so off guard that I didn’t say anything back, no one had ever said that to me before. Sam was okay with me not saying it back yet, he wasn’t going to pressure me into doing it. But I did love him. I was planning on telling him the next night,

“But the following morning we were hosting a charity event. Sam was there, working. He was standing off to the side, making faces at me trying to get me to laugh while my parents and uncle were presenting next to me…”

Rowan’s stomach dropped, knowing where the rest of this story was going.

“It- it all happened so fast…” she stammered. “One minute I’m standing next to my uncle, the next there were shots and people screaming. I saw a masked man charging towards me, saw him reach into his jacket. I knew what he was going to do, I knew I wouldn’t be able to move fast enough… but Sam did. He threw himself in front of me just as that shot rang out and-” her voice failed her, cracking with emotion. “The force of it knocked him back into me and we fell to the ground. I didn’t see the other guards grabbing the man who shot me. All I could see was Sam and the blood staining his chest.”

Rowan’s heart wrenched for her, knowing how difficult it was to get through a story such as this without breaking down into unintelligible sobs.

“They were dragging me away before I even realized what was happening, before I even started screaming,” she said. “Once it all clicked together, I fought against the men holding me, trying to get to Sam. To save him, to do something, ” she wiped at her eyes. “But I couldn’t get away. It was only after, when they were reading the coroner’s reports to us, did I learn that my parents were both dead before they hit the ground and Sam… they said he bled out within seconds. That it wasn’t painful…

“But he died alone. And I didn’t get to say goodbye. Or tell him that I loved him back,”

For a few moments, she was silent, save for the occasional sniff as she cried quietly. Rowan knew there were no words he could say to sooth her pain away, nor did he feel as if he knew her well enough to take her hand or embrace her. All he could offer her was to listen, and to understand. 

“It wasn’t long after that that I started with the drinking and the partying and the drugs,” Aelin admitted. “I knew it wasn’t right, I knew it was bad for me, but my heart hurt so terribly that I couldn’t think of anything else to make it stop. The worst part was that I didn’t even crave the high, I just wanted to forget. Aedion hated it, he had to drag me back kicking and fighting on several occasions, but it didn’t stop me.”

“Why did you stop then?” Rowan asked earnestly.

“There was this kid,” Aelin began. “Not really a kid, about the same age as me. We weren't really friends, but we ran in the same shitty circles. Got high together off of Archer’s drugs. Didn’t talk much but we were friendly… and then one day, I heard that he was dead. Took some halucinagentics, tripped too hard, fell off a bridge and drowned. His parents had to identify his body when they finally found it. And that… it just shook me to the core. I realized that could be me, that I could die high and alone and my family would have to suffer through that. I thought that would be a shitty way to honor Sam’s sacrifice,

“So the next day I went to Aedion, sobbing, and begging for his help. He didn’t hesitate, and he didn’t look down on me for it,” Aelin said. “And for that, I will always be grateful, but there are still times when I’ll think about it. I hate myself for it, but when things get hard, I think about how easy it would be to get high and forget about it. Things are better but… not perfect.”

With that, she faded into silence, signalling that her tale was done. Rowan didn’t speak right away, letting the princess gather herself, to control her breathing and wipe away her tears. Once she composed herself, had taken to fiddling with the laces of her sneakers, did he finally deign to speak up.

“Thank you for telling me this, Aelin,” Rowan stated softly. “Truly,”

She shrugged nonchalantly, as if it were nothing. “It was the least I can do after the shit night I made you have last night. You look almost as bad as I do right now,”

Despite the heavy conversation that had just ended, Rowan barked out a laugh, and even Aelin managed to crack a smile, peeking up at him through his lashes.

“We’ve really been shitty to one another, haven’t we?” Rowan asked, raising a brow.

“To put it nicely, yeah,”

“I’m sorry about that,”

Aelin pursed her lips. “Me too… but I’d like to move past that if you’re down with it. Maybe… start over?”

There was a fragile sort of hope of her face, one that Rowan felt deep inside him as well. She was extending an olive branch, dangling out the potential of friendship and of trust. And, by the nerves in her turquoise eyes, she thought he may reject it.

But Rowan only smiled and nodded. “Yes. I think I’d like that,”

A relieved grin found its way to Aelin’s lips, chasing away some of the heaviness that the last twenty-four hours had bestowed upon her. She quickly unstrapped her gloves, revealing her wrapped hands.

“In that case,” she breathed, jutting out a hand towards him. “I’m Aelin. It’s nice to meet you,”

Rowan didn’t hesitate before taking her hand and giving it a firm shake. “It’s nice to meet you too,”

They spoke a bit longer, nothing too deep, just enough to create a level of comfort between them, to learn how to communicate like real people after weeks of anger and nasty fights. It was a few simple things, Rowan asking if there was anything he could do for her, or if there was anything she needed.

She answered him with a withering look that seemed to say I feel shitty, I’m not dying, you overbearing prick.

But even her silent look didn’t hold the sharpness it once did, instead there was a glimmer of humor, of teasing. At least it gave Rowan one more thing to know about Aelin: she didn’t take kindly to being fussed over.

They parted ways in the early evening, both of them intent on going to bed early tonight to recover from the shit-show from the previous evening.

The next morning, when Rowan arrived for breakfast, Aelin was already there. She looked immensely better than she had the day before, the light back in her eyes, the bags banished from her skin. And, for the first time since they had met, when she saw him, Aelin graced him with a genuine smile.

He supposed there was something about sharing those dark, vulnerable parts of one another, finding someone who had similar wounds, would help build an understanding rather quickly.

Rowan smiled back, and, by the time he sat down, noticed Fenrys staring at him in blatant bewilderment. He hadn’t told his companion about what had transpired between him and Aelin the night before. His shock was warranted, but still entertaining. 

He and Aelin didn’t talk much over breakfast save for a few interjections here and there. But still… it was nice. To not have that lingering tension hanging over every meal.

They parted ways after the meal. They had told one another that they should meet up, to try and get to know one another better, but Rowan wasn’t quite sure how to approach that. He didn’t want to overstep his bounds, to drive her away when they had just mended the chasms that were once between them.

But it seemed Aelin had some ideas.

It was early afternoon when Rowan’s phone buzzed with a text message. From Aelin, to be exact. They had exchanged numbers yesterday, comically enough. It was amazing that they had been engaged to be married and yet didn’t even have each other’s cell phone numbers.

Do you want to get lunch? Her text read.

Rowan slid a bookmark in the novel he was skimming through, brows bunching together as he picked up his phone. Sure. Here?

Almost immediately, the dots popped up to show that the princess was typing.

No, not here. I want a burger and the cooks here don’t make them greasy enough for me.

Rowan snorted softly. That’s fine by me.

Good. I hope you’re ready because I’m already here.

Rowan only had the chance to blink at the message before his door was swinging open and in strolled Aelin Galathynius. She was donned in casual clothes, a well-fit black tank top and matching leggings. Her golden hair was pulled back in a high ponytail that stuck out the back of her baseball cap.

“Good afternoon!” she chirped, plopping into the chair across from him and giving his room a once-over. “You keep this place so clean. I don’t think that surprises me, though,”

The prince had worried that their first interactions would be awkward, but it would seem Aelin had a solution to that: pretend like they were old friends. Not that Rowan minded at all. In fact, he appreciated that she had smashed through any ice between them.

Rowan shook his head at the princess incredulously. “You didn’t think of knocking?”

She scoffed. “What’s the worst that could happen? I see you naked? Been there, done that,”

“Do you have a filter?”

“No, I had it removed, actually,”

And, although Rowan should have been stern, he still couldn’t hold back his laughter, noticing how Aelin’s eyes were alight with joy as well, trying to hide her own snickers behind her hand.

“So, are you ready to go? I’m starving,” she said.

Rowan pushed to his feet. “Give me a few minutes,”

He strode from the sitting room into his closet, grabbing a jacket, his wallet, and some shoes. Good enough. Judging by Aelin’s choice of wardrobe, they weren’t going anywhere fancy. By the time he was back in the front room, Aelin was on her feet and chucking a hat at him.

“Put that on,”

Rowan raised a brow at the hat, printed with the logo of Terrasen’s football team. “What is it with you and your cousin and hats? They’re not disguises,”

“I’ve been doing this for a while. I know how to not be recognized,” Aelin said, motioning at her body. “Right now, I’m just another yoga fanatic. People just don’t recognize me when I’m not in fancy dresses with my hair done,”

Rowan still looked at her skeptically, leading to Aelin rolling her eyes.

“Just trust me, will you?” 

He popped the cap on and held his hands up in defense. “So, should I be preparing myself to be followed around by security all afternoon?”

Aelin made a face and shook her head. “Nope. Just us.”

“Is that allowed?”

She smiled mischievously and winked. “Only if we don’t get caught,”

Chapter Text

“I sincerely hope you’re not going to make me walk all the way,” Rowan grumbled.

“Don’t tell me you’re too lazy to walk a few blocks?” Aelin teased, making him scowl, much to her entertainment. “No, don’t worry. I don’t feel like getting sweaty right now either,”

She was leading Rowan out the back doors, through the gardens. She could see the confusion written clearly on his face.

“Are you seriously sneaking us out right now?” Rowan hissed.

“Obviously!” Aelin said, leading him through some low bushes. “This is the easiest way to get out. Back when I was sneaking out and getting high out of my mind every night, this was the first place Aedion put more security. But then after I got clean, they went away,”

“And does your cousin know you sneak out?”

“Oh, please. Aedion taught me how to sneak out,”

Aelin ducked under some low-hanging branches, hearing Rowan’s footsteps crunching in the carpet of dead leaves and mulch behind her. They had reached the fence that surrounded the gardens. She reached out and shimmied the post that she had loosened, pushing it off to the side, giving her plenty of room to slip through. Rowan had to maneuver himself a bit awkwardly to fit, considering he was a great deal larger than her. She tried to keep herself from laughing at the sight.

Rowan was looking at her as if she were crazy as she slid the post back into its spot.

“I can’t believe you did that so casually,” he said, shaking his head at her.

“And I can’t believe you’re being so prissy about it,” Aelin replied. “We’re just getting lunch, it’s not like we’re going to commit armed robbery. But, there’s always tomorrow for that,”

“Part of me wonders if you would do that,”

“If I did, it would be only for the rush of it. And then I’d give out all the shit I stole. Full-on Robin Hood,”

“Would you wear the outfit too?”

“Maybe. I do love a good pair of tights,”

They stepped out from under the gloom of the shade into the bright, spring sunlight. They stood on the sidewalk outside a near-deserted street, following the path towards the street corner where it got a bit more busy.  Plenty of people were soaking up the beautiful day, jogging, walking dogs, pushing children in strollers. Not a single one of them paid Aelin and Rowan a second glance. Today, they were no more than a couple of runners getting in their daily exercise.

Aelin grabbed her phone, feeling Rowan peer over her shoulder.

“What are you doing?” he asked.

“Calling an Uber,” Aelin said. “Since you were so against walking,”

Rowan narrowed his eyes at her, but it lacked true ferocity. 

It was lucky that the city had been built around the palace, meaning that whenever Aelin was in need of an Uber, there was one no more than a minute away. Almost before they knew it, a sleek black car was pulling up beside them, the window rolling down to reveal a cheery, middle-aged woman.

“Lillian?” she asked.

“Yup!” 

Aelin ignored the questioning stare Rowan sent to her as they climbed into the back of the car.

“Orynth Square, right?” the driver confirmed.

“Yes, please!”

Orynth Square held all of the best shops and restaurants in the city. It was a lively place, filled to the brim with people no matter the day, which would also help them blend in. What were two more strangers within a crowd? 

Aelin dearly loved the Square. All of the food, the bakeries and candy shops, the live music played at outdoor patios. She would go more often if she could, but even Aelin knew that would be pushing her luck. 

It had been months since she had last been. It would be good to see her city again.

The driver hummed along to the up-beat pop songs playing over the radio, tapping her fingers along to the rhythm, completely oblivious to who exactly she had in her backseat.

“I hope you’re ready for the best burger of your life,” Aelin said to Rowan. “Their milkshakes are pretty damn good to,”

Rowan shrugged. “I’m not a big fan of sweets,”

Aelin’s jaw dropped. “What is wrong with you?”

“It’s terrible for you,”

“Yeah, that’s the point!”

There was a sort of wry amusement on Rowan’s face. Don’t come crying to me once you rot your teeth out.

It wasn’t a long drive to Orynth Square. Soon enough, Aelin directed the driver towards a spot where she could drop them off. She made sure to tip her well and leave a good review before she and Rowan slipped out of the car into the bustling square.

“Come on,” Aelin said, jerking her head down the pavement. “It’s right over here,”

Many other people may have overlooked the tiny burger place. It wasn’t as large as some of the other restaurants or cafes, nor was it decorated spectacularly. There was a tiny seating area of wooden benches under striped umbrellas outside. The sign was worn by weather and age, but still clearly readable. King of the North: Burgers and Brewery. 

It was normally packed to the brim with patrons, popular amongst many different groups of people. Families, drunk college kids, and those people who were really into craft beers that Aelin never really understood.

But today it was… subdued. 

There were maybe five other groups of people seated around the restaurant when normally she had to fight tooth and nail for a table.

The host, a young boy, offered them a grin when they strolled through the doors.

“Hey there! How many?”

“Just two, please,” Aelin said, unable to stop her brows from furrowing from the emptiness at one of Orynth’s most popular restaurants.  

The host grabbed the menus and started to lead them back.

“A bit slow today?” Aelin asked.

The boy glanced back at her and shrugged. “It’s been like this for a while… you know how it is right now. A lot of people don’t got the money to go out and eat,”

Aelin felt her heart drop. The last few days had been such a whirlwind she had almost forgotten the reason Rowan had been brought into her life at all. Her people were suffering.

"That's terrible," said Aelin.

The host nodded as he placed their menus down. "It is. The White Flame shut down last week,"

"You're kidding!" Aelin gaped as she slid into the booth. "That was my favorite coffee shop!"

The boy frowned. "Mine too. I hope things will get better soon. Can I get you both something to drink?”

Aelin blinked at the sudden shift in direction, but she supposed he had a job to do. “A diet coke for me, please,”

“Just a water,” Rowan said from across the table. “Thank you,”

The boy nodded and then scurried away, leaving Aelin alone with Rowan She raised a brow at him and offered a smile.

“So,” Aelin said, leaning forward and placing her hands on the slightly-sticky wooden table. “I thought that we could try and get to know each other better today,”

“So you brought me here to interrogate me, then?” Rowan teased.

“It’s a mutual interrogation. I’ll ask a question, you’ll ask a question. Simple,”

“Fine then,” he said, leaning back in his seat, making a sweeping motion towards her. “Ask away,”

“Favorite color?” Aelin had been creating a mental list of questions to ask Rowan, deciding to start with something simple.

“Green. Yours?”

“Red." 

"What did you want to be when you grew up? Or was it always a princess?”

Aelin snorted. “I wanted to be a nurse. Pretended to be one with my toys and stuffed animals when I was a kid. My parents entertained it when I was younger, but I eventually figured out that it would never happen. But, I don’t resent it. When did you join the airforce?”

“I was pretty young, right out of college. Twenty, twenty-one, maybe,”

“What made you want to join?”

Rowan ran a hand down his face as he thought. “When I was younger, I never liked to sit still. It made me a pretty shitty student, not that I got bad grades. I just drove my teachers up the wall, my uncle too. And, since I’m an unessential heir, I had freedom to do what I wanted. So, I figured my energies were better spent in the field rather than in a classroom,”

“What’s flying that fast like?” Aelin asked, unable to hide her curiosity. She had been on jets before, but they were luxury, very much unlike the craft that the military used.

“It’s exhilarating. And terrifying,” Rowan said, looking away from her as he got lost in the memories. “To go so fast, so high… it’s a feeling I can’t really describe,”

“You’d think they’d ever let me fly one?”

Rowan barked out a laugh. “Not if they had any sense, they wouldn’t. What kind of martial arts do you do and how did you get into it?”

“Well, I started training in self-defense when I was pretty young,” Aelin began, absentmindedly twisting her ponytail around her hand and wrist. “My parents wanted me to be able to defend myself. And then once they died, I started to get more serious about it. I’ve done a bit of everything. Judo, kickboxing, jujitsu, krav maga…”

Rowan let out a low whistle of appreciation. “Krav maga is brutal,”

“I know. That’s why I liked it so much,” Aelin grinned. “Your tattoos… I recognize that they’re in the Old Language, but I never learned how to speak or read it. Do they say something in particular?”

Rowan glanced down at the elegant script that sprawled down his arm, bared because of the short-sleeved shirt he wore today. His lips tightened a fraction of an inch before answering. “They tell the story about Lyria. I got them done not long after she died in her honor,”

Aelin’s heart clenched beneath her ribs. “That’s beautiful…”

It was then that the waiter came back bearing their drinks before taking their order. Rowan had handed Aelin the reigns and allowed her to choose for him, since he believed she would know better. He was right, of course. Two of their signature burgers, a fat side of fries, and their largest chocolate milkshake. Rowan had only made a face at the sugary dessert, but he didn’t object. Maybe Aelin wouldn’t even share it with him.

She took a long drought of her soda, relishing the tickling bubbles as it slid down her throat. She raised a brow at Rowan, signalling that it was his turn to ask a question.

He worked his jaw as he thought. “If you could be any animal, what would it be?”

“Oh, that’s a good one. A stag, I think. They’re elegant, and it goes along with the house of Galathynius. I think it would be fitting. You?”

“I honestly have no idea,” Rowan sighed.

“Well, I would say something that flies, to go along with the whole airforce theme. Maybe an eagle? Buzzard? Oh, or a hawk?”

Rowan’s lips spread in a slow grin. “A hawk is actually the symbol of the Whitethorn house,”

“Well then, I’m very intuitive. Though I do think a buzzard would work out just as well. Do you like to read?”

“Yes, I do,”

“What kind of books?”

Rowan shrugged. “Some non-fiction. I’ll read some history, psychology. But I also like thrillers or a mystery novel here or there. You?”

Aelin smirked. “I’ll read anything I can get my hands on, but I do love a good romance novel,”

The prince across from her made a face. “Like those weird ones with the dramatic couple paintings on the front?”

“Those are some of them, yes. I don’t discriminate. I have some you can borrow if you’d like,”

“I think I’ll pass,”

“Your loss,” Aelin said. “How’d you meet Fenrys? You two are quite different,”

“We met as children. His family was always close with mine, so we saw each other quite a lot,” Rowan began. “When we were kids, he annoyed the shit out of me and I would pummel him while his brother sat back and watched. But, it got better as we got older. He served in the military for a bit too. Now, he’s like a brother,”

“Reminds me of Aedion,” Aelin commented, swirling around the soda and the ice in her cup. “Sometimes I want to beat the snot out of him, but at the end of the day, he’s my oldest and closest friend,”

"His mother was from Wendlyn, wasn't she?" Rowan asked, naming the country that neighbored Doranelle across the sea. "Your mother too, if I'm not mistaken,"

"Yup, though I've never been. Or met my other cousins over there," Aelin explained. "I suppose Galan seems nice enough, though,"

"I've met him. He's a good man,"

"Hm," Aelin said, pursing her lips. "Good to know. Tell me about Lyria. How did you two meet?"

Rowan's face softened, fiddling with the salt shaker as he thought, a tiny, forlorn smile on his lips. "We met in college at some house party. We started talking, then started dating, and before I knew it, I was in love with her and getting down on one knee,"

“That's really sweet,” Aelin said, unable to stop herself from glancing at the ring that donned her finger currently. Now she knew of Rowan’s story, and she knew how difficult it must have been to give this ring to another woman after all he had lost. It must have felt like some cruel, cosmic joke.

Rowan opened his mouth, no doubt noticing the small shift in Aelin’s demeanor. But, before he got the chance to ask anything, the waiter swept up to their booth bearing steaming baskets of burgers and fries. 

“Here you go,” the boy said, placing a basket in front of both of them. “And your shake,”

Aelin beamed at the glass filled to the brim with the creamiest chocolate shake she had ever had, topped with a mountain of whipped cream with a gratuitous cherry on top. Gods, that would be good.

“Thank you,” Rowan said, offering a tiny smile.

“No problem!” the boy says before scurrying off to bring another table their cheque. 

Aelin’s stomach growled impatiently as the savory aroma of the burger wafted up to her nose. She wasted no time before grabbing it, seeing that Rowan was doing the same from across the table. Aelin flashed him a grin and held her burger up.

“Cheers!”

Rowan snorted softly but held up his burger in turn. “Cheers,”

As usual, Aelin’s first bite was embarrassingly large, which is what she tended to do when she didn’t have to put on airs when they had guests over. Her eyes fluttered shut as she chewed. It had been too damn long since she had eaten a nice, greasy burger. The cooks at the palace sometimes made a burger, but they were always the fancy gourmet ones with the expensive buns that someone never managed to taste nearly as good as one of these.

So good, ” Aelin groaned before grabbing a few fries and shoving them into her face. Gods, those were perfect too. She opened her eyes and looked towards Rowan, raising a brow as his throat bobbed as he swallowed. “Well? What do you think?”

Rowan nodded slowly, brows flickering up. “Pretty damn good. You were right,”

“One thing you should know about me, Rowan Whitethorn,” Aelin drawled, taking a deep, long drink of her shake. “I’m never wrong,”

They devoured their burgers and fries in what must have been record timing. Aelin had access to the best chefs in the country, top of the line ingredients and foods, and yet sometimes, a burger cooked in a hole-in-the-wall restaurant was the one thing in the world she wanted.

Aelin polished off everything in her basket, taking to swiping fries from Rowan, mostly to see him scowl at her. It was rather funny.

She even got him to try some of her shake. 

“It’s… okay, I guess,” Rowan had admitted. “It’s just so sweet,”

“That’s the point!’

When it came time to pay, both she and Rowan left a more than generous tip, scurrying out of the restaurant before the waiter could object, because he seemed like one of those noble kinds that would try and say he couldn’t accept it. 

The day outside was beautiful. The bright, spring sun kissed the skin of Aelin’s face as she tilted it to the sky. Orynth square was a beautiful, eclectic mix. White sidewalks and elegant street lamps, dotted with sprinkling fountains and little sitting areas tucked under wide umbrellas. People walked dogs, completed their shopping, teenagers went on dates at coffee shops. There were cafes and furniture stores, antiques and resale shops.

But, Aelin knew something was different.

There were far less people roaming the clean streets than she remembered. Some stores were empty while others had been shut down completely. 

Aelin’s eye caught on a figure slumped in front of an empty store front. The man had shed his jacket in the warm, afternoon air, draping it over his legs. His hair was shaggy, a scraggly beard springing from his chin. There were words scrawled on a stained piece of cardboard propped up behind a cup.

Homeless. Anything helps.

Aelin’s felt her heart wrench within her chest. Before Rowan could even notice, she had slipped off towards the man. She grabbed all the cash from her wallet, shoving it into the plastic cup. She wasn’t sure how much she had in there, at least two hundred. She wished she had more with her to give, but she hoped that this was enough to help.

The man started at Aelin’s sudden appearance, staring wide-eyed at the wad of cash she had shoved into the awaiting cup. She angled her head to hide her face behind the visor of her cap before slipping away just as quickly as she had arrived.

Rowan was looking at her with a strange expression by the time she came back to his side. She raised her brows.

“What?”

“Nothing,” Rowan said with a nonchalant shrug. “It’s just… I understand why you did it. Why you agreed to an arranged marriage. I didn’t get it at first, I didn’t think you were the kind of person to make that kind of sacrifice but I was wrong. I can tell that seeing your people like this hurts you,”

Aelin’s eyes flickered to her sneakers. “It does. This wasn’t an easy choice to make at first but I knew it was what I had to do,”

They faded into silence for a few moments, strolling down the street side by side. It was at least a pleasant sort of silence, not heavy and awkward. 

“Thank you for inviting me today, Aelin,” Rowan murmured at some point. “It was nice to… to get to know you,”

When Aelin looked at him, when she smiled, it was pure and genuine. “It was nice to get to know you too,”

Chapter Text

A content week went by. Aelin and Rowan didn’t argue, instead trying to spend a bit of time together everyday. She showed him the library, even going as far as to show him her favorite, cozy nook. They went on walks through the expansive gardens which were simply exquisite during the peak of spring. 

It was nice getting to know him a bit more everyday. Aelin learned he had a quick, sharp sense of humor that made an appearance every once in a while. She learned more about his days in the airforce, got to know more about his childhood. His parents had died when he was young, his father of a heart condition, his mother not long after. He said the doctors said it was from takotsubo cardiomyopathy . A broken heart. He had lived with his uncle and some of his cousins afterwards.

His uncle had been strict and raised him as if he were a crown prince. Etiquette and manners, private schools, until he had turned eighteen and shunned it all. Still, Aelin got him to admit he had been forced to take ballroom classes in the past. It brought her infinite pleasure imagining a teenaged Rowan stuffed into a stiff suit and forced to dance. 

And soon enough, another event where they would have to pretend to be in love was right around the corner.

They would be hosting a party for Beltane. In the past, Beltane was a dramatic ceremony. Huge, towering pyres and fantastical tales, music and dancing among bonfires. Now, the most they did for the holiday was a few scattered torches and maybe one wide fire pit. 

But Aelin looked forward to it nonetheless.

She had always loved Beltane, even as a child. She had read about how the holiday was celebrated in the past, admiring the pictures drawn in aged inks in some of the old books they had in the library. She always wished she could see how Beltane had been celebrated in the past. 

Her mother had to stop her from trying to jump over fires when she was a child. Evalin had always said that Aelin loved Beltane because she had a heart of flames.

Elide came back to Orynth the day before Beltane. Aelin spent the night with her and Lysandra curled up in her room, eating their weights in chocolate and sweets as she filled in her friend about everything that had happened with Rowan since she had left. Aelin had been keeping her updated through text, but now it was time to tell her every single detail.

But Elide wasn’t the only guest that would be coming for Beltane. 

Dorian Havilliard would make an appearance. He always preferred coming to Terrasen for Beltane, claiming that they knew how to celebrate it better in the north. By that, Aelin assumed he like getting trashed off of their wine and doing stupid shit with Aelin and her cousin once the rest of the guests left. 

The morning of Beltane, she and Rowan stood side by side, waiting to greet their guests. Orlon was wrapped up in a meeting, making their greeting party small. Not that Aelin minded. Then there would be less pretense and she could reunite with her friends the way she wanted.

“Rowan, I’m just saying that water is attached to other water molecules through hydrogen bonding, so it’s wet,” Aelin hissed.

“No. I refuse to accept that. Water is not wet,” 

“Don’t get angry because I’m right. You’re literally denying science,”

It had been an argument that Fenrys had brought up during breakfast, and, true to form, Rowan and Aelin had gotten into it. Even now that they had mended ways, they were still prone to squabbles. But, they were well-natured. Lacking actual venom, more of Aelin riling Rowan up and Rowan eventually realizing what she was doing and scowling.

“How much longer are you going to keep this up?” Rowan asked.

“Oh, I can go all night,” Aelin said, flashing him a wicked smile. “I have stamina,”

The princess didn’t miss the slight shift to Rowan’s eyes, how they quickly darted down her body before snapping back up just as quickly, as if she wouldn’t notice. Aelin did, of course. 

Try as she might, Aelin couldn’t stop thinking about their times together. As desperate and as messy as it became, it had been good sex. Great sex. And Rowan was damned handsome, with his strong jaw and broad shoulders. 

It pissed her off.

Because she wanted it again, but things were messy enough as it was. They were engaged, without being in love, and knew rather little about one another. Adding casual sex just sounded like asking for trouble. They had just barely become friends, she didn’t want to jeopardize that by admitting she wanted him to fuck her senseless again.

Pathetic. Aelin knew she was being absolutely pathetic. Fuck her hormones.

Maybe she should just invest in a good toy.

“So, what’s Dorian like?” Rowan asked, shifting Aelin’s train of thought so quickly that it nearly gave her whiplash.

“He’s a good friend of mine, actually,” Aelin explained. “He’s very smart, likes to read, but his younger brother is a little shit but at least he’s not coming tonight,”

Rowan cringed slightly. “Yeah, I’ve heard a bit about his younger brother. He ever bother you?”

“Well, besides being spoiled and bratty, one time, I woke up with him standing over me with a razor. I think he was going to shave off one of my eyebrows,”

“He just walked into your room?” Rowan asked incredulously. 

“I wasn’t in my room, I was in Dorian’s,” 

Aelin’s face fell as the words left her mouth, knowing that they were incriminating. She looked up at Rowan, finding that he had a shit-eating grin on his face.

“Oh? And what were you doing sleeping in Dorian’s room?”

Aelin glared at him. “I know you’re not an idiot, why do you want me to explain that I slept with him?”

“Because it’s funny to watch you squirm,”

“Keep it up and you’ll wake up without an eyebrow tomorrow,”

“Can’t you two make it a day without arguing?” Aedion sighed as he straightened his collar, finally arriving to greet their guests. Aelin could see the car pulling up to the front.

“Where’s the fun in that?” the princess teased. 

It was then that the double glass doors opened up and in walked two figures.

It most certainly wasn’t a grand party who had come from Adarlan, and Aelin wouldn’t complain about it. Mostly because, for once, she liked everyone that walked through the doors. 

The princess beamed at Prince Dorian Havilliard and the head of his security team, Chaol Westfall. They smiled right back at her, broadly and genuinely.

“Please tell me you’ve stocked up on the good wine,” Dorian said as a form of greeting.

“You insult me by insinuating that we have anything but good wine here,” Aelin breathed, placing a hand over her heart in mock-offence. “But, I’ll look past the insult because I’ve missed you,”

With that, Aelin stepped forward and embraced the prince tightly before turning towards Chaol and hugging him too.

“It’s wonderful to see you two again!” she said, pulling back to give them both a good once-over. 

Dorian looked as he always did, with a well-tailored suit and his raven hair flowing and soft, brushing against his brow. Chaol also wore a suit, which Aelin knew he abhorred, even though he wore it well. 

Aedion came forward and shook hands with the two men, murmuring words of greeting. Her cousin and Dorian had gotten off to a rocky start in their youths. It had been in part Aelin’s fault. She had been eight, it was the first time Dorian had come to Orynth, and he spilt his drink on Aelin’s new dress. She had immediately sought Aedion out and urged him to teach the young prince a lesson.

Aedion couldn’t do much damage without getting himself in too much trouble. So, he resorted to shoving Dorian into whatever he could. The fountain, the rose bushes, a pile of mud. Just enough to make Dorian seem exceedingly clumsy. 

Their rivalry had lasted for a few more visits, even after Aelin had forgiven Dorian and became his friend. Even now, Dorian liked to bring up how Aedion used to bully him from time to time.

“Aelin, are you just going to make your new friend stand there?” Chaol murmured, looking over her shoulder towards where Rowan waited.

She rolled her eyes and took a few steps back until she was by Rowan’s side, slipping her hand into his. She could practically feel Dorian and Chaol studying them, amusement on their faces. Aelin could only assume they were skeptical about their relationship. They knew her well enough. 

“This is Rowan,” Aelin said, feeling ridiculous pretending under Dorian’s intelligent gaze. “Rowan, this is Prince Dorian Havilliard and head of Adarlan’s security team, Chaol Westfall,”

Rowan reached out and shook their hands firmly. “It’s a pleasure to meet you both,” he said, glancing back at Aelin for a moment. “My fiancé tells me that you’re very good friends,”

Aelin glowered at him and the insinuation in his face.

“Is that so?” Dorian asked, raising a dark brow. “She hasn’t told us anything about you. Funny,”

“Are you trying to start an argument? Is that what you’re trying to do?” Aelin asked. “It’s not very polite,”

You’re not very polite about not telling us that you were getting married!” Dorian shot back, pointing at Aelin’s face.

“If you’re going to get into it,” Aedion sighed. “Can we at least do it over lunch? I’m starving,”

“There’s something we can agree on,” Chaol said with a tiny smile.

Begrudgingly, still glaring at Dorian who she knew wouldn’t relent on this topic until he either blurted the truth out or managed to wring it from her, Aelin nodded. She was hungry as well and Elide was waiting for them.

They turned and began heading towards the dining room. Aelin felt Rowan come to her side, leaning down to murmur, “How many arguments are you going to get into today?”

Aelin huffed with a shrug. “Don’t know yet, but I might beat my record,”

Eating lunch helped to diffuse the lingering tension. In fact, a good five minutes after they had all sat down, Aelin forgot what had gotten her all riled up in the first place.

It was strange to see the people she had known her entire life interact with Fenrys and Rowan. They fit in more easily than Aelin had expected. Fenrys’s quick wit was a welcomed addition to their rapport. Rowan, it seemed, was more content to sit back and observe the ways they worked together, not that it really surprised Aelin. He spoke when spoken to, mostly in response to the nosy questions Dorian directed at him.

Lysandra strolled into the dining room just as their plates were being cleared away. She flashed them all a wide, bright smile in greeting.

“Lysandra!” Dorian chriped. “It’s wonderful to see your lovely face again!”

Aelin didn’t miss how his little comment bothered Aedion, her cousin staring the prince down as he ground his teeth. It seemed Dorian was just asking for it at this point. He may find himself pushed into a buffet table by the end of the night. 

Lysandra hugged both Dorian and Chaol before floating behind when Aelin stood.

“I have a few dresses for tonight that I want you to see,” Lysandra said, placing a delicate hand on the back of her chair. “Whenever you’re ready,”

“I’m good to go now,” Aelin breathed, throwing her napkin onto the table and pushing to her feet. “Ellie, want to come?”

“I would. Lys, can I convince you to help with my hair tonight?”

“Elide, you know I love playing with your hair,” Lysandra said. “Any other takers? Fenrys, I know I could work some wonders with your curls,”

Fenrys flashed a charming grin and tossed his golden hair. “I appreciate the offer, but I’ve got it down to a science now. Very particular process,”

“Can’t argue with logic like that,” Aelin said. “I’ll see you all later, then,”

“You’re not going to give your fiancé a kiss goodbye?” Dorian piped up before Aelin could sweep from the dining room. “Chaol and I don’t get bothered by PDA, don’t worry,”

Chaol turned to his friend with a look of long-suffering, but Dorian did an excellent job at ignoring him. It was an art that the two of them had perfected over the years. Chaol scolded Dorian, Dorian pretended he couldn’t hear him.

Rowan’s lips tightened a fraction of an inch, glancing down at the hands he had folded on the table.

Fuck Dorian and his fucking perceptiveness. He simply smirked, eyes flickering from Rowan to Aelin. He leaned back in his chair, an infuriating little smirk on his lips that said Your move.

Aelin simply worked her jaw, resisting the urge to vault over the table and tackle her friend. She loved Dorian, but she would kick his ass in two seconds flat. He wouldn’t stand a chance.

Her eyes landed on Rowan, meeting his gaze for a moment. Strange that she had had sex with him on more than one occasion and yet she was balking at the idea of kissing him in front of her friends. She could practically feel them all waiting in anticipation, wondering if she would or wouldn’t.

Aelin stepped towards Rowan, the sound of her heels echoing loudly over the blanket of silence that covered the room. She placed her hand on her fiancé’s shoulder, her lips quirking to the side as if to say Sorry.

She leaned down, eyes fluttering shut as she pressed her lips against Rowan’s. It was soft and sweet, unlike the other kisses they had shared in the past. Those had been near-violent, all teeth and tongue. This was almost what two people in love would have shared. Almost. It lacked the heart, the warmth, between two people who truly loved one another.

But it was nice, she supposed. Aelin liked kissing.

Her eyes cracked open as she pulled back. She couldn’t read the look on Rowan’s face and knew that if she took the time to try and decipher it, it would be suspicious. Aelin looked away quickly, raising a brow at Dorian.

“Happy?”

“I’m not quite sure if there’s a correct answer to that question,” Dorian replied.

Aelin rolled her eyes and shook her head. “Whatever. I’ll see you assholes tonight,”

Once the women departed, Rowan was left behind with the guests. He was thankful that he had Fenrys and Aedion there as a buffer of sorts, not that they were able to protect him much from Dorian’s ruthless persecution.

It was clear that the prince of Adarlan saw right through their ruse and was using their discomfort as entertainment.

The other man, Chaol, Rowan believed his name was, at least had the decency to look apologetic about his friend’s behavior. It was a strange dynamic between the two, that the head of the security team would be seated alongside the nobility like that. But, it was clear that he and the prince were close friends. Maybe Aelin would explain in more detail later.

Aelin…

If he thought too long about her, he would feel the brush of her lips against his again. It had been strange, a bit awkward given the context, but not unwelcome.

Even if they had hated one another’s guts for the first few weeks, there had been an undeniable attraction between them. Rowan wasn’t blind, Aelin was an attractive woman. And on those two occasions they had fallen victim to their passions, it had been good. Very much enjoyable, in fact. 

He wondered if Aelin had noticed the subtle ways he had been checking her out in recent days. Despite his better notions, Rowan sometimes couldn’t stop his mind from wandering to the way Aelin’s hands and mouth had felt against him. He tried to banish those thoughts as quickly as he could.

Everything about this situation was shitty. He wondered which of the gods was taking cruel pleasure in this subtle yet effective torture. Out of everyone he would be engaged to, it would be the woman he had mind-blowing sex with and now the memories of it were reminding him that he currently wasn’t having sex.

The more he thought about it, the more frustrated he became. Because he was engaged to Aelin, and even though it wasn’t out of love, he respected her too much to risk finding another woman. Because if he were found out, it would humiliate her and Terrasen’s royal family. 

Rowan did his best to answer the questions Dorian asked, mostly concerning his relationship with Aelin, nettling him for details. He did his best to answer, trying to mix truth and lies. 

It would be easier just to admit the truth to Dorian, but that wasn’t Rowan’s call to make. If Aelin wished to reveal the truth to Dorian, then she could. Rowan didn’t care either way. 

By the time late afternoon rolled around, they parted ways to prepare for the celebration. The halls were just beginning to fill up with staff and caterers all filing out towards the spacious gardens.

Rowan took the time to rest, to mentally prepare himself for the night of socializing and smiling. It didn’t take him long to ready himself for the evening. He slipped into a crisp button-down, shrugging on his suit jacket, ensuring that his hair didn’t look like a mess before deciding he looked good enough. By good enough, he meant that Aelin wouldn’t berate him about his appearance. 

Rowan glanced down at the watch on his wrist, probably one of the nicest things he owned. Shiny, expensive, more than anything Rowan would have spent on himself, anyway. His uncle had given it to him for his eighteenth birthday and now he wore it on special occasions. 

It was about time to go if he didn’t want to be late. The sun was beginning to dip down below the trees and he was expected to meet with Aelin before the sun set. 

Rowan left his room. The residential area of the palace was empty, but he could detect faint echoes of laughter and snippets of conversation from somewhere within the building. He reached the grand, marble staircase, placing his hand on the banister, only making it one step before the sound of heels came from behind him.

“You trying to run off without me?”

Rowan glanced over his shoulder, finding Aelin Galathynius briskly strutting towards him, flashing a dazzling smile.

Rowan made to smile back, but faltered as he got a good look at her.

Aelin was stunning tonight. She wore a flowy, white dress, the airy skirts hitting mid-shin. The sleeves were long and gauzy, capped at the wrists with a band of sparking, crystal beading. The neckline was a sharp v, not deep enough to be scandalous, but enough to toe the line as Aelin clearly liked to do. As she grew closer, he spotted the delicate, silver necklace hanging from her throat, a little stag pendant attached to it. 

The white looked phenomenal against her skin, bringing out the golden undertones. Half of her silky hair was swept back in silver pins, the rest of it falling down in her back in soft waves. Simple, cream-colored pointed-toe pumps completed the look.

She looked soft and ethereal and feminine. A lovely princess, and yet the wickedly playful gleam in her eyes was purely Aelin. 

“You’re earlier than I thought you would be,” Rowan said. “I would have assumed you would be fashionably late,”

“Normally I would be,” Aelin breathed, planting herself a step above him, putting them at eye-level. “But Aedion’s already down there and he’s a pig. I didn’t want to wait for him to eat all the good snacks before coming down,”

“Ah, that’s an understandable argument,” 

“I’m sure it is,” Aelin stepped down to the same level as him, shoulder brushing against his. “Did Dorian give you a hard time after I left?”

“Nothing that I couldn’t handle,” 

Aelin made a face. “He’s being a prick,”

“He knows,”

“Yeah, he’s too smart for his own good,” Aelin grumbled. “Little fucker just wanted to prove his point and make us squirm. He’s probably just pissed that I didn’t tell him,”

Despite himself, Rowan choked out a laugh. Only Aelin would refer to the crown prince of Adarlan as a little fucker. And Dorian was her friend. It made him wonder what wonderful phrases she had concocted for him while they had been busy despising one another. 

Rowan held out an arm. “Ready to go?”

Aelin took his arm, sidling up close to him, the engagement ring on her finger glimmering in the yellow light of the chandeliers. “I am if you are,”

Rowan stole another glance at Aelin as they began descending the stairs. 

“You look beautiful tonight,”

Aelin started, as if surprised by the compliment. She blinked once at him, lips parted. For a moment, Rowan feared he had overstepped some bound. But Aelin saved him from an embarrassing and awkward apology by speaking.

“Why, thank you, prince,” she said, offering him an easy grin. “Lysandra is an artist. And you clean up pretty nicely as well, not to mention you did it yourself. I’m impressed,”

“I’m not sure if that’s a compliment or not,”

“It’s up for interpretation,”

By the time they had reached the bottom of the stairs, they had encountered their first guests. Rowan didn’t recognize them, he wasn’t sure if Aelin did as well, but she was polite and charming nevertheless, introducing Rowan to a well-dressed man and the pretty, demure woman on his arm. 

She was fun to watch as she worked her way through the guests that stopped her in the halls. Aelin was good at seeming polite while slipping away as quickly as humanly possible. Rowan could watch her do it all night.

Eventually, they managed to wring their way out of the halls into the cool night air.

The gardens were always beautiful, especially in spring. But there was something about the foliage being bathed in the cool light of the full moon and the warm glow of torches that made it seem ethereal. 

There were one or two large bonfires set up in the open spaces, the burning wood crackling loudly and releasing the sweet smelling smoke, turning the air slightly hazy. 

There were tables laden with food and drink. Plates of fresh fruits, tiny, sweet cakes, slices of fresh bread and other savory appetizers. 

“Wine?” Aelin asked.

“Please,”

Aelin released his arm and snatched up two glasses, handing on to him before clinking hers against his. “Cheers!”

Rowan grinned at her before taking the first sip. Aelin hadn’t been joking, it was good wine. But he should be sure not to drink too much. The last time he had mixed a surplus of wine alongside of an evening with Aelin ended with them back in his room and making a mistake. A thoroughly pleasurable mistake, but a mistake nonetheless. 

Rowan scanned the gardens, looking around at the guests. Some, Rowan recognized. He had met them here and there, a few at the engagement party. He saw Aedion speaking to Lysandra, seated on a little stone bench tucked into an arch of rose bushes. Orlon and Darrow had a small crowd of people circled around them, as if he were holding court even during a party. By one of the buffet tables, Prince Dorian and Chaol Westfall stood speaking to a few young women.

“Dorian and Chaol,” Rowan murmured to Aelin. “What’s their deal?”

The princess snorted. “They’re not dating if that’s what you’re wondering,”

“It’s not,”

“Oh. Well, at some point I wondered it,” said Aelin with a casual shrug. “But, they’re just close friends, have been since childhood,”

“And Chaol isn’t working?”

“Nope. He’s invited here as a guest. He’s our friend too. Besides, we have enough security,” Aelin squinted across the garden at the tall man, who was sporadically sweeping his gaze across the gardens. “Though I feel as though he’s never fully off duty,”

Rowan knew what that felt like. Even he had a hard time releasing the tension he held in his shoulders, how he could stop himself from holding his shoulders back in a rigid posture that had been instilled in him back in the airforce.

“Do you celebrate Beltane back in Doranelle?” Aelin asked as they strolled leisurely through the garden.

“I used to when I was younger,” Rowan explained. “Recently, not so much. But when I was a kid, my cousins and I loved Beltane. We would stay up late, jump over fires-”

“You jumped over fires?” Aelin gasped. “I’ve always wanted to do that!”

“You shouldn’t. It’s a terrible idea,”

“Hmm. Maybe I’ll do it tonight,”

“Sure you will,”

“Say I won’t!”

Normally, Rowan would assume someone was bluffing when they said something like that. But looking at Aelin, at the fire and determination in her eye, Rowan knew she absolutely would do it. If there weren’t any people in the gardens, he knew that Aelin would kick off her heels, bunch up her skirts, and go sprinting towards the closest bonfire.

“Well, when you do it, at least let me see,” Rowan said. “I’ll be there with a fire blanket,”

“Such little faith!”

It was a beautiful night.

Aelin always looked forward to Beltane, always enjoyed the small celebration. This year was no exception.

At first, she had been worried that throwing Rowan into the mix would be a damper on what was usually one of Aelin’s favorite days of the year. Yet… she actually found herself having a nice time with Rowan. Now that they didn’t want to claw each other’s faces off, she found that he was rather good company.

He listened to her when she spoke, giving him the dirt about each and every guest that was in attendance that night. And, when Rowan did deign to reply, it was always with a bit of sharp humor which Aelin had grown to enjoy. 

Sometime in the night, Rowan had been stolen away by Orlon and some of his closest friends, engaging in some kind of man-talk that Aelin had no desire to be a part of. Though, she felt Rowan didn’t really care to be part of it either. Even in the short time she had known him, Aelin could tell he despised small talk.

And so Aelin had spent some time with Lysandra and Elide, mostly trying to find Elide az new beau even though she was adamant she didn’t want anyone. Once she grew tired of their constant teasing and match-making, Elide then expertly turned the attention on Lysandra and her fling that wasn’t a fling with Aedion. 

Lysandra was excellent at pretending that she didn’t know what they were talking about.

Aelin was tired of it. As icky as it was to think, she just wished Lysandra and Aedion would bang it out. The tension between them was exhausting and neither of them were even bothering to see other people because they were too damn enamoured with one another. They would both just be so much happier if they just went out already.

Lysandra and Elide slipped off to refill their glasses, leaving Aelin standing alone beside the largest bonfire. She fell into its trance, watching as the licks of flames flowed and danced in the breeze. It was truly hypnotizing.

Someone slipped over to her side, and even without looking over, Aelin knew who it was. She recognized the scent of Dorian’s cologne. 

“Your fiancé has been looking at your rack the whole night,” Dorian murmured softly. 

Aelin scowled. “You know I hate it when you call them that,”

“My mistake. I will stop referring to your rack as your rack ,” the prince stated.

She finally looked up to her right, eyes narrowed at her friend. He didn’t look the least bit apologetic. 

“So what if he’s looking at my boobs? They’re nice. It’s not against the rules, we’re getting married,”

“It’s not against the rules, but it’s an interesting dynamic considering it’s arranged,”

Aelin ground her jaw. She knew Dorian had already figured it out, hearing him admitting it was the final nail in the coffin. First Elide, now Dorian, and if Dorian knew it meant Chaol knew as well. Apparently, they were doing a shitty job at keeping the arranged part secret. 

“Well, if you knew why were you such a dick to Rowan?” Aelin asked, crossing her arms over her chest.

“Because I don’t know him. At all,”

“So you thought you would annoy the life story out of him?”

“Well, you weren’t going to tell me anything,”

Aelin blinked at the bitterness she found in his voice. “Dorian…”

“Why didn’t you tell me, Ace?” he sighed. “It just came out of nowhere and I didn’t know what to think. I knew right off the bat that it wasn’t real, but I didn’t know how you were feeling. You didn’t reach out. I just wondered if I had some something wrong,”

“Dorian…” Aelin whispered, reaching out and placing a soft hand on his arm. “You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s… it’s just that everything happened so fast, and it was meant to be a secret. I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone outside of Orlon’s council so I didn’t say anything. You’re my friend. I’m sorry I made you doubt that,”

The corners of Dorian’s lips twitched up. “It’s alright. I mostly just like messing with you,”

“I know. Just know that I’m even better at messing with you, so I suggest you watch your back,”

Chapter Text

Just before midnight, Rowan decided it was time for him to retire. It had been a good night. Before the celebration, Rowan had expected a tense and awkward night he would end as early as possible. Instead, he had enjoyed himself. He liked the people of Terrasen, from the king to most of the guests. Even Aelin had been a good companion.

She knew which people to stay clear of, tugging him by the sleeve before they got caught. If by chance they managed to get ensnared by undesirables, Aelin was an expert at steering the conversation to a quick and clean end. 

Rowan had said goodnight to the guests before approaching Aelin. She was talking with a few guests alongside her friends, a wide smile plastered on her face. Her eyes were alight with joy, cheeks flushed with happiness. She really was a lovely woman. He whispered his goodnites, brushing a kiss against her cheek, hoping it looked more natural than it felt. 

When he returned to his suite, he took a quick shower and changed into something more comfortable before lounging on his bed and reading to wind down. 

He lost track of time until there was a knock at his door.

Rowan blinked, brows furrowing. He grabbed his phone and checked the time, finding that it was half-past one in the morning. Who in their right mind would be knocking at his door at this time? 

But, when he opened his door and found Aelin Galathynius standing there, somehow Rowan wasn’t surprised.

It had been a few hours since the party had ended and the palace was now as quiet as the grave. The guests had left and everyone else was asleep.

Everyone else but the princess, it would seem.

Aelin was dressed more casually than Rowan had ever seen her. Gone were the perfectly tailored dresses and expensive jeans. Instead, Aelin wore a pair of flowy shorts that seemed to be soft enough to sleep in, and a large hoodie bearing the logo of Orynth University. Rowan knew the princess hadn’t actually gone to the college, but she was still educated. He didn’t know exactly where she would have gotten the article of clothing from, however. Perhaps a gift?

She had taken her hair down from the pins that had been so painstakingly placed in her tresses. Now the golden waves were tossed carelessly into a knot nearly at the top of her head, and there was a wild and wicked grin gracing her lips.

Rowan leaned against the doorframe, crossing his arms over his chest. “Shouldn’t you be asleep?”

“I could ask you the same thing,” she said, mimicking his pose and spreading her legs stubbornly. “Come with me.”

“Why?”

“Why do you want to ruin the surprise?”

Rowan simply looked at her dryly, causing a dramatic sigh to escape the princess. “You said that if I was going to jump over a bonfire you wanted to see,” Aelin explained. “So. Come on.”

“You’re not serious, are you?”

“Completely. Listen, I read that people used to believe that jumping over the fires brought good luck. I think we could all use some luck this year,” Aelin said, jerking her head down the hall. “Are you coming?”

It was a terrible idea for about a hundred different reasons and Rowan should say no and talk Aelin out of her heinous plans. 

But…

There was a bright and reckless joy in her eyes that Rowan didn’t want to diminish. And even though he didn’t want to be an accomplice in sending the princess of Terrasen to the emergency room with third degree burns (though he doubted it would come to that; Aelin wasn’t foolish), he knew she would do it with or without him. 

Rowan stepped out into the hall and shut the door behind him. Aelin’s grin got exponentially wider when she realized she had convinced him. “Don’t come crying to me when you burn your brows off,” he warned.

“As I said before, such little faith!”

Aelin led Rowan back out to the now-empty gardens. Most of the evidence of the celebration had been cleared away: no more torches, fairy lights, or buffet tables. All that was left was the firepit, currently unlit, and a pile of logs that hadn’t been burned during the evening.

Aelin didn’t mind getting her hands dirty while stacking up the best looking logs and scooping up some dried leaves for kindling. She felt Rowan watching her curiously as she squatted by the firepit and arranged the wood.

“You seem to know what you’re doing,” he commented as she dug out a box of matches from her hoodie pocket.

Aelin smirked, raising a brow. “Would you believe me if I said I once went on an arson streak?”

“No, I would not.”

She shrugged. “You’d be right, but we don’t know what the future holds.”

With that, she struck a match and tossed it to the base of the pile of logs. The tiny lick of flame immediately began gobbling up the dried leaves, spreading quickly and widely until the warmth of the fire began to kiss Aelin’s cheeks. Once she was satisfied that the flames had hopped onto the logs, she pushed to her feet and brushed off her hands.

“You don’t think it’s going to be too big?” Rowan asked, coming to her side.

“Nah, I think it’s going to be fine.” Aelin looked up to the clear sky as she waited for the fire to grow, her eyes immediately seeking out a familiar constellation. She placed a hand on Rowan’s arm. “Look. It’s so clear tonight. It’s been so long since I’ve seen the Lord of the North so bright.”

“The Lord of the North?” Rowan repeated, squinting up at the inky black sky.

Aelin raised her hand in front of his eyes, the tip of her finger tracing out the flow of the stars. “Back in the old days, the Lord of the North would lead the people of Terrasen home no matter where in the world they were. My father taught me the constellations when I was young. We would lay out here for hours on clear nights and he would quiz me on them. But the Lord of the North was always my favorite.”

“It’s beautiful.”

For a heartbeat, Aelin forgot the reason she had come back into the gardens in the first place. It was a serene moment, the air thick with the scent of night-blooming jasmine and a hint of pine on the soft wind. The fire crackled soothingly in the background. It was nice to show Rowan this, a bit of herself that wasn’t messy or sad. It was just… Aelin.

One of the logs split with a sharp crack, jolting Aelin out of the moment. Her gaze tore from the night sky towards the fire she had built, finding that the flames had risen nicely. 

She rubbed her hands together in anticipation. “Let’s do this!”

Aelin toed off the shoes she had worn, the fresh grass cool on her bare feet. She backed up until she deemed she was far enough away from the blaze to get a good running start to launch herself over the tips of the flames.

“Remember when I said you were a buzzard?” Aelin asked. “Because you’re hovering and you practically are a buzzard.”

“I’m not hovering,” Rowan stated. “I’m observing.”

“You think I’m scared of a bit of fire?”

“I think fire is more scared of you.”

Aelin barked out a laugh. Rowan hadn’t been hovering, really. She just liked to tease him. Even without him expressly saying it, Aelin could tell Rowan trusted her. And strangely enough, she knew that deep down, she trusted him too.

She turned her attention back towards the fire, tendrils of flames waving teasingly in the breeze. Aelin sucked down one more breath before she sprung forward, her feet carrying her as quickly as they could towards the awaiting flame. She released a whoop of joy as she launched herself over the fire, clearing it enough that she only felt its pleasant warmth. 

It was a fun little adrenaline rush. Nothing crazy. Deep down Aelin knew she wouldn’t have gotten herself hurt, but it still didn’t stop her heart from beating in a flurry beneath her ribcage. 

“I felt graceful, did I look graceful?” Aelin asked, looking towards Rowan.

There was amusement written on his face. “Like a dancer.”

“Oh, great. My uncle will be pleased to know that the fifteen years of ballet lessons paid off.”

“You did ballet?”

“Yeah,” Aelin shrugged. “I’ll still do it for fun every once in a while, but I don’t take lessons anymore. Enough about me. Your turn.”

“I’m good.”

Aelin jerked her head towards the fire. “Come on. Do it. I didn’t light this fire for only me to jump over.” 

Rowan stared at her. Aelin stared right back. There would be a yielding, but Aelin would be damned if it would be her. She could tell by the icy look in his eye that Rowan wouldn’t be easy to crack, but Aelin wasn’t one to relent. She cocked her head to the side, raising a brow. 

Rowan clenched his jaw before he submitted. “Fine.”

Aelin beamed as he swept over towards the spot where she had started. He was glaring at her as if she had offended him, but it only made her smile wider. 

Rowan took off in an impressive sprint. Part of Aelin had wondered if he would be awkward moving that quickly. He was rather large, and she had seen plenty of men who were strong in body lumber ungracefully through a run. But not Rowan. The lines of his form were clean and smooth, every bit of him fitting together perfectly. 

He cleared the flames easily, landing far more softly than Aelin would have expected. She cheered and clapped dramatically as he turned towards her. Aelin expected to find hints of good-natured annoyance in his eyes, but instead he was smiling, shaking his head softly at her with a little laugh.

It made Aelin pause. 

She had always thought he was handsome, from the first night when they had tumbled into bed together without knowing each other’s true identities. Even when Aelin had spent all waking hours hating his guts, she’d still acknowledged that he was good looking. It had pissed her off especially during that time, but it was true. Even now, Aelin found her eyes trailing over the elegant lines of his face, the curves of his strong shoulders. 

With a smile on his face and laughter on his lips, she was seeing a completely different side of him. Yes, Aelin had seen him smile and laugh. But they were usually subdued, tiny chuckles and quirks of the corners of his lips. But now, it was pure and genuine. It brightened his pine green eyes, softened his normally stony exterior. It made him look younger, carefree. 

Aelin knew she shouldn’t be thinking about Rowan and his looks, but she couldn’t help it. Besides, she had noticed all the times when Rowan had checked her out in the past. She knew he thought she was attractive as well; it was no secret. Even Dorian had noticed Rowan observing her… assets earlier tonight. It seemed to be mutual.

She wished that information didn’t spark something within her.

Once Aelin was satisfied that they had gained sufficient luck, they set to putting out the fire. They made sure to extinguish any lingering embers, not wanting to inadvertently set fire to the gardens. 

The faint scent of smoke clung to Aelin’s clothes as she and Rowan slipped back into the palace, meandering slowly down the halls in the direction of his suite. 

“This was a surprising turn of events for tonight,” Rowan said.

“What can I say? I like to keep people on their toes.” Aelin peeked up at Rowan out of the corner of her eye. They were walking side by side, close enough that their shoulders sporadically brushed against one another’s. 

“At least I know I’ll never be bored.”

They slowed to a stop, lingering outside the door of Rowan’s rooms. Aelin turned to face him, just as Rowan faced her. 

“This is my stop,” Rowan said, angling his head slightly at his door as if it weren’t obvious. 

“So it would seem,” Aelin said, shifting her weight from heel to toe. In her hoodie pocket, her fingers were clenching and unclenching. She never fidgeted like this.

Rowan huffed out a breath. “Well, I guess this is goodn-”

“Do you want to have sex?” Aelin had blurted it out before she even thought twice. Hell, she had barely thought once about it. Her lips parted in surprise as she looked up at Rowan, her words finally catching up with her. Gods, she could have at least been tactful about it. 

Rowan snapped his mouth shut, blinking at her once. At least he didn’t look horrified, but Aelin couldn’t tell exactly what he was thinking. Regardless, she felt her cheeks burn in embarrassment, and she hoped their color was hidden by the murky darkness. 

“I, uh-” Aelin stuttered. “I’m sorry. Forget I said anything.” She swiftly turned around, face angled towards the ground. Aelin had been intent on scurrying away as quickly as she could, but she didn’t make it more than two steps before a hand wrapped around her upper arm and tugged her back.

“Hey,” Rowan said softly, still holding onto her bicep. 

Aelin blinked up at him, noticing how much closer he had pulled her. She could feel the warmth of his body, her chest nearly pressed against his. She was close enough to get a whiff of that pine and snow scent of his. 

Rowan wet his lips, brows furrowed slightly and eyes scanning up and down her face. “You’re serious?”

Aelin swallowed hard. “Well, I don’t know about you, but I enjoyed it before and we’re engaged anyway and…” she faded away, unsure of how else to explain herself.

A beat of hesitation. “Just sex?”

Aelin dipped her chin. “I would say no strings attached but we’re already getting hitched.”

Rowan released a breathy laugh. “Fiancés with benefits?”

A smirk. “Essentially,”

In the moment of silence that followed, the tension between them was nearly palpable. It was an absurd proposition, really. Aelin knew it. Regardless, part of her wanted it. If she was to be doing it with anyone, the obvious choice would be her fiancé. No sneaking around, no potential scandals. Just casual sex that, under the surface, was a bit more complicated.

Rowan’s eyes flickered over his shoulder towards his door. “Now?”

Aelin raised her brows. “If you want.”

The thumb on Aelin’s arms began to move in slow, soothing circles and she closed her eyes for a moment. Even through the thick fabric of her hoodie, the small touch set her blood aflame. Her eyes fluttered open and she saw Rowan’s own eyes had become dark and hazy with lust.

He reached behind him and opened the door, gently guiding Aelin in with him. She nudged the door shut behind her with her heel, leaving them alone in Rowan’s quiet rooms. The atmosphere was instantly different from how it had been the previous two times. They didn’t jump right into it, fueled by lust and bad decision-making. Rowan moved slowly, lacing his fingers through hers, leading Aelin through the front sitting room and into the connected bedroom.

Aelin hated that she felt a hint of nervousness as Rowan looked at her. It seemed neither of them was quite sure how to proceed. 

“Just so you know, since we didn’t go over this before,” Aelin whispered, trying to ease some of the tension, “I’m on the pill, and if you gave me an STD, I will rid you of your favorite body part.”

Rowan choked out a laugh. “Duly noted.”

“Good,” Aelin said. “I’m going to kiss you now.”

“Thanks for the warning.”

She reached forward and pinched his side for the little snip. He gave a tiny laugh, which Aelin smothered by pressing her lips to his. Rowan’s lips were soft as they moved against hers, his hand floating up to cradle her jaw, tilting her head back to kiss her more deeply. She released a tiny, content sigh at the sensation. She really did love to be kissed. 

Aelin reached up, draping her arms over Rowan’s shoulders and pressing her body against his. She felt his hand creep down her side and brush against her hip, before slipping between their bodies. Her breath hitched as his fingers dipped under the waistband of her shorts, then her undergarments, until nothing separated Rowan’s hand from her bare skin. He didn’t actually touch her immediately, taking his time before finally acting. 

At the first brush of Rowan’s fingers down her center, every nerve in Aelin’s body was set aflame. He waited until he got her squirming before he finally slipped a finger into her, making her gasp.

“I can feel you smirking,” Aelin grumbled against his lips.

"Apologies, your highness,” Rowan snarked, not seeming the least bit sorry, before adding another finger.

Aelin gasped at the sensation, her fingers curling into his shirt.

Rowan backed her up slowly until the backs of her knees hit the edge of the bed. His hand slipped out of her shorts, much to Aelin’s disappointment. Rowan laid her down on the bed, tugging at the hem of her hoodie. The connection of their lips was severed for a moment as he slipped the jacket over her head, leaving her in a lacy, white bra. 

Aelin barely noted the rest of the shedding of their clothes. The next thing she knew, they were both bare, Rowan’s body pressed flush against hers. She relished the feeling of his strength, running her palms over his strong shoulders, the curves of his biceps. He was exquisitely built, not that she would ever tell him so and risk inflating his ego.

A moan escaped Aelin’s mouth as Rowan’s calloused hands ran from her waist, down her hips, then finally clutching her thighs. She ground her hips up, desperate for any kind of friction, and he hissed against her lips, his fingers digging into her flesh harder. She could tell he was just as riled up as she was, could feel him hard pressed up against her.

But before he could line himself up with her entrance, Aelin swiftly flipped them over so she was straddling his hips. She pulled back, hands braced against his strong chest. Even in the dim light, Aelin could see the amusement in his eyes, his broad hands a solid weight on her hips. 

Oh, she would wipe that look right off his face.

Aelin reached between their bodies, taking his length into her hand. A smirk grew on her lips as Rowan sucked in a sharp breath, his eyes screwing shut and head tilting back, exposing the strong column of his throat. Having this much sway over a man, rendering him speechless under her touch, made Aelin feel infinitely powerful.

She lifted her hips, positioning herself over him, before sinking down. They released matching moans of pleasure, Aelin’s eyes fluttering shut as he filled her inch by inch. Once she was seated to the hilt, she lingered a moment, letting her body adjust to the feeling.

Rowan’s grip on her hips tightened as he groaned her name.

With that, she started to move, riding him slowly. He was willing to relinquish control for the most part, only guiding her hips as she moved. Eventually, it seemed he grew tired of the slow, teasing pace that she set, and began rolling his hips up to meet hers.

Aelin bit the inside of her cheek to keep her moans in check, scraping her nails down Rowan’s chest. Her body sang at the feeling of his hands on her, her thighs, her hips, her breasts. Her blood was burning with a deep pleasure. She didn’t know why it was so good, why it felt better with Rowan than it had with any other man. Aelin supposed it could be the result of some innate, natural chemistry. But now wasn’t the time to ponder such things. Not when the tension in her core was on the precipice of shattering. 

“Rowan,” Aelin gasped.

He pushed himself into a sitting position, hand tangling into her hair and pulling her mouth down upon his, kissing her hard, messily. His tongue tangled with hers, his hips speeding up, and Aelin gripped his shoulders tightly.

Rowan’s hand trailed down the planes of her stomach until his thumb pressed against the bundle of nerves at the apex of her thighs, and with that simple touch, she shattered around him. Rowan wasn’t far behind. His hips stuttered with the last few thrusts and, with a bite to her bottom lip, he came undone.

Her heart was pounding beneath her ribs, sweat dotting her brow and chest. They were still clinging to one another as they tried to tame their breathing, to come down from their highs.

Aelin didn’t know if this had been another mistake, if they had made things even more complicated now, but she found that she didn’t regret a moment of it.

Chapter Text

“I’m fucking going, now would you calm-”

Aelin awoke to the sound of a door banging open and a voice speaking obnoxiously loud. Her eyes flew open, body jolting in surprise as she tried to figure out where the hell she was. 

It took a few moments for her eyes to clear enough to deduce where she had awoken. It wasn’t her room. It was sparsely decorated, with almost no personal effects, not a single drawer out of place. And this wasn’t her bed, and she wasn’t alone. There was a large, warm body on the other side of the mattress, clearly naked, but with sheets tangled around him to hide anything too personal.

Aelin blinked. She recognized his silver hair, the tattoo snaking down his left arm, the green eyes hazy with sleep. Rowan.

The events of last night rushed back into her mind all at once. Her indecent proposal, tumbling into bed with Rowan again. They had gone a few rounds, staying up far later than Aelin had originally intended. After the third time Rowan had worked her to her peak, they had collapsed into a sweaty mess. She hadn’t intended to sleep in Rowan’s room, but she had been so thoroughly wiped out that she’d been asleep nearly before her head hit the pillow.

And she had slept deeply, peacefully... until now. 

Aelin looked towards the door, blinking groggily, trying to figure out who the hell had barged into Rowan’s room so casually.

And she met the bewildered gaze of one Lord Fenrys Moonbeam.

The look on his face was nearly laughable. His onyx eyes were the size of plates, mouth hanging open. She realized he had been in the middle of a conversation when she saw the phone he was holding before his face. Aelin tugged the blankets closer to her chest to ensure that Fenrys wasn’t seeing more than he deserved.

“I- uhm,” Fenrys stuttered. “ Fuck. My bad, I-”

“What’s the holdup, Moonbeam?” came a gruff voice from the phone. “Where the hell is Rowan?”

Fenrys was still gaping at her. “He’s… he’s here.”

“What the fuck do you want, Fenrys?” Rowan rasped, sitting up and digging his fingers into his eyes, trying to banish lingering remnants of sleep. 

Fenrys was still staring at her. Aelin narrowed her eyes dangerously, which seemed to frighten the young lord back into action, blinking rapidly and looking towards Rowan. 

“Lorcan was bitching that you weren’t answering your phone, and he bothered me until I said I would see why.” 

“Give the phone to Rowan,” the voice from the phone, Lorcan presumably, barked. 

“I- uh-” Fenrys stuttered, “okay.” He awkwardly shuffled over to the edge of the bed, craning over Aelin, and handed the phone to Rowan, who glared at him. 

“Get out, Fenrys,” Aelin ordered dryly.

“But, my phone-”

“Out!”

Fenrys gave a stiff nod. “Right.”

“Who the fuck else is in there?” Lorcan demanded over the phone as Fenrys quickly slipped out of the room, shutting the door behind him a bit too loudly in his haste.

Aelin snatched the phone from Rowan’s hand, squinting at the screen. It was a Facetime, and a grumpy looking man with shoulder-length dark hair was glaring at her. She glared right back at him. 

“What the fuck are you doing bothering people at the ass-crack of dawn?”

“It’s ten thirty,” the man said dryly, recognition sparking in his black eyes before he added, “ Your Highness.

Aelin’s gaze flickered to the time, finding that he was right. It had been a long while since she had slept in so late. It would seem that the long night had effectively knocked her out.

“Hm,” Aelin said. “Nevermind then.”

She handed the phone back to Rowan, ignoring the What the hell? face he was making at her. Aelin could only shrug, which seemed to be enough, even making him crack a tiny smile. She supposed that was a good sign, that things hadn’t become awkward or strained after their actions last night.

“What do you want, Salvaterre?” Rowan snapped.

“Tell Remelle to get off my ass.”

“What are you even talking about?”

Aelin threw the blankets off her body, scanning the floor for the items of clothing Rowan had removed from her last night. She pretended not to notice his attention slipping from his phone call to her bare body, and she definitely didn’t add an extra sway to her hips as she strode over to her balled-up shorts.

“I realize naked women are interesting, but are you even listening?” Lorcan deadpanned. Rowan’s face must have been terribly obvious for the man to read him so easily.

“Yes,” Rowan groaned, dragging a hand down his face. “Why is Remelle bothering you?”

“Because apparently you won’t answer her calls or texts.”

“Yeah, because I blocked her number months ago. She wouldn’t leave me alone.”

Aelin listened to the conversation as she slipped her clothes back on. Who was this Remelle character, and how had she managed to piss them both off so thoroughly? A quick glance over her shoulder as she clasped her bra back on showed Rowan gritting his teeth. She’d once been the cause of that face, back when her greatest pleasure in life had been making him furious.

“Well now she’s gone completely psycho,” Lorcan stated. “She’s freaking out about you getting married. She doesn’t believe it.”

“It’s none of her business. I haven’t bothered with her for a year.”

“Well, maybe I should just tell her that I interrupted you while banging your future wife, and then she’ll quit it.”

Both of you need to mind your business,” Rowan growled. “I’m not talking to Remelle. She needs to let it go. Get Essar to talk to her.”

There was a beat of hesitation from Lorcan. “I’m not involved with Essar anymore. She’s too good for me.”

“Yeah, you’re right. You’re a prick,” Rowan agreed. “This isn’t my problem, Lorcan.”

“She’s your ex; it’s one hundred percent your problem.”

Aelin’s brows rose, noting the strange look Rowan tossed her way, as if he were nervous about her reaction to an ex. She couldn’t care less; she wasn’t stupid. Rowan was a handsome man, of course he would have exes. 

“She’ll get over it,” Rowan stated. “I don’t have time for this right now.”

“I get it, you want to bang your fiancée.”

“She’s actually fully dressed now, and once again, none of your business.

Aelin snorted as she shrugged her hoodie back on, tossing her hair back into a ponytail. She briefly wondered if anyone had noticed she wasn’t in her room, and sincerely hoped that Aedion wasn’t currently flipping his shit thinking she was dead in a ditch somewhere. She pulled her phone out to check her messages.

“I guess I’ll just wait until you get hitched; then she’ll stop calling,” Lorcan said.

“Just take a page out of my book and block her number. Goodbye, Lorcan.”

Rowan didn’t wait for his friend to say his farewells before ending the call and tossing the phone to the side. He ran a hand through his hair before throwing the blankets back and rising to his feet.

Aelin checked out his bare body over the edge of her phone, raising an admiring brow. Impressive. Quite impressive. She was almost sad when he shrugged on a pair of pants, and pocketed her phone as he strode towards her, planting himself right before her. 

“So…” Rowan said softly. “Last night…”

“It was fun,” Aelin filled in. “Well, I had fun.”

“I did too.”

She smiled. “Good to know. I’m down to do it again sometime.”

Now it was Rowan’s turn to give a slow smile. “Good to know.”

They didn’t immediately move apart, as if neither one of them wanted to be the one to end the moment. Rowan’s green eyes were bright in the late-morning sun filtering through the window, and she didn’t want to break his gaze.

There was a tiny, shy knock on the door before Fenrys’ voice pleaded, “Can I please have my phone back?” 

A few more days passed and somehow, Aelin’s birthday had managed to creep up on her. 

Twenty-four felt rather unremarkable, not much different than twenty-three to be honest. The only difference was that she was going into this year with a fiancé. She would be married before twenty-five. 

It was an idea that didn’t make her feel as nauseous as it once did. She had feared marrying someone who was a stranger, someone who she didn’t even like. But, in the recent weeks, Aelin had grown to actually like Rowan. They were, dare she say it… friends. They actually spent time with one another, using up some of the spare hours in the afternoon to continue getting to know one another. 

In the few days separating Beltane and Aelin’s birthday, they hadn’t found their ways into one another’s room again. But at least it wasn’t awkward. 

Aelin had told Lysandra and Elide about what had happened. They had seemed rather excited over that particular piece of gossip. The princess assumed they were just relieved that they wouldn’t have to bear witness to any more of their nasty arguments.

Fenrys, of course, knew about it as well. He would oftentimes waggle his eyebrows suggestively when he saw Aelin and Rowan together. And then she would glare at him with enough venom to down twenty men until he stopped.

Dorian and Chaol still lingered around the palace, as did Elide. They would stay until the day after the party celebrating Aelin’s birthday. She’d told her friends from Adarlan the rest of the details about what had happened with Rowan, giving Dorian no excuse to be pissed about her keeping things from him any more. He had seemed far more interested in the tale than Aelin had expected. He could have been watching a soap opera for how dramatically he reacted.

First thing in the morning on the day of Aelin’s birthday, she was awoken by a large body flopping on top of hers. She grunted in pain, at what felt like a building pressing against her chest. As her vision cleared, she saw Aedion’s insufferably cheerful face grinning down at her.

“Happy birthday, Ace!” 

Aelin groaned, shoving at Aedion’s shoulders. “Get your hulking ass off of me, you brute!”

She ignored his deep laughs as he thankfully rolled off of her, perching instead on the edge of her bed. The moment she sat up, her cousin enveloped her into a deep hug, which she begrudgingly returned. She loved Aedion; she didn’t love how he woke her up.

Aelin then noted the small crowd of people congregated just outside her door. Lysandra, Elide, Dorian and Chaol all grinning at her. She hated that they all managed to look put together when she most likely looked like a hot mess. 

They brought her breakfast in bed. A huge stack of Belgian waffles topped with a mountain of whipped cream, fresh fruit, and chocolate drizzle. She scarfed them down in what had to be an embarrassingly short amount of time. Sitting among her friends and family, she knew right from the start that it was going to be a good day.

She met with her uncle and Darrow over lunch, spending some time with them before the first of the guests would be arriving. Most of them were the usual suspects: Terrasen nobles and businessmen. But they said that some people from Doranelle would also be visiting, bearing engagement gifts from Maeve, apparently. 

Aelin couldn’t care less about gifts, especially now. She had told her friends and family to not buy her anything this year. She wouldn’t accept presents when her people were struggling.

Just as she was heading back to her suite from lunch, she happened to catch a glimpse of a familiar silver head on its way back from the gym. Aelin smiled when she spotted him. The involuntary reaction surprised her. Never before would she have expected that the sight of Rowan Whitethorn would one day bring a smile to her face.

She increased her speed, only able to sneak up on him because he had earphones in. Once close enough, she yanked one out.

“Hey!”

Rowan skidded to a stop, whirling around to look at her. He grinned when he saw her, slipping the other earbud out. “Hey, yourself,” he greeted. 

“Get a good workout in? You’re very sweaty.”

He was, but not in a distasteful way. In fact, it seemed to highlight the strong contours of his arms and chest, making the already thin shirt he wore cling to his broad chest in an enticing way. 

Rowan raised a silver brow playfully. “It was a good workout. It’s weird, I was pretty sure today was something important, but now I can’t remember what…”

“Oh, really?” Aelin asked. “That’s funny. I had the same feeling.”

“Strange,” Rowan mused. “I wonder what it could be…”

“No clue…”

They held gazes for a few more moments before they cracked, flashing matching grins and laughing. A strange look passed over Rowan’s face for a beat, as if he were questioning something. It soon became apparent what that something was when he leaned forward slightly and wrapped his arms around her gently, sweat and all.

“Happy birthday, Aelin.”

The gesture surprised her, but she worked her way through that quickly, returning his embrace. Obviously, they had done far more intimate things than hug, but it was nonetheless new ground. Not unwelcome, even if Rowan did stink slightly of sweat.

“Thank you, Rowan.”

He pulled back, face apologetic as he glanced down at himself. “Sorry about the sweat.”

Aelin shrugged. “It’s no big deal,” she motioned at her casual sweater and leggings. “I have to change soon anyway.”

“Right. Big party tonight?”

“An absolute rager,” Aelin said sarcastically. “But, my uncle told me that we’d be receiving some guests from Doranelle for the evening.”

“Really?” Rowan seemed surprised. “Who?”

“Don’t know. I didn’t ask for names,” Aelin said, glancing down at her watch. “But we’ll be finding out soon enough, anyway. I should be on my way; Lysandra will be here soon. I’ll see you later.”

Rowan graced her with a tiny smile. “I’ll see you then, Aelin.”

Although they didn’t do gifts, that didn’t stop Lysandra from bringing a bottle of nice champagne for them to enjoy as she helped Aelin get ready for the evening. The princess most certainly wouldn’t turn that down.

Elide joined them, enjoying having Lysandra’s help with her makeup. 

It was a nice little party before the actual celebration. Not that the party that evening would be anything more than business, really. It was a good chance for her uncle to chat up nobles and businessmen, boozing them up to help convince them to put money towards Terrasen’s social programs that helped get people back on their feet.

Aelin usually helped her uncle in the effort by flirting with over half the guests. Many of those older men were thrilled when Aelin batted her eyelashes at them. She knew they didn’t get the attention of a pretty, young woman, let alone a princess, very often. She probably could have convinced them to hand over their wallets in those moments. 

It would be a lot harder to accomplish that now she was engaged, however. 

Lysandra dressed her in a deep red dress. The hem reached down to her knees, the thick fabric clinging to her form and displaying her curves in a way that had Aelin appreciating herself in the mirror whenever she passed one. It was one-shouldered, withg the one sleeve stretching the length of her entire arm. Lysandra had finished the look with delicate gold jewelry.

Aelin reapplied a coat of red lipstick, running her fingers through her golden waves. 

“You look hot,” Elide commented from where she lounged on the couch. “I won’t be surprised if someone walks in on Rowan banging you in the closest closet.”

Aelin made a face. “As if I would have my birthday sex in a closet. Really, Ellie, do you think so little of me?”

Lysandra released a dainty snort. “I mean, it’s kinda hot.”

“Oh? You have experience with it? Aedion?”

Lysandra choked on her champagne, her ivory cheeks flushing red. “Why would you even ask that?”

“Because we’re tired of watching you two dancing around each other,” Elide explained. “Just ask him out already.”

Lysandra pursed her lips. “I will not. He has to ask me first.”

Fair enough. 

Aelin’s phone buzzed, Rowan’s name flashing on her screen. You ready? His text read.

Whenever you are, she sent back.

His answer was almost immediate. On my way.

Aelin knocked back the rest of the champagne in her glass. She wasn’t buzzed yet, but instead had a happy sort of flush to her body. A good way to start off the night, to prepare her for whatever the evening would bring.

“Rowan’s on his way,” Aelin announced.

Lysandra and Elide cast each other sly glances. They each finished their champagne before pushing to their feet.

“I guess we’ll see you two there!” Elide said, locking elbows with Lysandra.

Aelin glared at their backs, their giggles fading away as they shut the door behind them. 

In her last few minutes alone, Aelin glanced at herself in the mirror once again. She ran her hands down her sides, spinning around to check out her ass one more time. It still looked fantastic. 

It was then that a polite knock sounded at her door. Rowan.

She straightened the pendant on her necklace as she strode towards the door.

Rowan stood on the other side, looking dashingly handsome in his well-fitted suit of dark gray. He had recently trimmed his hair, the sides now cropped closer to his skull. His green eyes scanned up and down her body as he fixed his cuffs. He grinned at her.

“Who are you trying to impress tonight?”

“It’s my birthday,” Aelin said shortly. “I’m dressing for myself.”

Rowan held out an arm for her to take. “Well, you look lovely.”

She took his arm, flashing him a little smile. “Thank you.”

They meandered slowly through the gilded halls, chatting slightly about their days, which hadn’t been eventful for either of them. They descended the stairs, heading in the direction of the grand ballroom. She could hear voices of the guests, the melody of a string band floating on the air. 

Aelin was laughing softly at something Rowan had said, but the moment was cut short by a voice calling out from behind them.

“Well, if it isn’t Rowan Whitethorn.”

The female voice was unfamiliar to Aelin, but Rowan tensed under her arm. She glanced up at him as they slowed to a stop, his eyes fluttering shut as he sucked down a deep, steadying breath. 

Together, they turned, Aelin’s hand still resting on his forearm, finding an immaculately dressed woman standing there, a perfectly sculpted brow raised. She was lovely in a cold way, pale skin and white-blonde hair. She wore a pale-pink dress that showed off all of her considerable assets. Her eyes were as sharply blue as a glacier and currently raking over Rowan from head to toe. 

Aelin’s eyes skipped over the woman to the man lingering a few feet away, shoulder pressed against the wall, looking like he’d rather be anywhere else. She recognized that dark face hewn from granite, shoulder-length black hair tied back at the nape of his neck. He was much taller than she’d thought, but she had only seen his face before. Lorcan Salvaterre, the man to whom Rowan had been speaking earlier that week about a certain ex of Rowan’s named-

“Remelle,” Rowan said tightly. “This is a surprise.”

The woman smiled, flashing straight, white teeth. “That was the point, silly! It’s been far too long since we’ve seen each other!”

With that, she strode right past Aelin as if she wasn’t there and embraced Rowan. Aelin couldn’t stop herself from gaping in bewilderment at the woman who had completely ignored her. She couldn’t believe the sheer audacity this woman had, to press herself against a man who she knew damn well was engaged to the woman standing right next to him. 

Aelin wasn’t jealous. She didn’t love Rowan. But, as a princess who by all appearances was in a loving relationship, she was insulted.

Rowan, it seemed, wasn’t keen on the situation either. He looked uncomfortable enough that Aelin wanted to yank her away.

Remelle finally pulled back and deigned to glance at Aelin. The princess recognized the cool, assessing look she gave. She was sizing up the competition, though Aelin knew there wasn’t really a competition to begin with. She was already engaged to Rowan.

“Your Highness,” Remelle said, dipping her head. “It’s nice to finally meet you.”

Aelin gave a tight smile. “I’m assuming you’re the guest from Doranelle my uncle told me about.”

“That would be me,” Remelle said. “Queen Maeve had me bring an engagement gift on her behalf. Spoiler, but it’s a rather large grant to go towards one of the charities of your choice.”

Aelin blinked in surprise. It was a rather kind gift, and another reminder of the reason she was in this situation in the first place. She was marrying Rowan for his and Maeve’s financial assistance. And this money would be helpful; they could put it towards the people struggling the hardest.

“Who’s your shadow over there?” Aelin asked sarcastically, nodding her head towards Lorcan. Clearly, judging by the distance, they weren’t here together.

“Oh, Lorcan? Just my security detail.”

Aelin noted that Rowan looked over towards his companion of sorts, something like veiled violence in his gaze. Oh, Aelin recognized that look. She used to be on the receiving end of that look countless times in the past. Lorcan was in trouble. 

“Oh, silly me!” Remelle said, placing a hand on her chest. “I forgot to congratulate you both on the engagement! It just happened so suddenly!”

“It wasn’t sudden for us, Remelle,” Rowan said carefully. “We’ve been together for quite awhile.”

“Right, of course,” the pale woman said, quirking a brow at the little lie Rowan had told so naturally. “Are you two heading towards the party?”

“In a bit,” Rowan said before Aelin could open her mouth. “I think I’ll take a moment to introduce Aelin to Lorcan, catch up for a moment.”

Aelin didn’t miss the slight tightening of Remelle’s glossy lips, no doubt unsatisfied with Rowan’s answer, but smart enough not to argue it. Yet, Aelin knew that she wouldn’t be giving up so easily. 

“Well then,” Remelle said, lips pinching together tightly, “I suppose I’ll be seeing you two in there.” With that, she strode away, swinging her hips as she made her way down the hall. 

Aelin shook her head at Remelle’s retreating form before looking up at Rowan. He had a similar look of disdain on his face before his attention once more shifted towards Lorcan. The man released a heavy sigh, pushing off the wall and closing the distance between them.

What ,” Rowan growled, shoving Lorcan’s shoulder, “ the fuck!

Lorcan barely budged from the force of it. “Good to see you too, Whitethorn.” 

“You didn’t think to send a text? A warning?” Rowan hissed.

“What good would that have done?” Lorcan grumbled. “She still would have been here,” he then glanced at Aelin, nodding his head. “Princess. I’m surprised you’re both wearing clothes.”

“I like to keep people on their toes,” Aelin said.

Lorcan didn’t smile, but his mouth softened slightly.

Rowan sighed and ran a hand down his face. “We don’t have time for this now. But I’m not done with you, Salvaterre.”

“It would be too easy if you were,” Lorcan shrugged before flashing a wicked smile. “Have fun. Pleasure meeting you, Your Highness.”

“Back at ya,” Aelin said, gracing him with a mock salute. 

Rowan bestowed one last withering glare upon Lorcan before they turned, heading towards the grand ballroom. 

Rowan was tense under Aelin’s hand, jaw clenched so hard that she seriously worried that he might break a tooth. 

“Well, this evening just got a whole lot more interesting,” Aelin muttered.

Rowan grunted in response, shaking his head softly. “Don’t get too comfortable. You don’t know what she’s capable of.”

“Well, she doesn’t know what I’m capable of either.”

Chapter Text

Earlier that day, Rowan Whitethorn had actually been looking forward to a pleasant evening. He had grown to enjoy spending time with Aelin as well as her friends. It was supposed to be a night of food, wine and merriment, maybe ending with Rowan inviting Aelin back to his room again.

But in one fell swoop, it had all gone to shit.

Remelle showing up had been a nasty surprise. He should have known that Lorcan's call earlier that week was simply a sign of hell to come. Out of everyone who could be sent from Doranelle, it had to be her. 

He supposed it made sense. Remelle worked closely with Maeve; his aunt favored her for some reason, and had given her a good spot in her court. It was the reason he had met her in the first place. 

And now it seemed she was here to ruin his night.

Rowan started off the night making the rounds with Aelin, saying hello to all of the guests. The problem was, no matter how hard he tried to ignore her, Remelle managed to be everywhere he looked. She kept to herself, not yet daring to interrupt. But he felt her eyes on him nonetheless. Intent, wicked. She was up to no good.

Within thirty minutes of joining the party, Fenrys stumbled up to where Rowan stood beside Aelin, grabbing her another glass of sparkling wine.

“Is that fucking Remelle?!” Fenrys gaped, glancing quickly over his shoulder as if she may be right behind him.

“Unfortunately,” Rowan grumbled.

“What the hell is your ex-girlfriend doing here?”

Girlfriend is a bit generous,” Rowan pointed out. “But, it would appear she’s here to ruin all of our nights.”

“Oh, so your booty call is here to ruin our evening?” Aelin teased, taking a delicate sip of her wine.

Rowan scowled at her, but it would seem that expression had lost all of its potency when it came to her. 

“I would say that’s big talk coming from you,” Fenrys directed towards the princess, “but I guess you’re not a booty call if you’re engaged.”

Now it was time for Aelin to scowl.

Their little party grew as the rest of Aelin’s companions joined their circle. 

“Aelin!” Lysandra whispered, reaching out and grabbing her hand. “Who’s mister tall, dark, and handsome hanging around?” She jerked her head towards the corner, where Lorcan stood, looking like the miserable bastard he was. 

“That’s Lorcan,” Aelin explained. “He’s Rowan’s…” she faded off with a frown before turning towards him. “Actually, I don’t know how you two know each other.”

“Military,” Rowan said simply. “We served together; I got him a job in palace security when we got out.”

“Oh, wait, Salvaterre’s here?” Fenrys asked, swinging his gaze over his shoulder. “This is awesome. I’m going to go make him miserable.”

“Thank you for that, Fenrys,” Rowan said with unexpected earnesty; Lorcan deserved to be annoyed for not warning him.

“No need to thank me,” said Fenrys gallantly, refilling his glass with whiskey. “Pissing off Lorcan is my greatest pleasure in life.” With that, Fenrys slipped into the crowd, hell-bent on causing a fist-fight before the evening was over.

Rowan noted as Aelin made a face at Fenrys’ back before her attention snapped back to Lysandra. “Why do you even care about Lorcan?” 

“Oh, it’s not for me,” Lysandra explained. “It’s for Elide. She’s been checking him out all night.”

From Lysandra’s side, Elide flushed a bright pink. “I have not!”

“Yes you have,” Dorian and Aedion said in unison. 

“Normally I would say get some, Ellie, but I’m pretty sure he’s a grumpy bastard,” she cast a glance in Lorcan’s direction. “And I’m pretty sure Fenrys isn’t about to make that any better.”

Rowan followed Aelin’s gaze to where the two men stood across the room. She was right; Lorcan did seem to be on the brink of manslaughter. Fenrys seemed to have that effect on some people, and Lorcan didn’t have the patience Rowan did. It was only a matter of time before things got ugly. 

Rowan sighed and placed his glass down on the nearest table. “I should intervene before things get violent.”

Aelin frowned in mock-disappointment. “Aw. A fist fight would have made this my most exciting birthday yet.”

Chaol looked to her disapprovingly. “You’re terrible.”

Rowan slipped away into the mass of people before they truly started to squabble. He could hear the beginnings of their argument before their voices were drowned by the voices of the guests and the string band playing in the corner.

His eyes were locked on his friends as he tried his best to maneuver himself as gracefully and politely as possible through the crowd. He had almost reached his destination when he was stopped by a hand on his arm.

Even before he turned to see who it was, Rowan had a sinking suspicion. Remelle had a serpentine smile on her lips when he finally met her gaze.

“There you are,” she crooned. “I was hoping to get a moment alone with you.”

Rowan wanted nothing more than to tell her to fuck off, but there were too many people near him. Too many prying ears who would spread rumors of a belligerent Rowan Whitethorn, would disapprove of the way he spoke to this woman. They didn’t know the full story; they would only see the man promised to their princess being an absolute dick.

Rowan pressed his lips together tightly. “I was actually on my way-”

“Surely you can spare a few minutes,” Remelle argued. “It’s been so long since we’ve been together.”

About a year and a half, more specifically. When he’d had to practically pry her fingernails out of his arm at a bar. It wasn’t long after that he had blocked her number. She wouldn’t stop trying to invite herself over to his apartment. It didn’t take long for Rowan to grow tired of that nonsense.

But now she had locked him in exactly where she wanted him.

Rowan released a sharp breath through his nose but nodded. Remelle smiled when he relented, reaching forward and wrapping her hands around his arm.

“Let’s go for a walk,” she urged. “Maybe the gardens? It’s a bit too crowded in here.”

Rowan could only manage a stiff nod before Remelle began practically dragging him through the crowd. His head snapped over to where he had left Aelin and her companions, trying to wordlessly beseech her to recuse him. His fiancée’s back was towards him, however, golden hair swinging between her shoulders as she held court with her friends and family, unaware of Rowan’s impending doom. 

The prince cursed the gods as Remelle dragged him into the cool, quiet night air. The gardens were empty tonight. No one was interested in walking through the flowers when all the food and booze was inside. 

“I’ve missed you, Rowan,” Remelle said, cold eyes blinking up at him in false-innocence. “We don’t talk anymore.”

“I’ve been busy,” he lied. 

The woman led him over to a small, stone bench, urging him to sit down. He complied, but pushed himself as far away as possible, nearly falling off the edge. Not that Remelle seemed to notice, inching closer and closer, trying to press her thighs against his.

“I was so surprised to hear about your engagement,” Remelle whispered, placing a hand on her chest. “I didn’t even know you were seeing anyone, let alone a princess.”

Rowan ground his teeth, trying to think of the best way to make a quick, clean escape. “We wanted to keep it private.”

Remelle pursed her rose-petal lips. “Sure, I understand. I just wish we could have still kept in contact. We didn’t have to stop hanging out because you got a girlfriend.”

Rowan refrained from asking what the fuck she was smoking. The only thing they had done when they’d hung out in the past was roll around in the sheets. And barely speak before or after. 

He didn’t respond, eyes flickering towards the doors to the ballroom, trying to see if Aelin had gone looking for him yet. 

But then there was a hand on his thigh.

Rowan blinked, gaze flickering towards the pale fingers curling into his trousers. He wanted to rip her hand away immediately. Her other hand rested on his jaw, eyes fluttering shut as she leaned in, full lips parted softly, and-

It was then that Rowan reacted. He instantly ripped her hands away, rising quickly to his feet. There was a fury the likes of which he had never felt as he looked towards Remelle, who had the audacity to appear insulted by his reaction.

“Are you out of your mind?” Rowan hissed. “I’m engaged!”

“Oh, please!” Remelle huffed, rolling her eyes. “There’s no way that your engagement is real. Aelin Galathynius? She’s nothing. I’ve heard rumors that she’s practically a crack whore.”

That’s enough, ” Rowan snapped, eyes narrowing dangerously. “If I ever hear you speak like that about Aelin again, I will ensure you will never be welcomed back to Orynth.”

Remelle scoffed, upper lip curling bitterly. “You don’t love her.”

She was right, of course. He didn’t love Aelin, but he liked and respected her, and he wouldn’t stand for Remelle speaking so vilely about her. He didn’t bother arguing one way or another, simply turning heel and leaving Remelle alone in the gardens.

Aelin didn’t know where Rowan had wandered off to. He had said he was going to stop Lorcan from killing Fenrys, but she couldn’t find his head of silver hair anywhere.

She didn’t bother thinking too hard about it. He was a grown man; he could take care of himself. 

Aelin slipped away from her friends, heading towards one of the tables laden with tiny desserts that she had been eyeing all night. She was prepared to stack her plate embarrassingly high with them and scarf down the tiny cakes and macarons until she made herself sick.

Aelin popped a tiny lemon-glazed sweet into her mouth, sucking off the excess sugar from her fingers, thinking no one could see. However, someone released a tiny chuckle from behind her, making Aelin jump slightly.

“Apologies, your highness,” a deep voice murmured from behind her. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.”

Aelin turned, stomach dropping when she recognized who, exactly, stood before her.

Arobynn Hamel was a man in his late thirties. Silky, red hair and cold, gray eyes. He was what others would describe as handsome. Elegant bone structure, tall, with broad shoulders and a lean body. He was a wealthy businessman in the city, had been working with her uncle on this or that for years.

And Aelin hated him.

He was a classic creep. Arobynn had taken a keen interest in Aelin for years, starting when she was just seventeen, taking every opportunity to talk to her, to comment on her appearance, to seek her out when she was alone. She distinctly remembered during one event, just a few months before Aelin’s eighteenth birthday, where Arobynn had looked her up and down and had said she filled out that dress nicely. When Aelin had told Aedion about it, her cousin had nearly gone off to murder the man. 

Even when Arobynn came to events with various other women (also always too young for a man his age) on his arm, he still sought her out.

Aelin’s entire body screamed to escape, but she couldn’t. So she only offered a tight smile.

“Happy birthday, princess,” Arobynn murmured, taking her hand and pressing a lingering kiss to it that made her skin crawl. “May I say that you look lovely tonight.”

Aelin ground her teeth but hoped she still managed to look pleasant. “Why, thank you.”

The smirk on Arobynn’s lips made Aelin want to punch his teeth in. “It’s been too long since we’ve seen each other.”

Not long enough, Aelin thought bitterly. 

“Time has just been flying by for me, recently,” she sighed, fingers tightening around her wine glass. 

“Oh, I’m sure you’ve been quite busy,” Arobynn drawled, silver eyes observing her cooly. “What, with everything that you’ve had to do recently. I’m sure events like this are quite tiring for you, pretending the whole evening.”

Aelin blinked. “I’m sorry, I don’t think I quite understand what you mean.”

Arobynn raised a red brow. “I think you do.”

She was at a loss for words, because she did know what he meant. But it made no sense how he would realize that the engagement was arranged. He wasn’t like Elide and Dorian, who knew her well enough to deduce that the sudden engagement was suspect. But Arobynn didn’t know her, in fact, she wished he knew her less. The fewer words exchanged, the better.

And yet, Arobynn Hamel’s gaze currently laid her bare. 

She wanted to claw his eyes out.

Aelin was about three seconds away from doing exactly that when a soft hand pressed against her lower back and she was enveloped by the scent of pine and snow.

“There you are, Aelin,” Rowan spoke gently.

She had never felt more relieved before in her life. Hearing Rowan’s voice, feeling his casual but reassuring touch, flushed out every ounce of tension from her body.

Aelin flashed him a smile, hoping that he recognized that she was grateful. “I was wondering where you slipped off to.”

Her brows knitted together slightly, as if saying, Thank you for saving me, now please get this guy out of my sight. 

Rowan smiled, but there was something beautifully feral about it. My pleasure.

Her fiancé turned back towards Arobynn. Rowan dwarfed him; his head cocked to the side, something near-violent in his gaze. It thrilled her.

“I’m sorry,” Rowan said carefully, “I don’t think we’ve been introduced.”

Normally, Aelin despised the alpha-male nonsense. She hated it when men would hold pissing contests with every other man they came across. It was something she had scolded Aedion about constantly in the past. But now, Aelin found a sort of delight in watching Rowan, only because she was sure Arobynn wasn’t used to being to being the little one.

But, the businessman was excellent at pretending it didn’t bother him.

“No, I don’t believe we have,” Arobynn said, reaching out and shaking Rowan’s hand. “I’m Arobynn Hamel, CEO of Guild Industries, and I’m assuming you’re the lucky man who snatched up such a fine woman.”

Aelin could kill him. She could knock him to the ground and strangle him right now.

“That would be me,” Rowan said. She had no evidence to prove it, but Aelin felt as though her fiancé had nearly broken the bones in Arobynn’s hand with that shake. It brought her a wicked sense of delight. 

“Well then,” Arobynn said, sliding his hands into the pockets of his well-tailored pants. “It was nice to meet you. Enjoy your birthday, princess.”

Aelin didn’t bother saying anything back. But the last, lingering gaze Arobynn bestowed upon her set her pressing herself tighter against Rowan’s side. Once Arobynn’s form was swallowed up by the crowd, she released a long breath. 

“What the fuck was his deal?” Rowan grumbled.

“He’s a fucking creep, that’s what,” Aelin griped, taking a too-long draught of her wine before meeting Rowan’s gaze. “Thanks for the rescue.”

“Any time, princess,” Rowan smiled. “He seemed like a sleaze-bag.”

“Oh, you have no idea. Back when I was getting high every night, I saw him a few times meeting with Archer. He didn’t recognize me, but it was definitely him. I don’t know exactly what shady shit he was up to, but there’s more behind Guild Industries than he wants us to think.”

Rowan didn’t respond, bright eyes intent on the crowd, as if Arobynn were about to do something dastardly within a few moments. It was almost cute.

“Where’d you slip off to?” Aelin asked, trying to take his attention off of Arobynn before he did something foolish.

Rowan scowled. “Remelle herded me off to the gardens, tried to kiss me.”

“Seriously?” Aelin exclaimed. 

He nodded solemnly. “She’s disbelieving about the whole thing, thought I would get back with her. She doesn’t have any evidence to back it up, I think she’s just desperate.”

Aelin pursed her lips, looking over Rowan’s shoulder and locking eyes with the topic of their conversation. Remelle was glaring at them hard enough that Aelin briefly wondered if she would burn a hole through them. 

“Well, she’s looking at us right now,” Aelin reported, the corners or her lips curling upwards. “And I think I know how to piss her off.”

“Oh?” Rowan smirked. “Do tell.”

“I think it’s better shown.” Aelin curled her finger, beckoning him closer. “Now, if you don’t mind, I’m going to kiss you now.”

Rowan’s eyes sparked with a sort of mischievousness that told her he knew what she was planning. “Go ahead, princess.”

Aelin placed one hand on Rowan’s jaw, the fingers of her other threading through the silky hair on the back of his head before she pressed her lips to his. She didn’t shy back from putting a bit more fire into it than she normally would have, because apparently that’s what Remelle needed to see to get off Rowan’s ass.

Aelin’s eyes flickered open, lips still moving languidly against Rowan’s, and met Remelle’s eyes once more. Oh, that woman was practically fuming, her pale cheeks flushed with rage. Aelin raised a brow at her, hoping she could see the smirk in her eyes.

Remelle spun around, disappearing into the crowd. Aelin had a good feeling she wouldn’t be bothering them again.

Aelin hadn’t been acting out of jealousy. She didn’t really care for Rowan in the manner to bring out the green-eyed monster. Pissing Remelle off was instead retribution for the insult she had dealt. If anything, Remelle was getting off mild. If Aelin had truly been in love with Rowan and heard what Remelle had tried, the pale-haired women would have been in for something far more nasty.

The princess pulled back, smiling up at Rowan.

“I think that did the trick.”

“Did she look angry?”

“Oh, angry doesn’t even begin to cover it.”

They shared a laugh before Aelin slipped her fingers between Rowan’s, jerking her head towards where her friends congregated. 

“Come on. Let’s just enjoy the rest of my birthday.”

Even with the rocky start to the night, Rowan did manage to enjoy the rest of the evening.

Remelle didn’t show her face again, and that creep Hamel didn’t bother Aelin again. 

Rowan didn’t know what that man’s problem was. He had strode back into the ballroom after dealing with Remelle, already pissy, when he spotted Aelin across the room. Instantly, he knew that something had been wrong. She was standing too stiffly, mouth set in a hard line. And then Rowan had set eyes on the well-dressed man standing across for her.

He hadn’t known why, but the sight had only fueled his pissiness. Hamel had clearly been making Aelin uncomfortable and didn’t give a damn about it.

But the rest of the evening was nice. Fun, even. Watching Fenrys torment Lorcan, listening to Aelin tease all of her friends… yes, it had been a good night.

Once the party started to wind down, when the guests began to leave, Rowan offered to walk Aelin back to her rooms. She agreed, and they had left the steadily dying party into the blessedly quiet residential parts of the palace. 

Aelin had stepped out of her heels, swinging them by her side as they walked side by side through the halls.

“Twenty-four is pretty lame, isn’t it?” she asked, looking up towards him. “Like, do I even have any other birthdays to look forward to or does it just get depressing?”

Rowan offered her a wry smile. “Twenty-five and you get to rent a car.”

“Oh right, I forgot about that.”

They came upon the door to her room, slowing to a stop. Rowan slipped his hands into his pockets while Aelin crossed her hands before her. His eyes darted down her face as she tugged her bottom lips between her teeth.

“You can come in, if you’d like,” she offered, dipping her head towards her door. “We don’t have to… do anything right away. We could just watch some TV.”

The proposition gave Rowan pause. It wasn’t unheard for them to spend casual time together during the day whenever they had an hour or two to spare, but it was always in public. The last few times they had been alone together in private, it usually ended up with them shedding their clothes.

But, he supposed, it would be nice. He still recognized the hidden invitation in her voice, ending the night in the same sort of debauchery in which their strange relati onship had started. It would almost be welcomed to pretend to be regular people for a while.

“Give me ten minutes to change into something less stiff,” Rowan said.

Aelin gave a slow nod and smiled. “Alright. You know where to find me.”

Rowan waited until Aelin had ducked into her room before he strode off to his own. He was happy to shed his formalwear and slip into something more comfortable. Gray sweats and an old t-shirt weren’t things that he had the luxury of wearing very often now, not after getting engaged to Aelin. He was in the public’s eye too often to dress so casually. It was now a privilege that he wouldn’t take for granted again.

Rowan knocked on Aelin’s door once he returned. Part of him pondered if he should just stroll in, but he didn’t want to be impolite.

He heard the sound of soft footfalls approaching on the other side of the door before it was thrown open.

“You didn’t have to knock,” Aelin chastised, answering the questions Rowan had been asking himself. 

He opened his mouth to respond, but found no words would come to him once he saw what Aelin herself had changed into. 

It was a silky little nightgown of a pale blue, the hem and the neckline graced with delicate, matching lace. It was a short little thing, hitting mid-thigh, baring the expanse of the golden skin of her long legs. 

Aelin rolled her eyes. “Don’t let it get to your head, I’m not wearing this for you. It’s just what I sleep in.”

Rowan blinked rapidly, clearing his head. She had been quick to set the record straight.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” he eventually worked out.

Aelin then stepped aside and motioned him into her rooms.

It was the first time that he had been in them. It felt strangely personal to do so. Aelin had been in his rooms in the palace, but Rowan had only been here a little over a month. It was essentially still a glorified hotel room.

But not here.

Aelin had lived here her entire life. Twenty-four years of memories filled the walls and the shelves were etched into tiny dings in the walls or scuffs on the furniture. If it wasn’t for the grandeur of this room fit for a princess, it was almost like a regular woman’s room.

Rowan allowed himself to take in the sights. He stopped before one of the wall-to-ceiling shelves, letting his gaze wander over the years of memories collected upon it. The first thing Rowan noted was the sheer number of books Aelin kept in her room. It was enough to make a small library, and he would assume this was only Aelin’s personal collection. Each book seemed well-worn, and yet taken good care of. He wondered if she had read all of them.

His eyes then settle on a pair of slight worn, pale pink, pointe shoes. Aelin did mention that she used to take ballet lessons. He wondered when was the last time she had danced. 

There were photographs propped up sporadically, clearly dating back to the early days of Aelin’s youth. There was one in an old, silver frame. The photo was grainy with age, showing a young Aelin, no more than four years old, smiling a smile too large for her young face. Her golden hair was pulled back into twin pig-tails, wearing a puffy white dress. There was a boy standing next to her, about ten, who must have been Aedion. And then the two people behind them, Rowan only recognized from other photos. Evalin and Rhoe Galathynius, grinning down at the two children. For a family that was constantly reported on, constantly in the eyes of the public, the scene was nearly domestic. They could have been any family having a picnic in the gardens.

There were other photographs of the same quality, showing as the royal family aged over the years. Smiling genuine, pure smiles.

And then there was one photo that made him pause. It was Aelin, no more than five years ago, curled on a couch with a young man. Rowan didn’t recognize him, the messy brown hair, warm hazel eyes, and crooked smile. He had Aelin tucked up snugly to his side, looking at her with a warm, fondness on his face. No, not just fondness. Love.

“That’s Sam,” Aelin whispered, confirming his suspicions. She came to his side, wrapping her arms tightly around her middle, a glimmer of sorrow in her turquoise eyes. “Aedion took that, not a month before I lost him.”

“You look happy.”

“I was.” 

They faded into silence, Rowan still looking over her belongings, hoping to find something else to lighten the mood. There were candles, bottles of perfume, little figurines. He spotted a beautiful little statue, carved in the image of one of the goddesses. 

“Mala?” Rowan asked. 

“My mother always said I had a heart of fire,” Aelin shrugged. “It seemed that Mala had always taken a liking to me.” 

There was a dull droning of voices coming from the television in Aelin’s bedroom. He glanced at the screen, making a face at what was playing.

“What the hell is that?”

“Oh, it’s terrible, ” Aelin said with a wild grin. “It’s a shitty reality show about dating. They’re all so stupid.”

“I think that could be said about all reality TV stars.”

“Quite true,” Aelin agreed, sweeping over to the bed and plopping down on one side, tucking her feet to the side and getting comfortable against an impressive mountain of pillows.

“If it’s so bad, why do you watch it?” Rowan asked, taking the other side of the bed.

A tiny shrug. “I don’t know. Maybe because I never really got to do the whole dating thing. I like to see what could have been.”

He glanced at her out the corner of his eye. “What was it like for you?”

“Strange,” said Aelin rather simply. “When I was younger, I didn’t have a lot of opportunities to speak with boys my age, nor many options. Just at events and parties, where they were all mostly too nervous to approach me.”

“But you’re a princess,” Rowan stated. “I would have thought, forgive me if I put it bluntly, that you’d be in high demand.”

“Oh, I was,” Aelin said, upper lip curling slightly. “Some creeps made a count-down clock to my eighteenth birthday.”

“That’s foul.”

“Believe me, not the foulest thing I’ve seen.”

Rowan studied Aelin’s profile. The graceful swoop of her nose, elegant curve on her throat. She didn’t seem too cut up about it, though he knew it could be a carefully crafted mask. It couldn’t have been easy, growing up the way she did. 

“Do you wish it had been different for you?” Rowan asked.

Aelin twisted her hair between her fingers as she thought. “Sometimes. Sometimes I feel like I missed out on some things. I never got to go out on a first date, not even with Sam. We spent time together, but, you know, he never picked me up, never had to do that whole thing where he walked up to the porch and my dad got to intimidate him,” there was a small smile on her face as she reminisced. “But I wouldn’t trade my time with him for anything.”

“Would you believe me if I said that normal dating isn’t much to be missed?”

Aelin laughed. “Actually, I would. I’ve seen enough to know that there are a lot of shitty guys out there and I’ve read about a lot of shitty dates. I mean, I did see Remelle tonight.”

Rowan tossed his head back with a groan, dragging a hand down his face and ignoring the princess’s peals of laughter at his expense.

“I told you I didn’t date her,” Rowan said.

“Oh?” Aelin raised a groomed brow. “Did you tell her that?”

He glowered at her. “You’re a menace.”

“So I’ve been told,” Aelin sighed dramatically. “Was she before or after Lyria?”

“After. About two years after, I think.”

“What was it like for you and Lyria?” Aelin asked softly. “Was it… normal?”

Rowan laced his fingers together and rested them on his stomach. It was nice to think about Lyria in such a light, to remember the good, that sweet, wonderful stage when they had just been falling for one another. Most times when people spoke to him of Lyria, it was filled with pity, forcing him to remember how and why she wasn’t with him.

“Painfully normal,” Rowan murmured. “Everything that you could imagine about a nice, normal relationship. Step by step, that was us.”

He felt her eyes on him, daring to look to his right, to see what was on her face. He worried that there would be pity, but instead there was a serene little smile on her lips.

“Tell me about your first date,” Aelin requested. 

“I bought her flowers,” Rowan began. “I was nervous that I would get the wrong ones. She was a botany major, loved flowers, always had fresh ones around her apartment. But, she loved them. I took her out to dinner, then we went for a walk around the park, and then I drove her home.”

“And then?” Aelin asked, wiggling her brows suggestively. 

Rowan scoffed out a laugh. “And then I gave her a kiss and said goodnight.”

“I never would have pegged you as a gentleman.”

No, he supposed she wouldn’t after that first night they spent together, and then the next few weeks after that. It had no doubt painted him as a bastard, showed his true colors. No, he was not the same man he had once been.

He released a long breath. “Yeah, well… things change.”

“Some things change, Rowan,” Aelin said, looking towards him. “But you speak of yourself as if you’re not a good man. Things like that, they don’t change.”

He wished he had something profound to say back, to show a small gratitude for the kind words she gave to him. But he had never been very good with words. Perhaps he should read more. Aelin sure did.

But eventually, Rowan managed to open his mouth. “I think you’re going to make a good queen someday, Aelin,” he offered. 

And through that swagger and cockiness that normally covered her face, Rowan saw a flash of genuine gratitude through the cracks. “Thank you, Rowan. But I’m going to make an excellent queen.”

Chapter Text

Sometime in the night, their evening had shifted from watching trashy television to shedding their clothes. It had been a good way to end the night, especially when Rowan had given Aelin special attention for her birthday. He had worked her to a high with his mouth and hands nearly three times before he had actually fucked her.

Every time Aelin thought too hard about the strange dynamics of their relationship, enjoyable as they were, she would feel the beginnings of a headache forming between her brows. Truly, they were a mess. She enjoyed tumbling around the sheets with Rowan, as she was sure most women would. But she didn’t love him.

If they had been regular people, then they would have friends with benefits, which would have made the lines a bit clearer. But no, they weren’t normal people. They were engaged. 

All she could hope for was that they didn’t fuck things up, that they could still go on being friends during their marriage. Aelin didn’t know if the lust would last, but so long as she had his companionship, she would be fine.

For now, Aelin would try to enjoy the strange arrangement they had arrived at.

Everything was going well, after all. 

Until it wasn’t.

The morning after Aelin’s birthday, she had awoken to the sounds of Rowan rolling out of bed and shrugging on his discarded clothing. She had admired the view for a bit before they said their farewells, which were actually rather insignificant in the grand scheme of things, considering they would be seeing one another at breakfast soon enough.

Aelin had just enough time to take a quick, hot shower, dry her hair, and change into some real clothes before heading downstairs in time for breakfast to be served. 

Most of her friends and family were already down there, save for her uncle and Darrow. Her stomach gave an irritable grumble at the smells of eggs and bacon coming from the table. 

Aelin chirped her hellos as she took her seat, flashing a tiny smile at Rowan who was sitting across from her. 

They were all chatting brightly, joking back and forth while lamenting the fact that Elide, Dorian, and Chaol would be leaving that afternoon. It all seemed like a normal morning; Aelin never would have suspected anything was amiss. 

Aelin had a wide grin on her face as she looked up at the sound of her uncle and Darrow’s footsteps. However, that grin quickly melted away when she saw the somber looks on their faces.

“What is it?” Aelin asked with no small sense of morbid anticipation. 

“Aelin, we need to speak with you and Prince Whitethorn privately,” Orlon requested, lips pressed together tightly.

She blinked in surprise but gave a tiny nod, placing her mug of coffee down on the table. She ignored the confused and bewildered looks the rest of her friends at the table threw in her direction, instead looking only at Rowan. He seemed to be as confused as she was.

Rowan slid to her side as they fell in step just behind her uncle and his husband. He looked at her as if to say, Do you have any idea what this is about?

Aelin could only shake her head. No idea.

She realized they were leading them to Orlon’s office, which meant whatever was about to be discussed was rather serious, if they wanted that much privacy. 

Orlon’s office was a long room, the walls covered by stuffed bookshelves. He had a few ancient relics of Terrasen’s history scattered around: old swords, shields, the amulet of Orynth. When Aelin was a child, she had loved looking at such artifacts, fancying herself a warrior fighting epic battles to save the kingdom.

Such old relics were offset by some of the technology her uncle had. A wide computer, a tablet with stylus to jot down notes, his cellphone laying face-down on the oak desk. 

Unease settled in the pit of her stomach as Darrow shut the door behind him. Orlon took his usual seat behind his stuffed desk, glasses perched on the bridge of his nose. Aelin lowered herself into one of the old armchairs on the other side of the desk, Rowan taking the other. For some reason, Aelin felt as though she was about to be scolded. 

“I’m afraid we have a bit of a situation,” Darrow announced, striding to Orlon’s side.

Oh gods. Darrow tended to understate things, which meant they were in deep shit.

“What’s happened?” Rowan asked for the both of them.

“Have either of you checked the news recently?”

They shook their heads.

Orlon sighed heavily, reaching towards the sleek desktop monitor on his desk, and swiveled it around so they could see what had been pulled up, most likely the cause for their strife. 

It was a news article, published this morning. Aelin’s eyes scanned over the bold headline, and she instantly knew what had gotten her family in such a tizzy.

Trouble in paradise? Less than two months after engagement announcement, Terrasen princess’ fiancé caught in intimate moment with another woman!

Attached was a photo taken from an inopportune angle, no doubt by a paparazzo who had snuck onto palace grounds to snap the picture. It was clearly Rowan, sitting next to a woman who Aelin recognized as Remelle. She had her hands on Rowan, leaning in close.

Rowan had told her that Remelle had tried to make a move, and it seemed that they were all unlucky enough that the moment had been caught on camera. 

Beside her, Rowan looked mortified. “I promise you it’s not what it appears,” he said quickly. “I would never disrespect Aelin or your family like that, you must believe me.”

“She was harassing Rowan all night,” Aelin added. “It’s not his fault.”

“We believe you, don’t worry,” Orlon soothed quickly. “But, regardless of the truth, this is what the public is seeing.”

“And the reactions so far…” Darrow said with a small cringe, “have not been great.”

“Well, what can we do to change that?” Aelin asked, leaning forward in her seat.

“I’ve already released a statement, but that’s only a bandaid on a bulletwound,” Darrow explained. “What we need to do is show, rather than tell.”

Aelin met Rowan’s gaze for a heartbeat, finding a twin look of confusion to the one surely on her own face. He leaned forward, resting the points of his elbows on his thighs.

“What do you have in mind?”

A date.

An answer to what could have been a huge scandal was a fucking date.

Aelin could have laughed at the irony of it all. Just the night before, she had confided in Rowan about her strange desire to have a normal life, to go out on dates with a boy. And now, a date fell in her lap.

But just like her marriage, it was arranged.

Sort of took away from the magic of it all.

Even then, it wouldn’t be a nice, private date in a little restaurant, just the two of them. They would be out in public, surrounded by discrete security guards, allowing the people to see them happy and in love. 

Gods, for all the posturing she’d had to do in the past few months, Aelin should have been a fucking actress. 

Every minute of the day to follow had been planned out for her and Rowan. They couldn’t mess it up even if they wanted to. A picnic in the beautiful, public park at the center of the city. They had a blanket, a wicker basket, everything. It would be picturesque. 

Even the clothes Aelin was dressed in helped with the image. Lysandra picked out a flowy, pale pink silk skirt that hit mid-shin and a billowing white top. She left Aelin’s hair down, the golden waves falling down her back. The entire look was soft and pretty, open and vulnerable, showing that they had nothing to hide.

Rowan was dressed casually as well, or as casually as they would allow. Just a white button-down and brown trousers.

“I feel ridiculous,” Aelin seethed from beside Rowan in the back of the dark sedan as they were driven to a park. “It’s like being a fucking Barbie doll.”

Rowan snorted from beside her. “I would have pegged you as a girl who looked up to Barbie.”

“I do. When it comes to pretty blonde hair, expansive wardrobes, female role models, and being who you want to be,” Aelin explained, “but not us being played around with and having no say.”

“It’s one afternoon,” Rowan said. “If anything, I think we’re getting off easy.”

You’re getting off easy,” Aelin said. “I did nothing wrong. Honestly, I was worried that Orlon might set Aedion on you as punishment.”

“No offence to your cousin, but he doesn’t frighten me.”

“Then maybe I’d set Elide on you.”

He hesitated a beat. “I hope that you’ll never have to resort to that.”

She gave a tiny laugh before looking towards the two men in the front seats. They were both dressed similarly in dark suits, both members of their security team. The one driving, Aelin knew well. Ress had been recommended by Brullo. Aelin got along with him quite well, enjoying making him blush. The other man was new; she had only seen him around a few times. He didn’t talk much, always seemed rather serious. There was something about him that set Aelin on edge, though she couldn’t pin-point why. Cairn, if Aelin remembered correctly.

“How many more times are we going to drive in a circle, Ress?” Aelin asked, leaning forward and resting her arms on the back of his seat.

She noted the corner of his lip twitch up. “Until we get the word that the area is clear, princess.”

“How long can that take? What, are you guys doing background checks on every duck in the pond?”

“No, just the squirrels. Can’t trust those things.”

Aelin chuckled and leaned back in her seat. “Well, I guess that sounds about right. You’re the professional, after all. But I must warn you, if it takes more than five more minutes I’m going to break into the picnic basket.”

“So long as you share,” Ress said. 

Luckily for their lunch, they received the message over the headpiece giving them the all-clear three and a half minutes later. 

It didn’t mean that the park was empty. It meant that they had watched those who were there, ensured there were no suspicious characters, and planted other security agents around the area where they would be seated. As any regular date would go.

“Ready?” Aelin asked, raising her brows at Rowan.

The car rolled to a stop as he grabbed the basket and held out his hand towards her. “Let’s get this over with.”

Aelin took his hand, slipping her fingers between his own. He was ever the gentleman, helping her out of the car. And then, they were on.

It was a beautiful day out, the spring sun bright and warm without being suffocating. The native flowers were in full-bloom, their sweet scents wafting on the winds. The park was a popular spot for locals of Terrasen and tourists alike. Today was no exception. The sprawling grounds were filled with people. Some walked dogs, others jogged, children played in the jungle gym. Plenty of people living their normal lives.

For a few blessed moments, Aelin and Rowan were no more than another couple among the throes of people. It took the people a few minutes to recognize who, exactly, was striding hand in hand towards a pretty, shaded patch of grass.

“Is that-?” Aelin heard briefly as two joggers flew past them. She didn’t need to hear the rest of the sentence to know what they asked.

She spotted a few of their security detail scattered around in strategic spots. To most other people, they would look like regular folk enjoying the beautiful day. But, she knew better.

“This is the spot,” Aelin announced, stopping before a little grassy knoll beneath a huge oak, with a lovely view of the glimmering, clear lake. 

Rowan released her hand, grabbing the quilt from the basket and unfurled it, spreading it out in the shade. He lowered himself to the grass, smoothing out the corners. And despite how Aelin felt about the whole situation, she found herself smiling softly. 

Rowan tilted his face up. “What are you smiling at?”

“You,” said Aelin simply. “So domestic.”

His eyes narrowed playfully as he shook his head. “You just like the sight of me on my knees in front of you.”

“Not as much as you would like the sight of me doing the same.”

Something dark flickered in Rowan’s eyes that made Aelin wish they were somewhere more private.

“You shouldn’t be talking like that,” Rowan scolded, though it held no strength behind it. “There are children here.”

“None close enough to hear me.”

He scowled, reached out a hand towards her. “Just sit down.”

Aelin tutted but took his hand nevertheless, lowering herself beside him on the blanket, feet tucked daintily to her side. “So bossy!” she said, poking him in the shoulder. 

“You’re calling me bossy?” Rowan asked incredulously. “You’ve been giving me orders since you woke up this morning.”

Aelin tilted her nose to the air primly. “I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about. Now, get out the food.”

Rowan refrained from releasing the snide comment Aelin just knew was on the tip of his tongue and complied with her request, unloading the basket. Little sandwiches, cut up melons and vegetables, cheeses and sliced bread. A nice, little feast for them both. 

Aelin nibbled on one of the sandwiches, trying to ignore that they had people’s attention now. 

“So, this is it then?” Rowan asked, chomping down on a carrot stick. “We just sit here and eat?”

“We’re supposed to be pretending that we’re in love,” Aelin said. “You could feed me grapes right off the stem while I lounge around. I think that ought to do it.”

“You’d love that, wouldn’t you?”

“Oh, absolutely.”

From the pathway before them, a small group of young women paused and pointed in their direction. Aelin pretended not to notice them, nor the phones they pulled and and the pictures they no doubtedly snapped. It was why they were doing this in the first place. To allow the people to see them together, happy. To stomp any rumors about unease in their engagement. 

Aelin snapped off a grape, holding it between her thumb and her pointer finger.

“Open up.” 

Rowan blinked slowly at her. “You’re serious?”

“Unfortunately. If I saw other couples doing this I would make fun of them. But Darrow said we had to be lovey-dovey, so we make sacrifices.”

The look on Rowan’s face told her that he felt the same, but he did as requested, parting his lips. He took the grape into his mouth, and Aelin managed to keep a smile on her face even when hissing out, “ Disgusting.”

Rowan smiled as he chewed. “You’re dramatic.”

“That I am,” Aelin nodded. “Now, I’m going to kiss you.”

“You always warn me.”

“I want to give you some time to prepare yourself. Don’t want you getting too excited, now. We are in public.”

“Always looking out for others.”

Aelin refrained from rolling her eyes and leaned forward, placing a hand on Rowan’s cheek and drawing him in for a slow, lingering kiss. 

At least it didn’t feel stiff or awkward. They had enough practice kissing, though normally the circumstances were different. More private, less clothing. Though part of her did miss those slow, loving kisses that Sam would give her. When he would tug her face to his in the early hours of the morning, when he would sneak up on her and surprise her with a kiss, when he would kiss her goodnight and the last thing Aelin would remember before sleep claimed her was the pleasant, tingling aftermath of his lips on hers. 

But those weren’t the same as this. 

Aelin pulled back after what she deemed to be a decently long kiss. 

They spent the following time chatting through soft, dopey grins and nibbling on the food. Aelin knew that they were perfecting the image of an enamoured young couple. She noted people stopping to stare at them, pointing and murmuring, but moving on. No one would approach them; they knew better than that.

It was one part about who she was that Aelin didn’t enjoy. That she was constantly surrounded by security, that her people didn’t feel as though that they could approach her. She wanted to speak with her people, to show them that she wasn’t any different. 

Aelin bit down into a chocolate covered strawberry, watching as two young girls, most likely sisters, squealed and ran about, chasing one another in circles. There was a couple watching them fondly, most likely their parents.

Her heart skipped a beat as she watched them. There was one aspect about her marriage that she hadn’t thought of yet. 

Children.

For all the progress and growth there had been in society within recent years, there was still a pressure on those in the royal families to produce heirs. That pressure didn’t come from Orlon, nor anyone else in her family, instead stemming from members of the council and even some of the people themselves. 

It wasn’t the act of making a child that unnerved her. She and Rowan had already had sex plenty of times; that part wouldn't be hard. But the idea of raising a child frightened her. She didn’t know if she could raise a child, if she would be a good mom. She knew her parents had worked together well, had raised one another up even when Aelin was being a little shit. Their love had gotten them through the hardships of parenthood. 

She knew that love wasn’t necessary to raise a child, but it was how Aelin had grown up. 

“What are you thinking about?” Rowan asked, drawing her out of her thoughts.

Aelin blinked and looked towards him. She didn’t feel like getting into a conversation about the nitty-gritty of their future, so instead she glanced down at his exposed forearm. 

“Just about what people are going to say about their princess marrying a man with so many tattoos.”

Rowan cursed and looked down. He had rolled the sleeves up to stay a bit cooler in the warm afternoon sun. Aelin certainly enjoyed the look.

“It’s not going to be a problem, will it?” Rowan asked, going to tug his sleeves down, but Aelin caught his hand, stopping him.

“No, it won’t be,” she said. “And don’t hide them. They’re beautiful.”

His hand stilled and his eyes flickered towards hers. There was something in them that was different from the other times he had looked at her, in a way she couldn’t quite put her finger on. Aelin’s brows furrowed slightly as she tried to figure it out, but before she could, there was some shouting from not too far away, and the sound of childish giggles much closer. 

Aelin looked away from Rowan just in time to see one of the two girls she had seen earlier toddling towards them as fast as her little legs would carry her. She couldn’t have been more than four, with warm brown skin and a head full of bouncy curls. Past the girl, Aelin saw her parents looking towards her in shock.

Aelin smiled at the girl. “Hello there, sweetheart.”

The girl gave a wide grin, flashing dimples on her full cheeks. “Your clothes are pretty. My mama said you’re a princess, like on Disney.”

Aelin couldn’t stop herself from laughing softly. “Sort of.”

“No crown?”

“I had to leave it at home.” She shrugged apologetically. 

The girl frowned. “Oh. Is it sparkly?”

Aelin leaned forward, giving the girl a conspirator’s grin. “The sparkliest!”

This seemed to be what the girl wanted to hear, giving a bright and jolly laugh that Aelin shared with her. It was then that the woman who must have been the girl’s mother trotted up, placing a hand on her curly head. 

“Honey, you can’t just run off like that!” she scolded softly before looking towards Aelin and Rowan, a small cringe on her face. “I’m so sorry, your highnesses.”

“It’s truly no trouble,” Aelin assured her. “Rowan and I don’t mind, right love?”

Rowan shook his head. “Absolutely. She’s very sweet.”

The woman thanked them profusely, herding away her little girl back towards the rest of the family. The girl managed one last little wave goodbye towards Aelin, which the princess returned with a tiny wink. 

“For some reason,” Rowan spoke after a moment. “I never figured you’d be good with kids.”

“I don’t really think I am. I think they just like me. I honestly don’t know what to do with them.” 

“You seemed to know what to do with her.”

Aelin raised a brow. “A thirty second conversation with a child about crowns isn’t enough to qualify adding good with kids to my resumé.”

“You have a resumé?”

“No. Why the fuck would I have a resumé?”

Rowan leaned back on his hands and laughed. Aelin took a moment to admire the lean lines of his body: the long legs stretched before him casually, broad shoulders shaking lightly with his laughs, the strong planes of his face. He looked mighty handsome sitting in the dappled afternoon sunlight, like he’d be the subject of some romantic painting. 

Rowan glanced at her before reaching out and tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. 

The tender touch surprised her, as did the soft kiss he pressed against her lips. But, despite the surprise, she found her eyes fluttering shut at the sensation, found herself inadvertently leaning into his palm against her cheek. 

When Rowan pulled back, it wasn’t far, his lips still close to her ear. 

“Paparazzi behind the bushes,” he murmured. “I think they enjoyed that.”

Right. That sweet kiss was nothing but show, as Aelin should have known. But her stupid body had been fooled by the tenderness of it all. It had been so long since anyone had touched her so kindly. Not that she was treated badly by any means. But no one had treated her like that since Sam. Those sweet, mindless touches and caresses, tucking in hair, straightening clothes, tracing patterns on skin. Aelin hadn’t been alone since Sam, not close. Yet none of those men had done those little shows of affection, not even Dorian. It had always been physical.

Aelin must be truly desperate if playing pretend was making her feel so.

 She managed a smile. “Look at you, learning the game so quickly.”

“I gotta keep up with you somehow.”

The rest of their picnic went by without incident. They ate until they were sated, smiled and batted their lashes at one another until they were satisfied that they had thoroughly proved that they were in love and there was no other woman. 

Soon enough, Aelin and Rowan were packed back into one of the sedans and driven to the palace. One the way back, Aelin had checked her phone for updates. They were trending, photos of their date being shared over twitter and other sites. The sentiments of the people had changed rather quickly; no more whisperings about godsdamned Remelle. They spoke about the outfit Aelin wore, posting links to get the same or dupes, they posted about Rowan’s tattoos, and shared videos of that young girl who had trotted up to them. 

Aelin had teased Rowan about the people talking about how good looking he was. It seemed that people finding out he had tattoos had only increased the public’s opinion of him.

She read the tweets people wrote about him, which were all mostly borderline inappropriate, but it was a fun challenge to see if she could turn that scowl on his face into a blush. She didn’t succeed; instead he ended up stealing her phone away to make her stop and refused to give it back.

Once they arrived back at the palace, Aelin invited Rowan back to her room. They ended up showering together, Rowan hauling her up against the cool tiles and fucking her under the scalding stream of water. 

It was a good reminder of what they were to one another. Aelin had let herself forget this afternoon, just for a fraction of a second, but even that had been too long. For a moment, Aelin had let herself believe that they were more than they really were. That they could be soft and caring towards one another, tiny caresses and sweet ministrations. 

But with Rowan’s fingers digging deeply in the flesh of her thighs, his hips thrusting hard against hers, it was impossible to forget the truth.

Chapter Text

It wasn’t much later that wedding planning began to kick into gear. 

Aelin hadn’t known what exactly to expect, but even if she had tried to formulate some idea of what it would be like, she never would have been prepared for the actual hell that it was. Choosing napkin colors, centerpieces, flower arrangements. Within five minutes, Aelin wanted to put her head through a wall. Rowan was feeling the same, if not worse.

She was sitting in her office, looking at photos that their planner had emailed her, showing different combinations of flowers and vases. Aelin truly couldn’t care less; she honestly had half a mind to close her eyes and randomly pick one, or just forward it to Rowan and pass the responsibility on to him. She hadn’t come in here to look at flowers; she had business to attend to.

Aelin had spent most of the late morning to early afternoon on the phone and sending out emails, trying to organize sponsors and guests for the charity organization she had been developing over the past few months. She’d been on a roll before she had made the mistake of opening her new email.

Wedding planning just pissed her off. 

Aelin looked away from her computer at the sound of a soft knock on the door, finding Rowan standing there, shoulder leaned against the frame. 

“Hey there,” Aelin said, leaning back in her chair.

“Hey yourself,” Rowan greeted, slipping his hands into his pockets. He stepped slowly into her office, eyes drinking it in from wall-to-wall. “Didn’t know you had an office until Aedion told me today. Didn’t know you had actual business to attend to.”

Aelin raised a brow. “What do you think I do all day, prince? Sit around and look pretty?”

“I mean, I figured that’s at least part of what you do,” Rowan said, plopping down into one of the chairs before her desk.

Aelin tried to ignore the tiny compliment slipped into his statement. He had told her she looked beautiful before, and she hadn’t paid much mind to it. But for some reason now, it threatened to send a flush of blood to her cheeks.

It was infuriating. 

“It is,” Aelin conceded with a shrug. “But I can multitask.”

He released a short laugh. “So what are the other things you do?”

“Well, my uncle handles the politics and the major things,” Aelin explains. “I do a lot of the communications, sending out feelers, organizing our charities. I work closely with Darrow to set up our appearances, I find sponsors, send out invitations. Orlon tells me what politicians need to be worked in our favor, so I do that when necessary.”

Rowan raised an impressed brow. “You weren’t kidding when you said you multitasked.”

“I like to stay busy.” Aelin reached forward and spun her monitor around. “While I have you trapped here, which vase and which arrangement do you prefer?”

Rowan made a face but squinted at the screen. “They all look the same.”

“I concur. I think wedding planning is actually just an excuse to drive us insane.”

“I think it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

“Unfortunately, I think you’re right.” Aelin rubbed at her temples. “I think we have a cake tasting on Saturday, which honestly will probably be the only tolerable thing about the planning.”

“I will gladly leave the cake up to you.”

“Good, because it’s going to be disgustingly sweet with as much chocolate on it as possible.”

Rowan shook his head playfully at her. “Is it possible to die of a sugar overdose?”

“If it is, I haven’t hit the limit yet,” Aelin said, glancing at her watch. “Listen, I have lessons with Brullo in half an hour, if you’d like to join us.”

“Do you think he’s going to give me a hard time?”

“Oh, most definitely,” Aelin said, pushing to her feet. 

“Good,” Rowan replied, rising as well. “It would be boring if he didn’t.”

The next week went by rather quickly.

Rowan’s days were full now that the planning for the wedding had kicked in. It was still a surreal thought, that he was actually getting married, that all these little details would come together in one day, when he would be inevitably tied to Aelin for the rest of their lives. 

He had never gotten to the planning stage with Lyria; they hadn’t had the time. He knew Lyria would have wanted a small, intimate ceremony, which was the exact opposite of what he would have with Aelin. She was much too important a person for a tiny wedding. Half of Terrasen would likely be invited, and the other half might just show up anyway. 

When they weren’t stuck in wedding planning, Rowan would train with Aelin and Brullo, whom he had discovered was quite the brutal instructor. Still, he enjoyed the time he spent in the gym with the princess. She was quick, quicker than she had any right to be. What she lacked in size, she made up in speed, able to slip through Rowan’s defenses from time to time and land tiny punches to his body. Not enough to hurt, just enough to show that she could. She was able to use her body weight to throw him onto the padded floors on a few occasions. Brullo had even taken them to a shooting range once. Rowan had been surprised that the princess had been taught how to handle a gun, and even more surprised to see her skill with it. 

Aelin was an impressive woman.

They spent more and more time together. Both during the days and the nights, switching between his bedroom and Aelin’s. A strange arrangement, but not unwelcome. They both enjoyed those nights together, shedding their clothes and rolling around the sheets, or the floor when they didn’t make it to the bed. 

And then one day, Aelin had come to him complaining of boredom and had asked if he wanted to go out with her somewhere. Sneaking out, once again, as she claimed she didn’t want a small army trailing her around all afternoon. Rowan was inclined to agree. 

He went with her. Rowan was having a harder and harder time denying the princess. Besides, he did enjoy the hours he spent with her, clothed or not. 

She dragged him to a shopping mall, according to her one of the nicest ones in Orynth. He had no doubts that she was right, especially when he saw the clean, bright halls of the complex. White, marble floors, clean fountains, sparkling storefronts. 

They had dressed casually, helping them blend in amongst the other patrons. Rowan had popped a cap on his head and Aelin wore a pair of round, wire-framed glasses, which she didn’t need to see but didn’t like when Rowan referred to them as fake .

“They’re bluelight glasses, Rowan,” she had explained. “For when you’re looking at a screen all day. But since you don’t do any work, I can see why you don’t understand the need for them.”

He had responded to that little dig with a pinch to her side that made her yelp.

About five minutes after they had entered, Aelin had dragged him towards one of the pretzel stands, buying a batch of cinnamon-coated bites and a huge cup of freshly squeezed lemonade to share. They worked their way through that, just meandering through the halls.

“I kinda feel like a teenager in a movie,” Aelin said, sucking cinnamon off her fingers. “This is the kind of thing normal teenagers do, right?”

“Pretty close, yeah,” Rowan said. He had done similar things with his cousins during his youth.

Aelin licked off excess sugar from her lips, and Rowan had to pretend the tiny motion didn’t draw his attention indecently to her mouth. He shook himself quickly. He shouldn’t be looking at her like that.

Well, most people would expect him to look at his fiancée as such. They were getting married, but they weren’t in love, and yet they slept together most nights. Gods, they were just a clusterfuck. It made it difficult to know what to feel.

Aelin tossed away the packaging from her pretzels, wiping her hands clean.

“Are there any stores you want to go into?” she asked.

Rowan shook his head. “Not really. I don’t really enjoy shopping.”

Aelin blinked up at him, brows pinched together in the middle. “Then why did you come?”

“Because you asked me to.”

Aelin’s lips parted softly, a pleasant sort of surprise in her bright eyes. “Oh. Well, I hope you don’t mind if I look in some stores.”

“Not at all, princess,” Rowan smiled. 

“Good.” She reached out and grabbed his hand, tugging him off to the side. “Then come on!”

She pulled him into a store that seemed to cater towards women. It was filled with fine clothes: dresses, blouses, skirts, trousers. All well-made and classy. He could see Aelin donning any of the pieces that hung on the racks.

Aelin chatted lightly with him as she filtered through the rows of clothes. She would pick things up, put them against her body, glance at the mirror, but put them back. Apparently, none of them were up to her standards.

This process went on for a few more stores until they ended up in a dress store. Aelin had gone right to the evening gown section, running appraising hands over satins and velvets. 

“I didn’t realize you were so particular about your clothes,” Rowan eventually said. 

Aelin seemed confused. “What do you mean?”

“Well, you’ve looked at hundreds of pieces and you haven’t picked a single one out,” Rowan explained. “Do you not like any of them?”

“Ah,” Aelin said, nodding in understanding. “I see what you mean. It’s not that I don’t like anything, I’ve seen a lot of things that I love today. But I won’t buy myself things while my people are struggling; not from big-businesses at least.”

“Where has Lysandra been getting your gowns then?”

“Local small boutiques and seamstresses,” Aelin explained. “Sometimes she’ll find dresses, other times we work on a design together and get local dressmakers to put it together, pay them handsomely.”

Rowan hadn’t known that, never would have figured it out on his own. Every day, Aelin continued to surprise him. He had met other princesses and princes in the past, other lords and ladies of various courts. None of them were like her, none of them cared for their people as Aelin did. 

“What’s that look mean?” Aelin asked.

It was then that Rowan noticed he had been staring. 

“It’s just…” Rowan said, rubbing at his jaw, “I’ve never met anyone like you, Aelin Galathynius. You never stop surprising me.”

“Is that a good thing?”

“Yes. It’s a wonderful thing.”

Aelin smiled at her words. A wide, true smile that made her nose scrunch and the corners of her eyes crinkle. Rowan had always thought that she was attractive, but in that moment, it hit him just how truly beautiful she was. Stunning, even. And the sight of her smiling at him like that caused a warm fluttering in his chest.

Rowan wasn’t quite sure what to do with that feeling.

But he didn’t want her to stop looking at him like that.

Aelin swore the following week was sent by the gods to test her.

She couldn’t remember the last time she was so busy. 

For one, the event she was organizing for the opening of the charity she had created was creeping up on her. Hiring caterers, making guest lists, sweet-talking donors… it was taking a good deal of her time and energy. She’d started having lunch in her office, which she didn’t love, but from time to time, Rowan would join her. To provide company, he insisted. Aelin wouldn’t turn him away, especially when she could convince him to help her with paperwork. She thought he enjoyed doing something that didn’t have to do with flowers or place settings, but he wouldn’t admit it. 

And then, of course, there was the wedding planning. 

Lysandra had begun to help her with some things, color pallets, arranging the bouquet, and, of course, the dress. Aelin trusted her friend with the design. Lysandra had shown her a few sketches and the princess went through and picked out features she enjoyed. She had faith that the dress would be stunning once it was finished.

Elide had come down for a weekend. She, Aelin, Lysandra, and Aedion took an afternoon to knock out their part of the seating arrangements, nobility of family from Terrasen. Then, they snatched up Rowan and Fenrys to do their parts. 

Rowan looked like he wanted to tear his hair out during it all. He had an obscene amount of cousins to organize, then a scattered number of friends. Fenrys insisted that he be seated right beside Lorcan; Rowan worried they would kill one another before the evening was up. 

Every day had been thoroughly exhausting. There were only one or two nights where she and Rowan had the energy to shed their clothes and fuck. The other nights they had just slept beside one another. It was a strange arrangement, but nothing about their relationship was normal. In fact, Aelin grew to find his presence on the other side of the bed comforting. 

By Sunday night, Aelin was prepared to sleep away the following week. And yet here she was, sitting in her office, finishing up some details because she felt she wouldn’t be able to sleep until it was finished. 

It was late enough that she had caved and had a second dinner of take-out noodles. They were positively delicious and she truly didn’t order them often enough. She snatched up a healthy wad of them with her chopsticks before shoving it into her mouth. 

Aelin looked at her computer, studying the proposed layout for the venue of the event. The podium was good, as were the seating for the guests, but she was unsure if the tables for food and drink should be placed against the back or side walls. 

“I knew I would find you here.”

Aelin looked up, finding Rowan striding into her office. He was dressed comfortably, and she took notice of the way his tight shirt clung to his chest. Aelin knew she looked a bit worse for wear herself, hair messily tossed up in a knot that was doing a shitty job at holding all her hair in place, a giant sweatshirt swallowing her form. 

“If you’ve come to steal my dumplings,” Aelin said, tucking stray strands of hair behind her ears. “I’ve already eaten them all.”

“Disappointing, but not why I’m here,” Rowan said, coming around to Aelin’s side of the desk and leaning his hip against it.

“Oh? Then why, pray tell, have you ventured into my office at this time of night?”

“I’m here to take you on your break,” Rowan offered.

Aelin quirked a brow with a tiny laugh. “I’m sorry, what?”

“You’ve been here all day and you’re on track to be here all night,” Rowan explained. “So, take a break.”

The princess sighed and rubbed at her eyes. “I don’t have time to take a break. This event is next week and I’m still working on the floor plan and I haven’t even started organizing with security and-”

Aelin ,” Rowan said firmly, placing a solid hand on her knee. “Your event is going to be perfect, but if you don’t give yourself a break, you’re not going to have the energy to enjoy it.”

Aelin held his gaze, refusing to back down. She was used to getting her way, and Rowan was as well. They had at least three standoffs a day, the victor varying on each occasion. She tried to focus on not blinking rather than the warmth of his hand against her knee. It was infuriating that the simple touch affected her as much as it did.

It was for that reason, Aelin told herself, that she relented with a sigh. “Fine.”

Losing that battle was worth it, she deemed, once she saw Rowan smile. 

Once Aelin had tossed her garbage away and shut off all of her devices, Rowan held out a hand towards her. 

“Come with me.”

Aelin hesitated a beat, raising a questioning brow before she took his hand. “What, you gonna kidnap me or something?”

“Don’t you trust me?” Rowan asked with a crooked smile as he led her from her office.

Yes, Aelin thought. I do trust you. 

It was strange to hold Rowan’s hand so casually. It wasn’t that she hadn’t held his hand before, she had done so on plenty of occasions. But those were when they were in public, when they were expected to be a happy, loving couple. Holding his hand now, voluntarily was an entirely different experience. 

But that didn’t mean Aelin didn’t like it.

“Where are we going?” she asked, even though he hadn’t answered her last question. 

“It’s a surprise,” Rowan said simply. 

To be honest, when he had said that she needed a break, Aelin had figured he would take her back to his room and they would bang until they fell asleep. But, it would seem the prince had other plans.

“Right. You’re taking me somewhere quiet to kill me, aren’t you?”

He released a loud laugh. “If I were to take you somewhere to kill you, it wouldn’t be quiet. It would have to be somewhere very loud to drown out the sound of you yelling curses at me.”

“It doesn’t unnerve me at all that you’ve thought this through.”

Aelin tried to keep her confusion to herself as Rowan led her towards the beautiful glass doors that led to the gardens. The early summer air was pleasantly warm, filled with the distant sounds of the city and the singing of crickets. 

He led her through the carefully trimmed rose bushes, following the path towards the large willow tree growing in a grassy patch. As they grew closer, Aelin finally saw what Rowan had brought her out here for.

There was a thick quilt laid out on the soft grass, a few lanterns propped up in the middle, emitting a warm, orange glow. There were a few bottles of wine and two glasses, a spread of meats, bread, and cheeses. 

Aelin gaped, looking back and forth from the sweet little set-up to Rowan. She almost couldn’t believe that it was his doing. Not that Rowan hadn’t treated her kindly, but it was… well, Aelin wasn’t sure exact what it was. She wasn’t sure if… romantic was exactly the proper term to use. That wasn’t the kind of relationship she had with Rowan. 

Besides, she had enjoyed lounging around the gardens with her friends plenty of times before. Sure, those times didn’t have the mood lighting or the sweet light from the stars, but it was the same idea.

Or, that’s what Aelin told herself.

“You did this?” she asked, still staring wide-eyed as he brought her to the edge of the blanket.

“Well, it wasn’t magic,” Rowan chuckled, urging her to sit down. 

“Why?”

“Why, what?” he asked, sitting down next to her, immediately reaching for a bottle of wine and a glass.

“Why did you do this?”

“Well, you’ve been working so hard recently,” Rowan explained, handing her the first glass. “With your charity, and then the wedding planning, which you’ve taken the brunt of-”

“Because you’re useless when it comes to color choices,” Aelin said teasingly, taking a tiny sip of wine.

“Yes, because I’m useless,” Rowan agreed. “So I figured you needed a bit of a break, and you weren’t going to give yourself one.”

There was a strange feeling in Aelin’s chest at his words. She was lucky, she realized, that she had Rowan. In the time that they had known one another, he had grown to be a cherished friend. She trusted him, and he treated her kindly. Aelin never would have suspected within the first few days of knowing one another that they would one day be here. 

“Well then, thank you,” Aelin smiled, clinking her glass against Rowan’s before pressing a chaste kiss against his jaw. “Let’s enjoy my break.”

Rowan had been more nervous than he cared to admit when he had taken Aelin to the little picnic he had set up. He’d wanted to do something for her. All he had been able to do for the past few weeks was watch as the princess worked non-stop. He had been able to help on a few occasions, but for the most part, Aelin had taken most of the work upon herself. 

And gods, had she been running herself ragged. 

Even when she denied it, Rowan could see the fatigue in her eyes. When they went to bed together, most nights, she could barely stand to stay awake more than half an hour. 

Tonight, at least, she had relented far more easily than he’d thought she would when he had suggested she take a break. Normally, she was the most stubborn person he had ever met. Either the exhaustion was beginning to take a toll on her, or Rowan was getting better at convincing her .

Most likely the former. 

But, all his worrying had been for naught. 

Aelin seemed to be thoroughly enjoying herself, nibbling on the tiny feast he had set up, helping him work his way through the bottles of wine he had chosen for the evening. She was chatting animatedly, laughing between little, heated vents about her day. She had even given him a tiny kiss on the cheek that had ignited something in him that he didn’t want to think too deeply about.

They had managed to kill one bottle of wine together, already halfway through the second. Rowan was pleasantly buzzed and, judging by the rosy flush to Aelin’s cheeks, she was as well. 

“You know, I don’t think I’ve ever been alone out here at night,” Aelin eventually said. “It’s so… quiet.”

“It’s peaceful,” Rowan said, tilting his head back to view the night sky between the dropping branches of the willow. 

“It’s almost as if we’re the only people in the world,” she breathed.

Rowan reached over and grabbed one of the few remaining grapes, popping it into his mouth. They had done a number on the snacks he had brought, most of what was left was scraps and crumbs. 

Suddenly, he felt a caress of warm breath against his neck. Before he could even move his gaze towards the source, Aelin’s lips were brushing against his neck, soft and enticing. He had to hold back the groan that threatened to escape him at the sensation, how it made his blood burn and race towards a certain… lower body part.

“Aelin,” he groaned in a way that was supposed to be warning, though he wasn’t sure if it came out that way.

Her lips paused, the look in her turquoise eyes deceptively innocent. “Am I bothering you? Do you want me to stop?”

A beat of hesitation. “Well, I didn’t say that.

She released a breathy laugh and continued her sweet torture. 

Rowan’s eyes fluttered shut, one hand tangling in her golden waves, the other going to her waist, dipping under the hem of her hoodie, tracing small circles on the warm flesh of her hips. 

He felt her tongue dart out from between her lips.

“Are you trying to give me a hickey?” Rowan laughed slightly.

“Maybe,” Aelin murmured against his skin. “As payback. The first night we met, you left hickeys all over my neck.”

“I remember,” Rowan said, fingers trailing down the back of her neck lightly. 

“I never told you, but I was so worried that next morning,” she continued. “I did everything I could to hide them, because I didn’t want my fiancé to see another man’s lovebites on me. Little did I know I was hiding them from the man who gave them.”

Rowan chuckled. “Funny how that works out.”

It was then that he dipped his head down and captured Aelin’s mouth with his own. Her lips instantly began to move against his, not waiting to deepen the kiss. Her tongue tangled with his, fingers curling into his shoulders. It seemed after the last few nights where they had fallen asleep before doing anything, Aelin was a bit more needy than normal.

Not that Rowan minded. He was happy to give her what she wanted. 

His hand ventured deeper under her hoodie, fingers trailing over the planes of her stomach, the sides of her ribs, before they brushed the undersides of her breasts. 

“Miss Galathynius, are you not wearing a bra?” Rowan chastised playfully. “Quite scandalous for a princess.”

“Are you complaining?” Aelin asked, raising a brow. 

“No, just pleasantly surprised.”

He kissed her again, tilting her head back to deepen it as his hand found her breast. She gasped into his mouth as he palmed it, thumb skimming over her peaked nipple. The sounds of her moans only urged him on, tugging her tighter against him. 

But, before they could take it further, Aelin let out a frustrated moan and pulled back.

“I’m not letting you fuck me in the gardens,” she said. 

“Why not?” Rowan asked with a smile. “There’s no one out here.”

“Because the moment you get my tits out, someone is going to stumble upon us, I just know it,” Aelin explained, narrowing her eyes at his expression. “Oh, don’t give me that look. I swear, men never get past the horny teenager stage.”

“I’m pretty sure you’re the one who just admitted to trying to give me hickies.”

A devious little smile curled on to Aelin’s lips, the princess leaning in, lips brushing against the shell of Rowan’s ear. “Let’s clean this all up and I’ll do much more to you.”

Rowan hoped he hadn’t given away his eagerness by how quickly he moved. Though, Aelin was moving just the same. Together, they were able to gather up the scraps and garbage, scoop up the blanket in what must have been record timing. The princess leapt onto his back, releasing bright and happy laughs as they made their way through the halls. 

Rowan managed a quick glance at Aelin over his shoulder, hands locked under her knees, her arms draped around his neck. She looked beautiful as she smiled, head tilted back, nose scrunched. 

Aelin was his friend, but the feeling in his chest as he looked to her… it wasn’t the same as what he felt for his other friends. He wasn’t quite sure exactly what it was, but it was strong. He wanted to pass it off as fondness, but it was more than that.

But Rowan knew he shouldn’t give those feelings any further thought.

The relationship he had with Aelin didn’t have space for feelings such as those. They were friends, who enjoyed having casual sex, who just happened to be engaged. There were pressures on them from all angles, so much expected of them. It would be easier to keep pesky emotions out of the mix.

But that didn’t stop Rowan from taking Aelin back to his room and ravishing her through the night. 

Chapter Text

“Yes. Of course, yes. That sounds perfect,” Aelin said into her phone as she paced back and forth on the soft carpet of her room while Lysandra set up her supplies on the vanity. “Yes, that’s wonderful. Thank you so much! We’ll be seeing you tonight!”

Lysandra released a dramatic sigh once Aelin hung up the phone. “Are you finally done? You’ve been on the phone all damn day.”

“I think that’s the last of it,” Aelin said, tossing her phone on to the bed. Lysandra was right, her phone had been going all day, confirming one last time with everyone who was working the event this evening. Caterers, florists, and security had all been blowing up her notifications, making sure there were no last minute changes.

Not that Aelin would torture anyone by changing anything by now. The event was in a few more hours, after all. 

“Good, now sit down so I can do my job,” Lysandra said, jerking her head towards the little seat before the vanity.

Aelin complied, lowering herself into the seat and putting herself at the mercy of Lysandra, who started by cleaning her face with a few products before rubbing in some primer.

“Is Prince Rowan coming tonight?” she asked, grabbing some foundation from the vanity.

“Yes, he is.”

And he was a lucky bastard for not having to sit still for as long as she did to get ready. After working non-stop for so long, Aelin would have assumed she would be happy to sit down and not do anything for a bit, but she was wired. She wouldn’t be able to truly rest her mind until the event was over.

“You two have been spending a lot of time together lately, haven’t you?” Lysandra questioned, artfully applying the foundation to Aelin’s skin.

There was something about her tone that told the princess that it wasn’t necessarily a friendly, casual question. “Yes, we have.”

Lysandra’s lips pursed slightly.

“What?” Aelin demanded. “What is that look for?”

“Nothing!” Lysandra said quickly, holding her hands up in surrender. “It’s just that I think it’s rather cute.”

Aelin snorted. “Cute? What’s cute about it? It’s no different than when we hang out.”

“Are you serious? We don’t sleep together.”

“Yeah, because I’d make Aedion jealous if I stole you away from him.”

Lysandra scowled. “Stop trying to change the subject. We’re talking about you and Prince Rowan.”

“There’s nothing to talk about. We’re friends.”

“Oh really?” Lysandra raised a brow. “So, you two sleep together, yes?”

“Yes,” Aelin worked out through clenched teeth.

“And you spend time together every day?”

“Yes.”

“And you like to spend time with him?”

“Obviously.”

“And he set up a little moonlit picnic for you because he wanted to do something nice for you because you’ve been working so hard?”

“Gods, yes. Where are you going with this?”

“I’m just saying it sounds like you two are together.”

Aelin gaped at her friend. “Are you serious? How could you think that?”

“How could you not? ” asked Lysandra testily, dabbing some concealer under Aelin’s eyes. “That picnic he made? That was a date. One that wasn’t actually set up. You two willingly went on a date.”

“It wasn’t a date,” Aelin grumbled, though Lysandra’s reasoning was sound. It had just been the two of them, and the starlight and glow from the lanterns could have been interpreted as romantic by some people but… there was no way Rowan had meant it like that.

When people were interested in one another like that, they acted differently. Tiny, sweet touches that showed a deep care for the other without need for words. Aelin had made out with him because she wanted to have sex. Nothing more. People who were romantically involved with one another did tender things, brushing away hair, holding hands, kissing cheeks and-

Oh gods, Rowan had held her hand as he guided her to the gardens, and she had kissed his cheek in gratitude.

They had to be coincidences. Lysandra had to be reading their actions all wrong. Because it couldn’t be like that. Rowan had been engaged once before, and the way he spoke about her, he still held love for Lyria in his heart. He often spoke to Aelin about his deceased fiancée. Lyria had been sweet and kind and gentle. She had loved flowers and gardening, she always offered a helping hand to others, always saw the good in those around her.

And Aelin… she was nothing like that. She would never be serene and gentle. She knew she could be crass, had a volatile temper, and sometimes when Aedion called her a bitch, it was completely warranted. She was nothing like Lyria, would never be.

What Rowan felt towards Aelin must just be pure, physical attraction and friendship. It couldn’t be anything else. And Aelin shouldn’t even let herself entertain the idea of something beyond what they currently had. 

“Think whatever you’d like, Aelin,” Lysandra sighed. “But that was definitely a date. And I wouldn’t be surprised if Rowan suggests something similar soon.”

Aelin didn’t bother arguing with her any more about it, simply setting her jaw stubbornly and letting Lysandra finish her work. 

Rowan knew this was an important day for Aelin. 

She had been working hard for the last month arranging this event. She wanted everything to go smoothly, to do justice for a cause she cared about. Tonight would be the beginnings of the Ashryver Institute for the Success of Women and Girls. Aelin had explained its significance to him. Apparently, after going through some of her mother’s things not long before he and the princess were engaged, Aelin had uncovered some plans for such an organization. It had been in the bare bones, barely more than scraps of ideas. Aelin had made the decision to bring her mother’s idea to life, even going as far as using her mother’s maiden name instead of Galathynius. 

And since Rowan knew today was important to her, he would do everything in his power to ensure the night went smoothly.

He even wore his best suit, made sure his hair was combed neatly. There would be press tonight, no doubt wanting photos of the princess and her fiancé. There was no need to have her fuss about the event and his appearance. One less thing for her to worry about. 

Rowan snapped on his watch, smoothing down the sides of his suit jacket. It was a deep navy, nicely made, as comfortable as something like it could possibly be. He checked the time, finding he was due to go to Aelin’s room to escort her to the event.

Halfway to her rooms, he crossed paths with two familiar faces. Aedion with Lysandra on his arm, both dressed well for the event they were no doubt heading towards. Lysandra laughed at something Aedion had said, the sound fading away once her emerald eyes locked on him. 

“Prince Rowan!” she greeted with a dazzling smile. “Don’t you clean up nicely.”

“Thank you, but I think we’re past using titles.”

Lysandra shrugged. “When you’re so dressed up I feel as though it’s warranted.”

There was no point in correcting her. Lysandra, like Aelin, was rather stubborn. It was near impossible to change their minds once they were set on something. 

“Is Aelin still in her room?” he asked instead.

“She is,” Aedion answered. “Currently wearing a hole in her rug with her incessant pacing.”

“You should go calm her down,” Lysandra added, a strange gleam in her eyes that Rowan couldn’t quite read. Aedion shot her a sharp look. 

“I will try my best,” Rowan vowed.

“Well then,” Lysandra breathed with a wide smile. “I guess we’ll see you two in there!”

With that, the two of them breezed away, the sound of their hissed whispers between one another fading away in the distance. He wasn’t quite sure what that was about, but he didn’t have time to think too deeply about it. 

He reached Aelin’s door, knocking softly before pushing in. The princess insisted he didn’t need to knock, but he did it more out of habit than anything.

“Aelin?” 

“Coming!” she called from back in her bedroom. 

He heard the sound of her footsteps approaching before she breezed through the doorway.

She looked beautiful, but she always did. Aelin was dressed in a smart, white pantsuit. A cropped blazer trimmed with gold and matching buttons, wide-legged trousers, and pointed-toe pumps. Her golden hair was pulled back in a sleek, high ponytail; a pair of pearl earrings and lips stained red completed the look. 

“Don’t you look dapper!” Aelin stated, running her eyes up and down his form, closing the distance and adjusting his lapels. He should have known that no matter how hard he tried, she would have found something about his appearance to fiddle with. At least it was a quick fix. 

Or it should have been. She continued to mess with it until Rowan caught her hands.

“I think it’s straight, Aelin.”

The princess sighed and nodded. “I know. I think I’m just stressing a bit. I want to make my mother proud.”

His fingers slipped between his, giving her hands a firm squeeze. “Aelin, everything is going to be fine. Your hard work will pay off.”

For a few, too-long heartbeats, Aelin’s eyes were glued on their intertwined fingers. He could tell something was on her mind, but he couldn’t figure out what, exactly. Before he could ask, her face snapped back up to his and gave him a smile.

“Thank you, Rowan,” she said, squeezing his hands back. “Should we be heading out?”

He offered her his arm. “On your mark, princess.”

Aelin had truly outdone herself. 

The venue had been set up perfectly, the decorations, the banners, the food. Rowan was thoroughly impressed with everything she had accomplished. 

She was bright and enthusiastic when she greeted the guests, and this time, Rowan knew it was all genuine. The people invited were all those who had contributed to the foundation, and he could tell Aelin was sincerely thankful for each and every one of them. 

For once, Rowan honestly didn’t mind socializing. He enjoyed the evening with Aelin, smiling and laughing more than he usually did at such events. 

After an hour of greeting and thanking the guests and patrons, it was time for Aelin to give her speech. For a brief moment, she allowed her nerves to show again. 

“Hey,” Rowan said gently, drawing her attention away from the stage for a moment. “You’ve got this!”

She offered him a grateful smile. “Thank you, Rowan.”

He nodded his head. Go get ‘em.

Aelin turned and stepped up onto the stage, striding pridefully towards the podium set up for her. There was a polite round of applause as she beamed out over the audience, but her eyes landed on Rowan’s and lingered, a small shift in her gaze. He gave her a subtle thumbs-up.

“Thank you all for coming,” Aelin began, voice amplified through the tall speakers scattered around. “Before the death of my mother, she had drawn up plans for what is now the Ashryver Institute for the Success of Women and Girls. When I found her notes, I knew instantly that I wanted to bring this organization to life. For as long as I remember, my mother always supported me in my education, health, and ambitions. I was extremely fortunate to have such an excellent support system, but not every girl has the same luxuries.”

Rowan could hear the fire in her voice, could see how passionate she was about this topic. She spoke clearly and eloquently, ever the educated and articulate future queen. Rowan was proud of her as she stood there, the bright and shining future of Terrasen. 

“With this organization, we hope to provide a network of support for women and girls, from every area, of every background, no matter what they need. Whether it be after-school tutoring, advice on jobs or furthering education, health care, or simply a place to feel comfortable and safe, we will provide it. Our first facility will be opening up within the week, thanks to all of your support. With your continued support, we will be able to provide care and assistance to more and more girls in the future. Thank you.”

The room once again broke into applause, and Rowan was sure he was the one cheering the loudest. She deserved it for all she had accomplished. 

Aelin put a hand over her heart and bowed her head in thanks before taking her leave. She briskly strode down the steps, heading towards where Rowan stood, waiting for her.

“I think I can say with confidence that I nailed that,” she said with a self-assured smile. 

“You did wonderfully, Aelin,” Rowan told her, taking her hands again.

“Thanks for being here tonight,” she whispered. “I know you’re not really one for social engagements, so it really means a lot to me.”

“I wouldn’t have missed tonight for anything,” Rowan said earnestly, releasing one of her hands to reach into the pocket on the inside of his jacket. “And, I have something for you.”

Aelin blinked curiously at the crisp envelope he handed her, pressed with the Whitethorn seal. She turned it over in her hands, gently breaking the wax seal and pulling out the slip of paper within. A cheque. Her eyes grew comically wide as she looked at the amount written on it.

“Rowan…” she breathed, pressing her fingers to her lips. She shook her head softly before looking up at him. “This is too generous.”

“It’s from my uncle,” he explained. “I asked him if he would consider making a donation, and it seems he liked the cause.”

Aelin’s bright eyes were still on the slip of paper between her fingers, looking at it in disbelief. “This… this is going to help so many people,” she lunged forward, throwing her arms over his shoulders. “ Thank you, Rowan.”

On instinct, Rowan pulled her close. Her face was pressed into his neck, fingers curled into his shoulders. Her scent wafted up to his nose, jasmine and rose. Elegant and feminine and purely Aelin. He was reluctant to let her go. 

But eventually, he had to. 

Aelin was highly desired that evening. People wanted to congratulate her, to meet her, to snap photos. There was a group of young girls, some of the first who would be assisted by Aelin’s new organization. The princess met with each and every one of them, learning their names and things about them.

Rowan watched her throughout the evening, a soft smile on his lips the entire time. Aelin was a wonderful woman, thoughtful and empathetic. He saw how those young girls looked up to her, how their grins would grow as the princess of Terrasen would sit down and speak to them as if they were old friends. They looked up to her. Why wouldn’t they?

Rowan watched as Aelin tossed her head back in a bright laugh at something one of the girls had said. As if she felt his eyes on her, her face turned towards him. That smile on her face, the pure unadulterated joy in her eyes, made his heart skip a beat. 

He could no longer ignore the fondness he felt for his fiancée. There had been a time when he hadn’t been able to stand being in the same room with her for extended periods of time, but now he enjoyed the time he spent with the princess. He had been a fool before, had judged Aelin without knowing anything about her. They were truly well-matched; they had been hurt in similar ways, had gone through the same struggles and grief, and had come out stronger. 

Aelin was more than Rowan had ever expected. Their friendship had grown strong, stronger than he ever could have expected. He cherished the time they spent together, he cherished Aelin in a manner unlike anyone before and-

Oh shit. 

Oh, fuck. 

Rowan’s stomach dropped to his feet. 

All those pesky emotions he had been trying to keep at bay for the past few weeks suddenly surfaced in full. He was no longer able to deny the way he felt about Aelin, even if he wanted to. He could no longer put off the connection he felt with her as simply physical attraction; it was so much more. 

But gods, did that make things complicated.

He couldn’t share his feelings with her and risk them not being reciprocated. They weren’t normal people; they couldn’t walk away from one another if things weren’t working out. They were engaged. If Rowan said the wrong thing, put an unfixable strain on their relationship because he cared for her in a different manner than she cared for him, it would linger over the rest of their engagement and, subsequently, their marriage. 

He couldn’t risk that. 

But that didn’t stop his heart from hammering when Aelin smiled at him like that.

Gods, was he in deep, unrelenting, shit.

Eventually, Aelin’s fundraiser came to an end. Rowan stood by her side as she said farewell and thanked all the donors who had come, trying unsuccessfully to think of anything other than his newly realized feelings. It didn’t help that Aelin was holding his hand, her shoulder brushing against his every now and again. It didn’t help that he could feel the delicious heat of her body or smell her intoxicating scent, no matter how hard he tried to ignore it. 

They lingered behind after the guests had left, allowing Aelin time to thoroughly thank the staff that had worked that night. 

It was well past midnight by the time they were able to leave.

More out of habit than anything, he agreed to go back with Aelin to her suite. Perhaps the smarter decision would have been to go back to his own rooms and try to work through whatever mess of emotions he was feeling, but he found he couldn’t say no to her. He didn’t want to be the cause of ending the bright and beautiful glow of her joy that still lingered on her face.

Rowan at least had some time alone to gather his thoughts when Aelin slipped away to shower. Fortunately the princess always took her time when she readied herself for bed, giving him more time than if she were anyone else.

But even the extra time did little to help him sort anything out. All he ended up doing was lay on his back atop her bed and glare up at her ceiling as if it was its fault that he was feeling like this.

He could tell by the sounds from the bathroom that Aelin had finished with her shower. He was sure she was now doing whatever intense skincare ritual she did every evening. He was pretty sure that with her regimine, she would never get a wrinkle. 

In the back of his mind, Rowan noticed she was taking a bit longer than usual. He didn’t give it much thought. Perhaps she had seen a blemish she needed to exterminate before bed.

Rowan had taken to scrolling through his phone as a way to pass the time and keep his mind occupied, though it wasn’t doing much good.

He heard the door to the bathroom open, and peeked up over the edge of his phone to see Aelin poking her head just outside the door.

“I have something for you,” she announced, not moving from her current position. “As a thank you for your donation tonight.”

“It was technically from my uncle,” Rowan said.

“I don’t think I want to give your uncle this. Now, close your eyes.”

Rowan raised a brow. “Seriously?”

“Yes,” said Aelin stubbornly, narrowing her eyes to show she meant business. “Close your eyes.”

He sighed, but knew better than to argue. Rowan shut his eyes softly and leaned his head back on the ridiculously large pile of pillows, waiting for whatever Aelin had in store for him. He heard the bathroom door creak open the rest of the way, then the soft falls of her feet against the plush carpet. He was able to track her movement across the room, could tell she had planted herself at the foot of the bed.

“Okay,” Aelin said firmly. “You can open your eyes now.”

Rowan sat up slightly and peeled open his eyes.

Instantly, he knew why this wasn’t a surprise meant for his uncle. 

Aelin had a vixen’s smile on her full lips as she looked at him. Her golden hair was loose, tumbling down her back and spilling over her shoulders. And although Aelin looked beautiful and wild, the surprise was clearly what she was wearing.

It was a piece made of elegant gold lace and silky straps, strategically covering anything too scandalous while simultaneously leaving little to the imagination. It was all one piece, the gold lace covering her breasts while strips of it descended down the planes of her stomach and sides. The straps were beautifully complicated, criss-crossing over her shoulders like a spider’s web. Her legs were left bare, leaving the long expanse of her gold-dusted skin free for him to ogle. 

“I have a confession to make,” Aelin eventually said, making Rowan suddenly aware of his own expression. He hoped he hadn’t seemed too dumbfounded. “I actually had this prepared before you gave me that donation. I don’t want you to think I’d do this for anyone that donates.”

Rowan willed his mouth to form words, but it didn’t appear to want to listen.

Aelin crawled onto the bed, inching closer to where Rowan lay. “Do you like it?” she asked. 

His breath caught in his throat slightly as she straddled his lap, her warm body pressed against his own. Aelin’s arms draped over his shoulders, nimble fingers threading through the fine hairs at the back of his neck in a manner that was far too distracting. On instinct, Rowan’s hands clamped down on her waist.

“You already know you look amazing, Aelin,” he eventually managed to work out. 

She leaned forward, the tip of her nose brushing against his own. “You’re right, I do know.”

With that, she closed the minimal distance between them and slanted her mouth over his own in a searing kiss. It was obvious what she wanted by the way her mouth moved against his, the press of her body, and the rolling of her hips. Normally, Rowan would be right on board, but some useless part of his mind was still thinking about what he had realized earlier that evening. It seemed Aelin noted that he wasn’t completely into it, pulling back, allowing Rowan to see the crease between her brows.

“Is something wrong?” she asked. 

“No,” Rowan lied. 

There was nothing else to say. He didn’t feel like explaining himself and giving away the bothersome whirlwind of emotions swirling through him. He didn’t want to drive Aelin away.

Aelin blinked at him, head tilting to the side. “You know, if you’re not in the mood, you can always tell me to fuck off. I’m a big girl, I can handle it.”

Rowan scowled. “Aelin-”

“It’s fine,” the princess said breezily, moving off of him. “Really, Rowan, it’s no big deal, you can just-”

She cut herself off with a tiny gasp as Rowan swiftly grabbed her hips and pulled her back towards him, flipping them over so he could press her against the mattress. He caught her wrists with one hand, pinning them over her head, before he moved his mouth against hers again. Her surprise faded away quickly, melting into the kiss as Rowan grabbed one of her thighs and hiked it up his hips. 

No, he couldn’t tell Aelin how he felt. It was too big a gamble. Perhaps his feelings would be shared, but maybe not. Mabe admitting to that part of himself would drive her away, would frighten her. Aelin had told him about Sam, but she had never spoken about love again. Maybe she didn’t want another relationship like that after all she had lost. 

And so Rowan would take what scraps she would give.

And he would cherish them.

Chapter Text

A handful of weeks flew by, planting Terrasen in the middle of summer. For the most part, Aelin’s homeland had mild summers compared to the rest of the continent. But, on a few special days, it grew to be hotter than hell. A killer, dry heat that she abhorred with every ounce of herself. On those days, it would take a miracle to get her to step outside.

But at least today, she had no reason to be outside for extended periods of time. 

Aelin had a busy day. It began almost as soon as the sun rose. It was one of the rare occasions where she woke before Rowan did. Even if she wasn’t truly a morning person, it was always a nice sight to see Rowan sleeping. He looked so peaceful, face relaxed, lips parted softly, his broad chest rising and falling in rhythm to his deep breaths. The sight always made her heart jump in her chest.

Which was foolish, she knew. But she couldn’t help it.

Aelin had slipped silently from Rowan’s room that morning, leaving him behind to sleep. After preparing herself for the day, she sat with Orlon through a few tedious meetings that took up the entire morning. She had just enough time to scarf down a swift lunch before she and her security team made a trip to the Ashryver Institute facilities. She wanted to see how everything was running and if there were any changes that needed to be made. However, she was thrilled to see that it was perfect. 

It was a huge facility. There were study rooms and a small library, computers open for use at any time of day. There were counsellors and tutors, a kitchen so they could serve meals, a clinic, tables for mothers to do crafts with their children if they wanted something to do with them for the day but didn’t have the funds for much else. It was all coming together perfectly. The next step they were planning on initiating would be childcare.

Aelin spent the afternoon there, chatting with the volunteers and workers. Ress was a big hit with a lot of the young women who were working there, making Aelin giggle at his blush. Cairn, however, seemed immensely grumpy and bored the entire time. She assumed that was his normal behavior, but she still didn’t appreciate the attitude.

Aelin ended up staying longer than she had originally planned. She had helped a young high school girl with her English homework. That had always been Aelin’s best subject anyway, and the girl had seemed equal parts shocked to see the princess beside her and thankful that she would take the time to assist. 

Aelin returned to the palace just in time for dinner. By the time she strolled into the dining room, everyone else was already seated and prepared for the meal. She chirped her greetings before plopping down in her seat. Only then did she notice someone’s absence.

“Where’s Rowan?” Aelin asked, furrowing her brows.

“Prince Whitethorn is feeling under the weather today,” Orlon answered.

“Oh,” said Aelin simply. He had seemed fine last night. Maybe it was something he ate that didn’t agree with him? Now that her uncle mentioned it, Rowan had been rather quiet today. She had been too busy to really notice it at first, but he hadn’t shot a single text her way like he normally did. “Is he okay?”

“He just needs to sleep it off,” Fenrys popped up. “He’ll be fine.”

Although the young lord’s answer seemed to appease everyone else at the table, something about it didn’t sit right with Aelin. There was something in his eyes that showed he wasn’t telling the whole truth. She met his gaze for a moment, but he didn’t hold it for long, his eyes flickering down to his plate.

Yes, there was something he wasn’t telling her.

But it could wait until after they had eaten.

Over dinner, Aelin told her uncle about what she had done and seen that day. He seemed pleased that her hard work had paid off. She tried to stay present during the meal, but she couldn’t stop her mind from wandering to Rowan. She barely even had the stomach for dessert once it was served, which was a rarity for her, and a sure sign something was bothering her. Still, Aelin managed to force a good deal of the slice of lemon cake down her throat to avoid any of her family asking nosy questions. 

Once the plates had been cleared away and everyone said goodnight, Aelin was instantly beside Fenrys.

“What’s wrong with Rowan?” she asked, falling in step with him.

“He’s not feeling well,” Fenrys insisted, though he refused to meet her eye. 

Aelin punched him in the arm. Not hard enough to hurt, but hard enough to show she meant business. “Don’t bullshit me, Moonbeam.”

Fenrys hissed and rubbed the tender spot where her knuckles had struck. “Gods, no need to beat me into submission.”

She raised her brows. “Then talk.”

He sighed, running a worried hand through his unruly curls. “I really… can’t, Ace. It’s not my place to say. It’s just a really, really hard day for him.”

Aelin bit her bottom lip. She wished she knew what was wrong so she could do something to perhaps help in a way.

“Careful there, princess,” Fenrys said with an easy grin. “Someone might think you actually care about Whitethorn.”

She narrowed her eyes and held up a fist again.

“Sorry, sorry!” he said quickly, gently taking her fist and lowering it back to her side. “I’ll never suggest you’re anything other than a cold-hearted bitch ever again.”

“And don’t forget it.”

Aelin didn’t immediately head towards Rowan’s room. She wasn’t even sure if that was the right thing to do in the situation. Fenrys had implied that Rowan wasn’t truly sick; it just sounded as if he wanted to be alone. 

And so Aelin bided her time, taking a long, hot shower, doing a face mask, watching some television. And when the show she was watching got boring, she picked up a book. Anything to keep her mind off the man right down the hall.

However, it didn’t do much to help. 

If he had wanted to see her, he would have said something. Perhaps he simply wanted to be alone.

But still, it was strange. 

Despite herself, she was fidgety. Looking towards the door, questioning whether or not she should go, before deciding against it. The process repeated upwards of four times before Aelin finally gave in with a frustrated groan.

She rolled off her bed and shoved her feet into her slippers before venturing off into the halls. It was about half an hour before midnight and it seemed everyone had gone to sleep.

She was standing in front of Rowan’s door before she knew it, sucking down a deep breath. Normally, she would stroll right in. But, she thought tonight she would do him the courtesy of knocking as she walked in.

“Rowan?” she called softly, rapping her knuckles against the door and stepping into the dark front room. 

“In here,” she heard his voice call from the bedroom, light and slightly rasping from disuse. 

Aelin stepped lightly through the room, pausing at the threshold of the bedchamber. Rowan sat in one of two plush armchairs tucked up in the corner, illuminated by a single light from the lamp on the small table between them. She noted the crystal glass of what she assumed was whiskey in his hand.

His green eyes, which Aelin had grown used to seeing bright and happy, were heavily hooded and sorrowful. It made her heart hurt.

“Hey,” she said, stepping the rest of the way into his room. 

“Hey yourself,” Rowan replied, trying to smile, though it didn’t reach his eyes. “You want a drink?”

“Yeah, sure.”

Rowan pushed to his feet, going to the small, metal table with a few bottles of nice liquor, pouring her a glass of whiskey. She watched each step he took, every movement he made, trying to find some clue as to why he had hidden himself away all day. Yet nothing was clear.

He handed her the glass, grabbing his own and raising it. “Cheers.”

Aelin clinked her glass against his own. “Cheers.”

She took a tiny sip of the whiskey. It wasn’t her go-to drink, but it was good. Rowan, however, downed the rest of what was in his glass in one gulp.

“Rowan…” Aelin whispered, reaching out and placing a hand on his bicep. “Are you okay?”

She had severely underestimated the effect her words would have on the prince. Whatever strength he had been holding on to that allowed him to control the emotions on his face seemed to wither away. He ground his jaw, brows pinching together in the middle as he rubbed at his eyes.

“I’m good,” he managed to work out, though his voice cracked. “Or I will be, at least.”

Aelin swallowed hard. “Is there anything I can do? Or- or do you want to be alone?”

“No,” Rowan interjected quickly, surprising her. “No, I don’t want to be alone.”

“Okay,” Aelin breathed, nodding slowly. “Okay…”

They lapsed into silence. Aelin was unsure of what to say. She was at a bit of a loss, not knowing what was wrong and fearing the possibility of uttering the wrong thing and making this inadvertently worse. She clutched the glass in her hand tighter, waiting for the prince beside her to make the next move.

Eventually, Rowan released a long, heavy sigh. He took her free hand with surprising gentleness, leading her over to the edge of the bed, and urging her to sit down beside him. She tried to ignore their closeness, how warm and solid his thigh was against hers. Even once they were both sitting, he didn’t release her hand. 

“Today,” Rowan murmured at length, “it’s… it’s not an easy day for me.”

He didn’t immediately continue, working up the strength to continue. She squeezed his hand, trying to silently let him know that she was here for him, that he wasn’t alone in whatever he was going through. He offered her a thankful smile at the gesture, squeezing her hand in return. 

“Today is the anniversary of Lyria’s death.”

Aelin’s heart wrenched painfully beneath her ribs at his confession. “Oh. Oh, I’m so sorry, Rowan.”

She knew what kind of pain he was in. The anniversary of her parents’ and Sam’s deaths always hit her hard. It made it hard for her to get out of bed, made her crave the oblivion the drugs offered to her. She tended to ask Aedion to spend that dreaded day with her, to ensure she wouldn’t cave. Each year, he would sleep in an armchair by Aelin’s bedside and would wake complaining about a pain in his neck. She was beyond thankful to have his support.

But Rowan had spent the day alone.

For a few moments, Rowan didn’t say anything. Then, he reached into his pocket, pulling out his wallet and flipping it open. Aelin watched as he slid a slip of paper out. No, not paper. A photograph. He angled it towards her, allowing the princess to see the subject.

It was a lovely young woman, a head full of silky, black hair and kind brown eyes. She was grinning bashfully at the camera, as if she wasn’t expecting to have her photo taken. She was kneeling before a bed of bright, blooming flowers, clearly doing her own gardening.

Lyria. 

Aelin had never seen her before, and yet she looked exactly how she had imagined her to be. 

“She was beautiful,” Aelin said.

“She was,” Rowan agreed, looking wistfully at the old photo. “She… she deserved so much better than me.”

“Hey,” Aelin interjected softly, but firmly, placing a hand on Rowan’s jaw and angling his face towards her own. His eyes were pained, but clear. “Lyria loved you, Rowan. She wouldn’t want to hear you speaking like that.”

He shook his head. “If it wasn’t for me, maybe she’d still be alive.”

“You can’t think like that, Rowan. It’ll destroy you.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I spent so long blaming myself for Sam’s death. He jumped in front of a bullet to save me.” Aelin felt her throat close up, her eyes burn. “I blamed myself day after day, and it drove me to drinking and drugs, and maybe that would have killed me one day. I had to learn that it wasn’t my fault Sam died. Someone else pulled that trigger. And someone else’s reckless driving is what took Lyria away. We… we can’t blame ourselves. It’s not fair.”

Aelin thought she had done well enough at controlling her emotions, but she didn’t manage to blink away all of her tears, a solitary one dribbling down the curve of her cheek. She shouldn’t be crying, not when Rowan was the one suffering today.

And yet… a hand reached out, and calloused fingers gently swiped away that lone tear. 

Aelin looked to Rowan, finding tears of his own making trailing down his face. Almost subconsciously, she reached out, framing his face with her hands, and brushing away his tears with her thumbs. It felt as if it were the most natural thing in the world.

Rowan drew her into his chest, holding her tight against him. She didn’t hesitate before melting into his embrace, snaking her arms around his middle. She breathed his pine and snow scent in deeply, letting it and the warmth of his body against hers sooth her. His fingers tangled into her hair, his nose pressed into the juncture between her neck and shoulder. 

“Thank you, Aelin,” he murmured. “For being here.”

“Of course, Rowan,” she whispered into his shirt. She pulled back far enough to meet his gaze. “Is there anything that you need me to do?”

“Just… stay,” Rowan said. “Please.”

Aelin nodded. “Yes. Of course.”

With that, Rowan drew her back into his arms. There wasn’t an ounce of Aelin that wanted to protest. It felt just so right being there, she didn’t dare move. Even as the time melted away, when they moved to lie down at the head of the bed, they still held one another.

Midnight came and passed, and eventually, they fell asleep.

Rowan’s heartbeat was a steady lullaby in her ear throughout the night.

Aelin had never slept better in her life. 

She slept throughout the night, no disturbance or nightmare daring to bother her. She was warm and safe and content, and she didn’t want to wake.

But, eventually the morning light streaming through the windows demanded it of her.

Aelin made a face, nose scrunching up in distaste. The morning light only ever bothered her when she was in Rowan’s room. She made sure to keep the blinds closed in her own chambers in order to sleep comfortably as long as humanly possible.

Aelin released a long breath, cracking her eyes open, blinking away the grogginess that lingered. Once her head cleared, she realized the position she was in.

Aelin was tucked into the cocoon of Rowan’s arms, curled into the hollow of his chest. She could hear him breathing deeply, telling her he had yet to wake. It was a rare occasion for Aelin to rise before Rowan.

She remembered the night before, talking about Lyria and Sam. She remembered when they brushed away one another’s tears before falling asleep with their limbs tangled together. It seemed neither of them had moved much during the night.

It was… different. But not unwelcome.

They had slept in the same bed plenty of times before, but they kept to their own sides. She had never woken up in Rowan’s arms before. 

Aelin craned her head back slightly, studying the man who had her tucked to his chest. His handsome face was softened by sleep, the morning light against his lashes casting long shadows down his face. His lips were parted slightly, and Aelin ignored the urge to reach out and trace the shape of them.

She could learn to love it, Aelin realized. Waking up to this.

It was then that Rowan’s eyelids fluttered open. It took a few moments, it seemed, for him to gather his bearings, but once he did, the green of his eyes were instantly on Aelin’s face.

Neither of them spoke, as if the quiet moment was so fragile that even the softest utterance would shatter it. Aelin’s fingers were still curled into the soft fabric of his shirt and she was reluctant to release her grip.

There was something in Rowan’s eyes that made her chest warm. She couldn’t pinpoint exactly what it was, but she would give anything to keep him looking at her like that.

Aelin noted how close their faces were to one another’s, the tips of their noses nearly brushing. Close enough to share breath.

She felt the hand that was on her hip slowly drift upwards, skimming over the bare skin of her arm, making her break out into gooseflesh, before it stopped and cradled her cheek. Despite herself, Aelin’s breath caught in the back of her throat at the simple, tender touch.

Rowan’s thumb skimmed soothing circles against her cheekbone, his eyes still intently locked onto hers, something deep and powerful within their green depths.

The longing hit her like a ton of brick. It was so strong it was nearly painful. Aelin realized that she wanted this, to wake up in the mornings tangled with Rowan, for him to hold her so kindly, to look at her like she was the most precious thing in the world. She wanted to spend time with him and laugh and hold one another.

“Aelin…” Rowan rasped at last, her name so reverent on his lips.

Her eyes fluttered shut at the sound, leaning into his touch and covering the back of his hand with her own, pressing it more firmly against her cheek.

As one, they inched closer together. Aelin could feel his warm breath puffing against her lips, so close and moving closer, until nothing but a hair’s breadth kept them apart.

But before their lips could meet, a bright, chirping sound shattered the moment.

Aelin’s eyes snapped open as she recognized the sound as her phone ringing. 

It seemed the interruption jolted them both back into reality. They pulled back from one another so quickly it was as if they had been burned. Aelin turned her face away swiftly in hopes that he couldn’t see how her cheeks flushed. She scrambled to the edge of the bed, grabbing her phone from the bedside table and throwing her legs over the side. 

Lysandra’s name flashed across her screen. Aelin accepted the call.

“Hey,” she greeted, voice still rough from sleep.

“Hey,” Lysandra said quickly. “Are you in Rowan’s room?”

Aelin rubbed at her eyes, fighting the urge to look over her shoulder at said prince. “Uh, yeah. Why?”

“Because you have a dress fitting that was supposed to be starting five minutes ago.”

“Oh fuck,” Aelin cursed, springing to her feet. “I forgot about that. I’ll meet you in a few.”

“See you then.”

Aelin quickly ended the call, sliding her phone into her pocket before turning towards Rowan. He was already on his feet, running a hand through his hair. She found herself unable to read his face.

“I’m late for my dress fitting,” Aelin explained, jutting her thumb towards the door.

“Ah,” said Rowan simply, sliding his hands into his pockets. “Well, don’t let me keep you.”

“Well… I guess I’ll see you at lunch?”

Rowan offered her a smile. “I’ll see you then.”

Aelin stood silently as a small army of seamstresses fluttered around her. They fiddled with skirts, adjusted her bodice, adjusted her posture. And yet, Aelin barely noticed them. Barely even looked at the beginnings of her gown that they were fitting to her body. 

Her mind was at war. 

All she could think of was what had transpired that morning in the privacy of Rowan’s rooms. It nearly felt like a dream, because there was no way that it could have been real. 

They had been a heartbeat away from kissing. It wasn’t as if they hadn’t kissed before, they had done more than enough of it. But in the past, the intentions were different. Their kisses had been all teeth and tongue, heat and passion and lust. They had kissed with the intention of fucking, and that was all.

But this morning, the way he held her, the way Rowan had looked at her, had been so, so different. 

And deep in her soul, Aelin knew that if they hadn’t been interrupted, that kiss would have changed everything.

Thankfully, Lysandra had been at the fitting to answer any questions the seamstresses had that Aelin had been too preoccupied to deal with. Thankfully, they eventually stripped her of the beginnings of her gown, allowing her to slip back into her regular clothes. 

But the moment the seamstresses left, Lysandra ambushed her.

“What’s up with you today?”

Aelin sighed and tossed her hair up. “Nothing. I’m fine.”

Lysandra scoffed. “I’m not stupid, Ace. You’ve barely talked all morning and you didn’t even look at the dress. So. What’s wrong?”

The princess bit back a groan and rubbed the heels of her palms into her eyes. “I- ugh. It’s just this morning, Rowan almost… kissed me.”

Lysandra blinked once before raising an unimpressed brow. “Okay? Don’t you make out like, every night?”

“I mean, yes, but it wasn’t like that,” Aelin explained. “It wasn’t going to be a I want to get in your pants kiss, if you know what I mean.”

“I… I’m not quite sure that I do. Aelin… do you like Rowan?”

She wasn’t sure what to say, or what to feel. Or, if she should even let herself feel anything at this point. Maybe she should just shove every confusing emotion she was feeling deep, deep down where they would never again see the light of day. 

If she admitted to those feelings that she worried she was experiencing, things would change. And she didn’t want things to change. Aelin was content, happy even, in the situation they were in. She didn’t want things to go awry.

“I… I don’t know,” Aelin answered truthfully. “I’m just sorta confused.”

Lysandra reached out and placed a soft, comforting hand on her arm. “It’s okay to be confused. Just know, if you ever need to talk things out, I’m here for you.”

Aelin smiled gratefully. “Thanks, Lys.”

Chapter Text

About a week and a half went by, and the answer to Aelin’s problem seemed to be more simple than she originally expected. 

Pretend the ‘almost kiss’ didn’t even happen.

Aelin wasn’t keen to bring it up again, and Rowan didn’t mention it either. In fact, they slipped back into their previous roles seamlessly. Back to fiancés-with-benefits as if nothing had occurred in those tender, early hours of the morning. 

It was easier this way, anyway. Being Rowan’s friend, spending time with him… she couldn’t risk that being ruined. 

Aelin had spent the morning with Rowan in the library, sprawled out on her favorite loveseat before the fireplace, feet propped up on his lap. She had worked her way through her romance novel of the week while Rowan skimmed through a thriller she had recommended. It was nice and peaceful, sending one another little smiles over the tops of their books sporadically. 

But in the early afternoon, Aelin had an important phone call to make, and they parted ways. 

Her call took a little over an hour. She chatted with the woman who headed the Ashryver Institute facility, getting updates on how everything was progressing and if anything needed to change. For the most part, everything was going smoothly, but the director recommended having some representatives speak at local highschools to get the word out about everything that they provided. It was a fantastic idea, and Aelin made sure that the director would have everything she needed to accomplish that feat. 

As she was finishing up her call, one of the women who worked in the palace knocked softly on her door, holding up a tiny parcel and mouthing For you. Aelin grinned her thanks, and she placed the small package on her desk before slipping out.

Aelin slumped back in her chair as the call finally ended. She quickly checked the time on her phone. It was almost noon, Rowan had said he would stop by so they could head to lunch together. It seemed she had a few more minutes to spare.

She stood, raising a brow at the tiny package left for her. It was wrapped neatly in cream-colored paper, a pretty bow of Terrasen green topping it. She picked it up, turning the tiny box over in her hands. It wasn’t heavy, nor was there a name attached to it. Strange.

It was most likely an engagement gift of some kind. They had been coming in sporadically, though Aelin had no desire for them. Some lords or advisors were still sending them her way. 

She picked at the bow, loosening it before gently tearing at the wrapping. 

Inside, the majority of the content was papery filling. But, resting on top, there was a small note. She picked it up, scanning the scratchy writing that she didn’t recognize.

Princess, 

Congratulations on your engagement. Hopefully this new love will be more lucky than your previous.

Attached is something that was meant  for you three years ago. But, your young man took the brunt of it. Hopefully it will remind you of him.

We hope to see you at the wedding.

Until then.

Aelin was barely breathing as her fingers twisted around a thin, silver chain, holding it before her eyes and seeing the tiny charm that hung it.

No, charm wasn’t the right word.

It was a bullet.

Rowan strolled leisurely down the halls. He told Aelin he would sweep by her office and walk with her to lunch. He tended to do that when she had business to attend to in the mornings. She didn’t need him to walk her to lunch, they would see each other in the dining room anyway. But, he liked the few extra minutes he got alone with her.

And though he cherished those moments with her, they provided other challenges. It was hard to keep himself from thinking about that moment in his room no more than a week ago. Despite himself, Rowan couldn’t stop his mind from wandering to the way she had felt in his arms, how the golden morning light gilded her hair and skin, how he had been close enough to count every freckle that dusted the bridge of her nose. In that moment he had forgotten who he was, what they were. 

Maybe it hadn’t bothered Aelin as much as it had bothered him. She hadn’t shown any signs of discomfort afterwards, had acted as if nothing had happened. And so, Rowan followed suit. It was better this way.

Or, at least, that’s what he continued telling himself.

He checked his watch, ensuring he wasn’t going to be late. Aelin would give him an earful if he was.

He was close enough to see that the door to Aelin’s office was cracked open. A tiny smile curled to his lips. Rowan could picture her now, sitting slouched over in her chair, clicking away at her computer, brows pinched together in concentration, and those ridiculous blue-light glasses perched on the bridge of her nose. 

But, the tiny smile on his face was ripped away from the commotion that came from the direction of Aelin’s office.

A loud cry, clearly from the princess’s lips, followed by a resounding crash.

Rowan’s heart dropped to his feet at the sound. Fear was an icy, relentless beast running through his veins. In that moment, it felt as if the entire world stopped.

He was running before he knew it. He skidded to a stop before the door, throwing it open and sweeping the room. There wasn’t anyone else in there, no one who could have harmed Aelin. Papers were scattered messily over her desk and floor, and Aelin herself… at first, he didn’t see her. But then, he heard a cry from the other side of the gleaming desk.

Rowan rushed towards the tiny sound, finding Aelin crumpled to the ground. The loud crash that he heard seemed to be from her computer monitor, which he would guess she pulled to the ground with her when she collapsed. The screen was shattered beyond repair, but Rowan couldn’t care less about the piece of technology. All his focus was on Aelin.

He fell to his knees before her, reaching out and placing a soft hand on her tear-streaked cheek.

Aelin ,” Rowan said firmly, trying to urge her to look at him. “Aelin, what’s wrong? Are you alright?”

But Aelin didn’t meet his gaze. Her wide, glassy eyes were pinned on the little piece of metal in her palm. 

Rowan recognized it in an instant. A bullet. 

In her other hand, Rowan saw a tiny slip of paper crumpled in her fist. Before he allowed himself to think against it, he had grabbed it, smoothing out the paper so he could read what was on it.

It was clear why Aelin was in the state she was currently in. 

Rowan felt horror, but more than that, he felt blinding, burning rage. 

Who would threaten her like this? And who was heartless enough to use the man she had loved as a cheap ploy that they knew would hurt her the most.

Another tiny, pained whimper came from Aelin, drawing Rowan’s attention away from his own emotions towards her once again. He reached out and tugged her against his chest, fingers tangling into her hair. He felt her shoulders shake as she cried.

Somewhere in Rowan’s gut, he knew something terrible was on the horizon.

The tension in Orlon’s office that afternoon was thick and suffocating. 

The moment that the king had been informed of what had happened, he called the royal family along with Rowan and Fenrys to his study. 

Aelin had yet to utter a single word, had withdrawn completely within herself. Her eyes were wide and face hollow, completely shell-shocked. Rowan wished there was something he could do for her. 

But he offered her what he could. He sat in the seat beside her; she had taken his hand at some point and hadn’t let it go, though she had little strength in her grip. Rowan ran his thumb in soothing circles across her knuckles, trying to show her that he was there, in any way that he could manage.

Orlon was speaking sternly on the phone, Darrow was seated, brows furrowed in concentration. Aedion was pacing up a storm, looking like he could tear the study apart in his rage. And Fenrys was sitting quietly. Rowan had quickly explained to him what happened, but only the bare minimum. He was sure his companion had countless questions resting on the tip of his tongue, but knew better than to voice them now.

Orlon hung up his call with a frustrated sigh. He braced his hands on the edge of the desk.

“Aedion, did you speak with security?” the old king asked.

“Yes,” Aedion ground out, ceasing his pacing. “They said that there were no packages that came for Aelin today, and the woman who delivered it said it was with the rest of the mail.”

“And do you believe her?”

“I do. And, after checking the cameras, we saw that her story checked out. The package was with the rest of the mail.”

“And the incoming mail was checked?” Darrow asked.

“Yes, but the package wasn’t there.”

Orlon shook his head. “It doesn’t make sense. That would mean-”

“It’s someone in the palace.”

Rowan’s head whipped to the side at the words. Aelin had uttered them, the first she had spoken since he had found her crying on the floor in her office. Her voice was raw, but she had put some strength into it. Still, Rowan could see the glimmer of fear in her eyes that she was trying so hard to hide. 

“Who would do this?” Fenrys eventually asked. 

Rowan didn’t miss the meaningful glance the royal family shared.

“What?” Rowan asked. “What does that look mean?”

Surprisingly, it was Aelin who spoke. “The people who killed my parents, who tried to kill me and my uncle… we never learned if they were acting alone or part of something larger,” she whispered. “The gunmen all had tabs of cyanide hidden on them. They were gone before anyone could question them.”

“We had figured that, after three years of silence, those men had been working on their own,” Aedion elaborated. “But now… maybe they had just been waiting for another opportunity.”

“But… why?” Fenrys asked. “What do they want?”

“Anarchy, change, maybe a bit of both,” Orlon explained. “There have been plenty who have expressed their displeasure in the monarchy over the years. Our family has been ruling over this territory since Terrasen began. And although the monarchy has changed with the times, with checks and balances, there are those who believe it is time for change.”

“I would wager that the people who did this are extremists of that ideology,” Darrow concluded for them. 

There were a few beats of all-encompassing silence that followed the explanation. Rowan searched his memories for any details surrounding Aelin parents’ assassinations. He had been so sure that there had been reasoning behind it, but now that he thought harder, he could come up with nothing. The most he could recall was them mentioning that it was under investigation.

“What now?” Rowan eventually asked.

“We investigate, speak to everyone employed in the palace,” Aedion said. “We find whoever is working against us, we up security if needed. That package was a direct threat.”

Rowan felt dread settle in the pit of his stomach, heavy and unignorable. He dared a glance at the woman sitting next to him, studying her profile, the clench of her jaw. Someone out there wanted to hurt Aelin.

He’d be damned if he would allow that to happen.

Eventually, they dispersed from Orlon’s office. The heavy conversation had put an abrupt end to the day’s schedule for most of them. Rowan would wager that what remained of the day was also forfeit. No one would have the heart nor focus to do anything productive.

Rowan asked Aelin if she needed anything, but she had brushed off his concern, murmuring something about wanting to take a bath. He supposed he understood why she needed her space, especially with the taunt about Sam. He was sure her heart was hurting.

But still, there was so much more he wished he could do.

Rowan was left alone with his thoughts for the rest of the afternoon into the early evening. He spent a few hours at the gym, trying to work off some steam, but that only succeeded at taking the edge off. He was still far too tense to even think about relaxing. 

But, luckily, just as the sun was beginning to set, his phone buzzed. A text from Aelin.

Hey. Do you think you could come over?

Rowan replied back almost immediately. Yeah, of course.

He wasted no time before pushing to his feet, shrugging on some fresh clothes, and striding into the halls. He barely remembered the trip there, walking fast enough that he was nearly running. But, before he could reach her room, he crossed paths with Aedion. 

The Ashryver prince raised a brow at him. Rowan noted the insulated, metal mug in his hand and small box tucked under his arm.

“Did Aelin ask to see you?” he asked. 

“Yeah,” Rowan nodded. “Were you on your way to see her?”

“I was. When she's sad or pissed off, I bring her some of the tea she likes and chocolates. It doesn’t ever fix everything, but it makes her smile,” Aedion sighed. “If you’re going her way, could you bring these to her?”

Rowan reached out, taking the mug and box of chocolates into her own hands. “Yeah, of course.”

“Are you going to stay with her all night?”

“If she wants me to.”

“Good, good,” Aedion mumbled, running a hand through his hair. “If something happens and you need to leave, will you let me know? I don’t think she should be alone tonight.”

Rowan knew why. He remembered the last time Aelin had been upset when something had been said that hit the wound that Sam’s death had caused. She had gone out, drank and gotten herself high until her head was hanging out the car window vomiting her guts out. 

“Yeah, I’ve got her. Don’t worry.”

Aedion nodded his thanks before heading off on his way. 

Rowan prepared himself for whatever state Aelin would be in. He hoped that she was dealing in whatever way she could. 

He knocked politely once he reached her room before entering. “Aelin?”

“Here,” her voice rang from the bedroom. 

Rowan stepped through the threshold, finding Aelin curled up on her bed, fluffy blanket wrapped around her shoulders. Her hair was piled up on top of her head in a messy knot. She turned towards him, offering a small smile, and allowing Rowan to see the heaviness in her eyes. 

She noted what he held in her hands. “Aedion?”

“Yeah.” Rowan handed the mug and box to her. 

Aelin took a sip of the tea, relaxing her shoulders slightly. “He tell you to babysit me tonight?”

“He didn’t say babysit.

She raised a knowing brow. “He implied it, though, didn’t he? It’s alright if he did, and if you agreed to it. Maybe I do need a babysitter from time to time. You wanna sit?”

Rowan lowered himself on the other side of the bed, watching as Aelin opened the box of chocolates and popped one into her mouth. Aedion had been right; it did make her lips curl into a tiny smile.

“Do you need anything?” Rowan eventually asked.

“I just… didn’t want to be alone.”

“Alright…” the prince said softly. “You can talk to me if needed.”

“I- I don’t even know what to say,” Aelin breathed, shaking her head. “I just never expected this to happen again, I thought the nightmare was over with. And I never imagined you’d be dragged into this too. I’m sorry.”

“What?” Rowan said, brows furrowed. He reached out and took Aelin’s hand, giving it a firm enough squeeze to get her to look at him. “What do you have to be sorry for?”

Because, Rowan… this is a threat against you now, too. And it might not be my fault, but I don’t know what I would do with myself if you got hurt because of it.”

It seemed that the last statement was enough to shatter the remainder of the barriers Aelin had put up. Her face crumpled, tears dribbling from the corners of her eyes. Rowan didn’t hesitate before drawing her into his arms again, holding her tight against him. 

Rowan wished he could soothe all her fears, to tell her that everything was going to be alright. But he couldn’t see the future, and knew that she was smart enough to see through his feeble attempts at comfort. So, he did what he could.

And he held her throughout the night. 

Chapter Text

A few more weeks went by in a whirlwind.

They had launched an investigation on that mysterious package, interviewed staff, combed over the security tapes over and over again, scouring the footage for any hint, but coming up empty-handed. Aelin knew it frustrated Aedion beyond belief, and she knew how worried her friends and other family members were as well.

Her uncle suggested that perhaps it was an isolated incident, meant to fearmonger and nothing more. The princess knew that was only wishful thinking.

Aelin was worried too; a bit frightened to be honest, not that she would ever let that show. Instead, to distract herself from her own thoughts, she threw herself into work. The wedding was nearly upon them, a little over a month away. They had finished the biggest portions of the planning and now they were left with picking up the pieces, organizing the small, final details. 

It was strange to think that after all this time, Aelin would soon actually be married to Rowan. There were times she forgot why they had met. When they were together, smiling, laughing, joking… it was wonderful. It felt so damn right. It was only when she would catch a glimpse of the ring she wore that Aelin would remember why they were together in the first place.

It was a wonderful surprise that the arrangement which had once seemed like a burden had become one of her biggest blessings.

And even when spending time with Rowan felt wonderful and natural, when Aelin thought about the day they would actually be tied together, there was a hint of nervousness at the pit of her stomach. Everything had been going so well, she didn’t want the marriage to change it. 

Aelin told herself it was foolish to think like that. Why would new titles change the harmony they had been living in?

But she couldn’t help but worry. 

For now, the best Aelin could do was live day to day. Staying busy in the mornings and afternoons, and tumbling in the sheets with Rowan until they fell asleep at night. It was a nice arrangement, one the princess had no qualms with. 

The only thing that was truly difficult was trying to ignore the growing feelings for Rowan that Aelin endured, despite her best attempts to shove them away. Every single casual touch, shy glance, laugh shared, all began to add up. The worst was when she would wake in the mornings tangled in Rowan’s arms, something that had begun to happen more and more frequently. Part of Aelin hated it because it toyed with her emotions, the other part of her never wanted it to end. 

Maybe the feelings would fade over time and Aelin wouldn’t be burdened by the unrelenting press of them against her heart. 

Maybe not.

But she tried to keep herself too busy to think about such possibilities. 

Tonight, they had been invited to a gala that doubled as a fundraiser for a large scholarship fund in Terrasen. It was hosted by one of the lords who was in Orlon’s council. A kind older man who never had any children of his own and had built up this organization to help countless other children afford higher education. Aelin had always liked him, had known him for about as long as she could remember. He had always snuck her sweets when she was a child.

It was to be a rather elegant event, ball gowns and tuxedos, all very lavish. Aelin didn’t mind dressing up, but she knew Rowan wasn’t quite looking forward to it, if only because he had to dress nicely.

Aelin, however, was looking forward to it, because she enjoyed spending time with Rowan, regardless of the occasion. 

The princess told herself there was no particular reason she was focusing so carefully on her appearance that night, why she fiddled with her hair endlessly even though Lysandra, as usual, had done a stellar job. She had left Aelin’s golden hair free and unbound, allowing it to tumble down her back. There was a subdued brown eyeshadow smeared on her eyelids, lashes darkened and extended by mascara. The makeup was perfect, spectacular.

But the real show-stopper was the gown. 

It was positively stunning. White, floor-length. Thin straps held the structured bodice over her shoulders, the neckline a conservative vee. The skirts were a-line and gauzy. The entire gown was embellished with small, sparkling crystals that caught the light as the dress swished and swirled. Aelin adored it, loved how it lit her up like a star. 

Lysandra might’ve loved the entire look more than Aelin herself did. Maybe it was more of a pride thing. 

After a good deal of fussing, cooing, and picture taking on Lysandra’s part, Aelin finally managed to usher her friend away. The stylist had her own event to get ready for that evening, not that she wasn’t already breathtakingly beautiful. Aedion had finally grown a pair and asked her out on a date; they were going out to a nice restaurant for dinner. Aelin knew it was only a matter of time now before they announced their own engagement. 

Aelin sat at her vanity, applying another coat of lipstick more out of boredom than necessity. She had been alone for less than ten minutes and had somehow gotten fidgety, something that nearly never happened. Though, to be fair, Aelin did despise waiting. 

Her saving grace was the sound of a soft knock and then her door opening. Aelin glanced over her shoulder from her seat at her vanity as she adjusted her earrings, finding Rowan striding towards her. She grinned when she saw him, her eyes sweeping from his silver head down to his feet.

He looked mighty handsome in his tux. She had seen him in plenty of suits before and he always wore them well, but there was something about the fine fabric of this tuxedo, how excellently it fit his broad shoulders, that made him truly look like the prince that he was.

“Well, this is a sight I could get used to seeing,” Aelin drawled with a smile, pushing to her feet and turning towards him.

Rowan opened his mouth as if he were about to say something, but no words escaped his lips. His green eyes grew a fraction of an inch wider as they locked on her, taking in her dress, her hair, everything.

Aelin never blushed, but she felt her cheeks heating under his gaze.

“What, no sarcastic comment?” Aelin teased. “No, Don’t get used to it? Not even a little glare?”

It seemed Aelin’s comment shook him out of his thoughts. Rowan blinked rapidly, rubbing a hand down the back of his head. 

“Sorry to disappoint. It’s just that… you look beautiful.”

Aelin hated that her heart skipped a beat at his words. She battled back another rush of blood that threatened to bloom under her cheeks, instead forcing her normal, cocky smile to her lips. 

“As if that’s different from any other day.”

Rowan let out a short laugh and nodded. “You’re right, of course. My mistake.”

Aelin shrugged. “I’ll let it pass. This once. You all ready to go?”

“Yeah. I think your uncle and Darrow are downstairs waiting.”

“Well, best get going! They’re old; they get crotchety when they have to wait.”

“We wouldn’t want that.”

Rowan had been thoroughly distracted from the moment he laid eyes on Aelin in that gown.

She was stunning. No, stunning wasn’t a strong enough word. She was ethereal.

Aelin always burned brightly, no matter what she did. Her light, the way her eyes were bright when she smiled and laughed, how her smile could outshine the sun. And she always seemed to burn with a hidden fire: when she spoke about the things she was passionate about, when she teased and spent time with the people she cared for. 

Aelin could always draw the eye. She was a beautiful woman with her luminous skin, golden hair, and intriguing eyes. But now, wearing that dress that glimmered like a thousand stars struck to her body, it was near impossible for Rowan to look away.

He was surprised he hadn’t walked or crashed into something during the journey from Aelin’s room to the car that would take them to their destination. 

Rowan had little mind for the polite conversation Orlon and his husband were attempting to make. Luckily for him, he had Aelin to drive the conversation. He hoped she didn’t note his absent-mindedness, but he didn’t get a feeling that she really did. She seemed thoroughly invested in her conversation with her uncle.

He knew he would need to get his shit together. Soon. He couldn’t be this distracted once they arrived at the venue, not when he had to focus on the image he had to present. 

Though, he had to admit, it was becoming less difficult to pretend to be in love with Aelin. It was easy now, to hold her hand, to smile fondly at her… almost too easy. 

He never imagined he would get to this point. Rowan could never forget those first few times he and Aelin had made appearances together. It had been tense for every single second, not to mention a miracle they hadn’t killed one another by the end of the first night. 

And now… Rowan couldn’t imagine his life without her.

It was a jarring realization, one the prince didn’t have much time to ponder. 

He saw the golden glow of the manor before he saw the impressive building itself. It was lit up brightly, banishing any darkness the night had brought. Rowan knew that it would be a fine gala, but it seemed he had underestimated just how grandiose it would actually be. 

The manor was nearly as impressive as the palace itself. Large and elegant, with towering marble columns and flags bearing the crest of Terrasen billowing in the evening breeze. There was a line of nice cars snaking up towards a large staircase, well-dressed people streaming towards the entrance. As they drove closer, Rowan could see flashes from cameras. He knew there would be plenty of important people there tonight, from the gentry, heiresses, and even minor celebrities. 

Aelin nudged his shoulder with her own. “You ready for this? Looking a bit nervous.”

“I’m not nervous,” Rowan grumbled dryly. “It’s just… a lot.”

“Well, the hardest part is the shortest part,” Aelin shrugged. “And no need to fear. I’ll be right there next to you to save you from any vicious paparazzi.”

“Now, now, Fireheart,” Orlon chastised gently from the front. “Don’t scare those poor people too much. They’re only trying to do their jobs.”

Her lips contorted into a playful pout, making a face that seemed to say, Well, if you say so.

It was only a few moments later that the car they were in rolled to a slow stop. From beside him, Aelin ran her fingers through her hair for what must have been the hundredth time, gathering her voluminous skirts in her hand. Once she had settled herself, she reached over towards him and began fiddling with his bowtie, ensuring it was straight.

Orlon and Darrow stepped out first. Rowan heard the clicks of cameras and words of the paparazzi through the doors of the car, greeting their king. 

He took Aelin’s hand within his own, trying to ignore how damned natural it felt. He gave it a quick squeeze.

“Ready?”

She gave him a wicked smile. “Born ready.”

With that, Rowan pushed open the car door and stepped into the crowd, helping Aelin out of the car. She was as elegant as ever as she stepped out onto the pavement, practically floating. Instantly, there was a bright, beautiful, and charming smile gracing her lips. She stepped close to his side, glancing up towards him. 

Gods, what he wouldn’t give to have her look at him like that every day. If only it weren’t a lovely mask she had to wear when they were together out in public.

It took a bit more effort than normal to work a smile onto his own lips, but he managed. And with that, he looked forward, and began striding up the long staircase. 

This was definitely more chaotic than Rowan was used to. Far more paparazzi, a bit louder, more crowded. But Aelin was handling it like a pro, and that helped to give Rowan a bit more confidence. He and Aelin smiled and waved at the crowd, pausing for a few photo ops, before they had finally made it to the top of the stairs.

Aelin had been right. The hardest part was the shortest, and soon enough, they had retreated to the blessedly quieter entry room. Instantly, it felt like Rowan could breathe easier.

They greeted the host. Rowan had met him a few times before; he was always genuine and kind and seemed to have a soft spot for Aelin. 

There was a gentle hand on his arm, Aelin pressing herself close to his side.

“You can relax now,” she breathed. “It’s all smooth sailing from here.”

Rowan tried his best to block out the warmth of Aelin’s body against his, the intoxicating scent of her jasmine perfume, and sparkling allure of eyes. He was lucky enough to have the distraction of a darkly-dressed waiter sweeping by with a tray of champagne. He grabbed one for himself and one for Aelin.

She took the flute with a smile, raising her glass. “To… tonight, I suppose.”

Rowan grinned and clinked his glass against her own. “To tonight.”

Aelin’s evening had started off swimmingly.

It most certainly wasn’t the most fun she had ever had, but she was enjoying herself nevertheless. 

Most of the evening was spent chatting and socializing, making polite conversation. She and Rowan smiled politely, spoke with the plenty of people who were excited to have the rare opportunity to chat them up, especially so close to the wedding. Aelin assumed a good half of them were trying to wrangle a last minute invitation to the event. As if any of them would dare to make a change to the seating arrangements at this point.

One more month.

Gods, one more month and she would have a husband. 

She stole a glance at Rowan, admiring again how handsome he looked tonight.

At least she would have a good husband.

Sometime in the evening, she and Rowan were separated, pulled this way or that by different groups of people. Aelin was corralled by a group of women, all whispering excitedly about details about her wedding, sharing stories and misfortunes of their own. They assured her that no matter what, something was going to manage to go wrong. Aelin couldn’t fathom what that something would be. They had been planning for months, had the best resources… it would be impossible for something to go wrong. 

Eventually, Aelin slipped away from her little group, promising a swift return after she had found something to nibble on and a refill of her drink.

She swept off to a quieter corner of the venue towards a table laden with little hor’dourves. She picked at some cheeses, kebabs, and a few delectable, gourmet chocolates that were simply divine. She saw a waitress walking off with a tray of sparkling rosé, taking a few strides in her general direction.

“Pardon me!” Aelin called, trying to nab her attention, following her around a corner. “If I could just-?”

“Here you go princess,” a male voice said, a cool glass pressed into her palm before she even noticed what happened. “No need to strain yourself.”

Aelin’s stomach dropped as she recognized that damned voice, looking away from the glass in her hand to find Arobynn Hamel smiling at her.

She forced a tight smile to her lips. “Thank you, Mister Hamel.”

Arobynn waved a dismissive hand through the air. “Now, no need for formalities. We’ve known each other long enough.”

“Of course. If you’d like.”

One day, Aelin would love to unleash every curse she had ever thought about him to his face, and then maybe blacken both of his eyes for the hell of it. Fuck manners and propiety. She hated those.

“You look especially lovely tonight, your highness,” Arobynn said, ruining Aelin’s plans of a quick escape. “Your soon-to-be husband is a lucky man.”

The mention of Rowan had Aelin’s eyes scanning the crowd, looking for a familiar head of silver hair, hoping he would come to her rescue yet again. She found him, but his back was to her, and he was on the complete other side of the room. Damn it.

Aelin tensed as she felt Arobynn step to her side, his cold eyes following her gaze out over the crowd. 

“Are you dreading the wedding, Aelin?” he whispered. “There’s no need to lie to me. I know about the arrangement. What a sacrifice you’ve made for your kingdom.”

She didn’t respond, clenching her jaw hard enough to break a tooth.

“But… part of me thinks that it’s no longer quite the sacrifice for you, is it?” Arobynn mused. “I’ve seen the way you look at Prince Whitethorn. You’ve grown to care about him, haven’t you?”

Aelin took a small sip of her drink before saying testily, “I don’t see how that’s any of your business, Arobynn.

“Now, now. No need to get angry, princess. I’m just trying to look out for you. If you truly care for the prince, I can’t imagine that it doesn’t bother you that you’re taking away his chance at a truly happy marriage. He’ll be trapped.”

Aelin hated that Arobynn’s words made her heart throb, hated that he was right. If they did follow through with this marriage, Rowan would never have the chance to have a real love again. And although yes, Aelin cared for him and didn’t want to lose him from her life, maybe she was just being selfish. Maybe she should let him go.

Not that she really had the choice, not now.

“If you know that it’s arranged then you know why it’s arranged,” Aelin eventually ground out. “Terrasen needs the money. We need this marriage.”

“Yes, Terrasen does need the money,” Arobynn conceded. “But there are other options.”

Aelin raised a brow. “Oh? Do you have a list of wealthy princes prepared to hand over their wallets for an arranged marriage?”

Arobynn let out a tiny chuckle, taking a sip from his whiskey. “Well, I may not have a title, but I am a very wealthy man, Aelin.”

Aelin’s entire body felt like it had been doused in freezing oil at his implications, her stomach churning uncomfortably. There was no way that he meant what she thought he meant but… there was nothing but sincerity on his face.

“You… marry me? ” Aelin asked, trying to keep herself from vomiting at the thought. “Why the hell would you want that?”

“I was born into nothing, princess.” Arobynn explained. “I had to work and sacrifice for everything I now possess. It wasn’t easy, but I gained respect and power… however, such things don’t always last forever for people like me. But you, Aelin… you were born into power, raised into it. It’s something that no one could take away. I’d like that security.”

“You’d like the power. You’d like to be king.”

He shrugged. “King consort, to be exact. And I won’t deny that it’s an attractive title, but I have visions for this kingdom. I could help Terrasen, raise it out of this funk. I was considering running for a spot on Terrasen’s council this year, but from your position, it would be easier to make the change needed from the head.”

Even Aelin couldn’t deny that Arobynn Hamel was one of Terrasen’s biggest success stories. He had built an empire for himself, he was smart and cunning, an excellent businessman, despite the fact Aelin knew some of the shit he did was shady. Despite his mountain of flaws, he certainly had expertise that could help Terrasen.

Her eyes trailed towards the crowd again, finding Rowan. He had turned ever so slightly, allowing her to see his strong profile. There was a rare smile on his lips as he spoke with Orlon and a few other lords. She did care for him, more than cared at this point, though admitting to the true extent of her feelings was something she wasn’t quite ready to face.

“The wedding is in a month,” Aelin said eventually. “I can’t just… call it off and immediately marry someone else.”

“It doesn’t have to be right away. We can take some time, but I’ll still help until then,” Arobynn’s eyes slid towards her. He leaned in, close enough that she could feel his breath ghosting across her ear. “I’d be good for Terrasen. I’d be good to you too, Aelin. I can give you what you want… things you need.

He reached into his pocket before pressing something into Aelin’s free hand. She unfurled her fingers, peering down at what he had gifted her, and her stomach dropped to her feet.

A little baggy of a horribly familiar white powder.

“I-I…” Aelin stuttered uselessly. “How did you-?”

“Do you really think Archer Finn runs his whole operation on his own?” Arobynn asked, raising a brow. “Please. I let that fool sell my product at my clubs. I know about your time spent club hopping, drinking, getting high.”

“Then you should know I don’t deal with this shit anymore!” Aelin hissed out. “That’s in the past.”

“Don’t fool yourself, love. It’s not that easy.”

She shook her head, holding out the bag. “You can take this back. I don’t want it.”

“It’s a gift. Keep it.”

Aelin ground her jaw slowly, feeling fury begin to burn in her veins. “Go fuck yourself, Arobynn.”

The man smirked. “Ah. I always knew you had more fire than you showed. Consider my proposition, princess. You don’t have much more time.”

With that, he strode away casually, disappearing within the crowd, leaving Aelin alone in the quiet corner. The audacity he had… it was unbelievable. Fucking slimy creep. 

Aelin released a low, filthy curse, glaring down at the baggie in her hand. She slid it into the bodice of her gown before anyone could catch her with it.

She breathed out a long sigh, shutting her eyes and giving herself a moment to recompose herself. Aelin huffed out one last breath, releasing the tension her body held with it. She couldn’t afford to let herself be shaken by this encounter. 

And so, Aelin plastered on a smile and wandered back into the fray.

Chapter Text

Aelin managed to keep it together through the rest of the gala, but she was on edge the entire time, waiting for Arobynn to show his stupid face again. She couldn’t promise she wouldn’t end up bashing his teeth in if he got within her reach.

She threw herself into conversation to keep her mind distracted. Eventually, Rowan found his way back to her side, slipping his hand back into her own. It was hard to look at him and not think about everything Arobynn had said, to not be terribly aware of the bag shoved into the bodice of her gown.

She felt guilty for having it on her, even though she wanted to get rid of it as soon she had the privacy to do so. 

She truly didn’t want anything to do with drugs anymore. She wanted to get better, was working towards the point of never craving any again. But most importantly, she knew that if Rowan found out she ever caved again, he would be disappointed in her.

Aelin sure as hell didn’t want that.

The elegant string band situated on the edge of the dancefloor finished a song, bringing about a polite round of applause. Aelin joined. They were very talented and had been playing beautiful pieces throughout the night. As soon as the applause died down, the band readied themselves and began the first few notes of the next song.

“Oh, I love this one,” Aelin sighed breathily, eyes fluttering shut and she absorbed the lilting and ethereal chords floating through the air. She became acutely aware of the sensation of being watched, peeling her eyes open and finding Rowan looking at her with an unfamiliar look on his face. She raised a brow. “What?”

“Would you like to dance?”

Aelin blinked in surprise, sure she had heard him incorrectly. She glanced at the gleaming dancefloor, where a handful of couples were swaying to the music, before looking back towards Rowan.

“You… want to dance?” she asked.

“You like to dance, don’t you?”

Aelin did like to dance, loved it actually. Rowan didn’t allow her much more time for considering it, holding out his hand for her to take. She couldn’t have stopped the smile that spread to her lips even if she wanted to.

He led her to the center of the dancefloor, turning to face one another. He took one of her hands within his own, his other planting firmly one her hip while Aelin placed her own on one broad shoulder. Rowan didn’t wait long after they were situated to begin leading her in the waltz.

It didn’t take long for Aelin to realize that her finacé was an excellent dancer. Rowan picked up on the surprise on her face.

“I did tell you my dirty secret,” Rowan murmured into her ear. “I was forced to take ballroom lessons. I do know how to dance.”

“Hearing it and witnessing it are two very different things,” Aelin said back, trying to tame the shiver that threatened to run down her spine at the feeling of his breath ghosting against the shell of her ear. “I just can’t believe you would willingly do it again. I figured it would stir up some bad memories.”

Rowan chuckled. “Well, it’s not my favorite thing to do, but I wanted a break from the small talk, and I already used the bathroom excuse.”

“And here I thought you were just looking for a chance to get handsy with me.”

“That’s a perk too,” Rowan smiled, squeezing her waist and tugging her a bit closer. 

They fell into a comfortable silence, allowing the music to fill the space. It was beautiful and pleasant. Aelin enjoyed swaying to the tune with Rowan holding her so close. For a moment, she felt like one of the princesses she had read about in her fairytale books, dancing with a handsome prince, about to have a happily ever after.

If only it were true.

But, despite herself, Aelin rested her head against Rowan’s chest. For a heartbeat, she let herself believe it was real, that it wasn’t a show put on for the guests and the photographers lingering on the edges of the room.

And, when Rowan rested his cheek tenderly against the top of her head, Aelin told herself that it was real for him too.

Eventually the evening came to an end.

Aelin and her family said goodbye to the guests and their host, thanking them for their hospitality. Their car was waiting for them outside, and the moment Aelin slid into her seat, she slumped. She did enjoy parties, but they tended to leave her thoroughly exhausted.

She was glad it was over, glad she could finally relax and not have to worry about running into Arobynn again. At least he hadn’t shown his face for the rest of the evening. Probably the smartest choice he had ever made.

She felt the sensation of eyes on her, turning to find Rowan looking at her questioningly. He raised a brow. You okay?

She wasn’t, really, but it wasn’t a conversation she felt like getting into now. So, she simply shrugged. Yeah, just tired.

The ride back to the palace was thankfully short and easy, the roads devoid of most traffic by this time at night. By the time they had all trudged from the garage into the quiet halls, Aelin knew her uncle and his husband were exhausted. She said a quick goodnight, kissing Orlon on the cheek, before they left her and Rowan to their own devices.

“I’ll head back to my room to shower and get ready, and then I could head over to yours, if you want,” Rowan eventually said as they casually meandered towards the residential part of the palace.

Aelin smiled and nodded. With that, they went their separate ways.

She took a moment to check her phone, curious to see if she had any updates from Lysandra about her and Aedion’s date. She was assuming that the silence and her cousin’s absence from the palace meant they were at Lysandra’s apartment, probably banging it out. It had only been a couple years of burning tension, it was bound to reach its climax eventually. She was happy for them. They deserved each other, deserved to be happy. 

Aelin pushed into her room and released a deep sigh, immediately stepping out of her heels and kicking them off to the side so Rowan wouldn’t trip over them. She made a bee-line towards the bathroom, eager to take a burning hot shower and wash the day off of her. 

She didn’t even bother to shut the door, reaching behind her and unzipping the gown, shrugging it off and allowing the fabric to pool into a sparkling pile at her feet. She went to tug off her strapless bra, but then her gaze caught on what she had shoved in there earlier that evening. 

It seemed as if her world slowed to a stop. 

Aelin grabbed the little baggie, hardly blinking. She barely noted herself grabbing the satin robe hanging from the door and shrugging it on, still staring hypnotically at the powder that seemed to stare right back at her.

She knew she should toss it in the toilet and be rid of it forever.

So why was it still in her hand?

Fuck Arobynn. He must have known exactly what he was doing when he spoke to her today, knew that he would get into her head. He must have known that his proposal was preposterous, that Aelin would never even consider it.

But… she had briefly, hadn’t she?

Arobynn had known exactly what strings to tug at to make her guilty, to make her desperate enough to even consider the options. He knew all he had to do was use Rowan and it would tear her guard down.

And it pissed her off to no extent that she cared so much about Rowan that he had become a weakness. She wanted him to be happy, to live the life he wanted to.

Rowan had shunned his royal heritage for the entirety of his life, never had any interest in claiming money or power. He didn’t like parties or posturing, despised small talk. He didn’t like to dress up or pose for photos and yet… being married to Aelin meant a lifetime of that. Gods, it would be like torture for him. 

Rowan had oftentimes told her about Lyria, about the quaint and quiet life they had built together. A sweet little cottage, a small garden, a relaxing life of anonymity and love.

Aelin couldn’t give him that. The life he would be living with her would be the exact opposite of what he had envisioned for himself.

How could she go through with this? How could she do this to Rowan? How could she make him her husband and not feel like a selfish bitch for the rest of her life?

Aelin felt tears begin to prick her eyes. 

Maybe she should cut it off, tell her uncle that she couldn’t go through with it. Rowan could go back home. It would take some time, but eventually he would fade from the public eye, go back to being a regular man. Maybe he would find someone he could love again, someone sweet and kind. who would treat him right.

But if she did that, she would be right back where she started: the princess of a nation on the brink of economic destruction. 

And then she would have no choice than to turn to Arobynn. Manipulative bastard.

There had to be some other option than giving herself to an old creep. Not only did she think she wouldn’t be able to stomach it, there would have to be some outrage if she married a man so much older than she was. But if she ended the engagement with Rowan, her hands would be tied. 

Gods, her life was a mess. Political arrangements, pesky emotions, and manipulative businessmen. It was like a bad soap opera. 

She didn’t know what to do. Gods, what Aelin wouldn’t do to have her mother here. Evalin had always had the best advice. She would always sit with her, let Aelin lay her head in her lap and talk out her problems. Her mother would know what to do.

But her mother was dead. And presumably, the same people who had killed her were now threatening to kill Aelin at her own damn wedding. 

She was still holding the damned baggie, drumming her fingers on the marble of the bathroom counter.

Aelin’s emotions were running rampant, building up deep inside her. The pressure was agony, it felt as though at any moment she would explode. She needed some sort of relief, a distraction or anything to get her out of her head.

The powder was a painfully taunting pressure against her palm. The coke would certainly do the trick, but she shouldn’t… she was stronger than that. Or, she thought so. The fact that she still hadn’t thrown it away just proved she had a long way to go. Perhaps she should seek some more help, talk to Aedion about it. Maybe a therapist. She had gone to one after she lost her parents and Sam, going back again may be exactly what she needed.

“What are you doing?”

Aelin nearly jumped out of her skin at the sudden voice coming from her right. Her head whipped towards the source, finding Rowan standing still as stone a step outside the bathroom door. But his eyes were not meeting hers, instead pinned on her palm. She followed his gaze, stomach dropping to her feet as she realized how the scene looked.

“It’s- it’s not what it looks like,” Aelin said, forcing out a terse laugh in a feeble attempt to lighten the mood.

Rowan took a small, slow step forward. “Are you out of your mind?”

Aelin blinked once at his tone. It sounded as if she were a child that needed scolding. She sure as hell didn’t appreciate it, and didn’t bother responding. It seemed Rowan took her silence as a cue to continue, walking deeper within her bathroom.

“Have you been getting high again?”

“Gods, no. I told you it’s not what it looks like.”

“Forgive me if I missed another way to interpret you standing in your bathroom with a bag of cocaine in your hand.”

“A bag that is full and unopened,” Aelin said. “You know what? Look.” She turned and tossed the baggie into the toilet, not hesitating before flushing and watching it swirl away. “Gone. No problem.”

Rowan didn’t look convinced. “You can tell me, you know… if you need help.”

“I don’t need help, Rowan!” Aelin said more snappily than she meant to, but there was no taking it back. “I didn’t even want it. Fucking Arobynn gave it to me.”

“Arobynn? He bothered you tonight?”

Yes, in fact, he had bothered her. But Aelin wasn’t in the mood to get into that now.

“Just being a sleazebag, as usual,” Aelin said, crossing her arms over her chest and giving a tiny shrug.

“What did he say? Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because I don’t need you for everything, you overbearing bastard,” she grumbled, brushing past Rowan and into her room.

He didn’t hesitate before following her. “ Aelin .”

Her eyes squeezed shut at the sound of her name falling from his lips. There was so much in his tone that he didn’t express in words. Confusion and concern and hurt because of how she was acting. Aelin knew she was pushing him away, but she feared that if she let him any further in, she would never be able to let go.

“Please,” Rowan continued, his voice barely above a whisper. “I’m here for you, Aelin. Let me help you.” 

Aelin sighed and tugged her fingers through her hair. “I don’t need help. I just…”

“Just what?”

“I just need to be alone. Please.”

The silence that followed her statement was smothering. She didn’t dare turn around, to see the reaction her words had pulled from Rowan. Deep in her gut, she knew what she would see, and knew it would break her heart.

She heard him release a short breath, could practically imagine him working his jaw in frustration. 

“Alright,” Rowan said at length. “If that’s what you want.”

Aelin didn’t respond, hugging herself tightly. There was a beat of silence, Rowan giving her the opportunity to change her mind, to take back what she had said. But when it became clear that she wasn’t about to, she heard the swish of his clothes, his soft footfalls gradually fading, the sound of a knob turning and the door shutting with surprising gentleness. She didn’t deserve it, his understanding and kindness. She deserved to be yelled at, for Rowan to storm out and slam the door behind him, to call her a brat because that’s what she was being.

But he didn’t. Because he was too damn good for her.

It wasn’t long before the first of the tears began to fall.

Aelin slept fitfully that night.

Her entire being was consumed with an unrelenting guilt, leaving her tossing and turning in her sheets, lucky to doze off for a few moments here and there. The moment she saw the first hints of sunlight filtering through her curtains, she was up and headed towards the shower.

As usual, the water was scalding. Even after Aelin had finished her routine, she still stood under the spray, allowing it to fall between her shoulders, hoping the heat would soothe away the tension she held in her muscles. It didn’t help much. Nor did it clean away the shame she felt.

Aelin wished she could take back what she had said. Rowan hadn’t deserved the treatment he had been given; he hadn’t done a single thing wrong. It was all on her. She had gone right on the defence when Rowan had walked in on her with the drugs. She had claimed that she hadn’t even been thinking about it, but she had.

It had been a long night. She had been stressed and angry and confused and all those emotions had concluded in an explosive end.

She had worked an apology over and over again in her head, turning over her words so much that they didn’t even feel real anymore. And yet… nothing seemed right, nothing she could come up with was good enough.

She was in deep shit. Aelin knew it. If only her feelings for Rowan didn’t extend further than friendship. Perhaps the situation wouldn’t be as messy.

Aelin was saved from a day that would have been full of moping and self-loathing when her phone chimed. Her stomach dropped to her feet for a moment, wondering if Rowan had reached out, only to find Lysandra’s name flashing across the screen. 

I’m on my way to the palace for your dress alterations today. You want to have breakfast together just the two of us? I have so much to tell you.

Despite how dismal Aelin felt, she smiled at the message. In her glumness, she had nearly completely forgotten about Lysandra and Aedion’s date the night before. She was sure Lysandra was ready to gossip through the morning.

Breakfast in my bed? I’m having a lazy morning. Aelin sent, before adding, Unless that makes Aedion too jealous. Wouldn’t want to damage his pride.

Lysandra started typing nearly immediately. I’m 100% down with it and Aedion says you’re a comedian. See you soon.

Aelin figured she could at least make sure she looked presentable. She glanced at herself in the mirror, tugging her hair back to try and hide how tangled it was. There were dark circles under her eyes; not much she could do about that, but she could at least wash her face.

She was just finishing up her skincare when there was a polite knock on her door. She turned just as Lysandra strolled in, a huge smile gracing her full lips. She was dressed immaculately in a flowy, green midi-dress, raven hair shining like spun silk. It was truly unfair how beautiful she looked, especially with the glowy halo of happiness that seemed to surround her. The date must have gone well. Good. That means she didn’t have to beat the shit out of Aedion.

“I already asked for them to bring breakfast up,” Lysandra breathed in greeting, slowing to a stop before her, perfectly groomed brows knitting together in confusion as she got a good look at Aelin. “And you look like shit.”

“Thanks, Lys,” Aelin said dryly. “That one felt good.”

“You know I didn’t mean it like that. Are you okay?”

“I’m fine. I just didn’t sleep well last night.”

“Did a certain prince keep you up all night?”

Aelin glowered at her. “I would ask you the same thing, but I really don’t want to hear those details. So tell me about the rest of your date.”

Lysandra looked at her skeptically. “Oh, no. Not yet. There’s something going on with you. You didn’t sleep, you’re crabby, and you’re wearing sweats, which only happens when something is wrong. So. What is it?”

Aelin narrowed her eyes. Damn Lysandra. She knew her too well; nothing ever got past her. The princess gave what she hoped looked like a casual shrug. “It’s nothing, really. Rowan and I just got into a bit of a… squabble last night.”

“A squabble? ” Lysandra snorted. “A squabble that resulted in you looking like this? Don’t bullshit me, Ace. It was a bit more than that, wasn’t it?”

Aelin groaned, plopping down on the edge on her bed and burying her face into her hands. “I fucked up, Lys. I fucked up real bad.”

The princess felt rather than saw Lysandra sit beside her on the bed, felt a hand pressed gently against her thigh. Aelin peeked between her fingers to find her friend looking at her sympathetically. 

“What happened?”

For a moment, Aelin debated whether or not she should tell her. She hadn’t told Rowan, had been too frightened to, but… maybe it would do her some good to talk it out with a third party.

And so Aelin did. She told Lysandra everything, starting with how her feelings towards Rowan had been changing in the passing days, about Arobynn and what he had said, the drugs, the argument with Rowan. It was almost a relief to let everything out. Lysandra was silent as Aelin spilled her guts, waiting until she was sure the princess was finished with her tale before letting out a filthy curse.

“Arobynn Hamel is an asshole,” Lysandra stated. “It’s a miracle someone hasn’t killed him already.”

Aelin snorted softly. She was certainly right about that. 

“What do you think I should do?” Aelin asked. “Arobynn might be a prick, but do you think he might have a point?”

“Fuck no,” Lysandra said immediately, a look of disgust pinching her delicate face. “Arobynn’s only saying that stuff to get into your head. He wants power and probably the chance to get into your pants. Not to mention, cancelling the wedding now would be a disaster. It would probably piss Queen Maeve off. She wants to build ties with Terrasen badly. She probably would have proposed a marriage alliance with your uncle if he wasn’t gay.”

The image of Maeve married to her uncle was disturbing and humorous enough to wring a tight smile from Aelin for a moment. 

Lysandra was right, of course. Hearing her explain it just proved how ridiculous Arobynn’s proposition was. Aelin had been letting her emotions get in the way, letting her fear of destroying Rowan’s life cloud her judgement and steal her logic.

Before they could speak any further, there was a knock on her door.

“The breakfast,” Lysandra explained. She rose to her feet before Aelin had the chance to, grabbing the trays from the messenger and placing them on the coffee table in the sitting room. 

Aelin thought she wasn’t hungry, but it turned out it was only her own miserable mood making her think that. The moment she got a whiff of the savory scent of bacon, her stomach gave an irritable grumble. Lysandra lifted the covers from the trays, revealing the small feast. 

“Pancakes!” Aelin grinned.

“Yours are chocolate chip.”

“Ugh. I literally could not love you more,” Aelin praised, plopping down and pulling her tray towards herself. “Now, I want to talk about something a bit lighter. Tell me all about the date… and please, don’t be afraid to not share a few, specific details.”

Lysandra laughed and began her tale.

It was a nice rescue from Aelin’s own spiral. She would never stop being thankful for Lysandra, for the whole network of people she had who loved and supported her. And, although Aelin most certainly still had some shit to work through, it was a start.

She could only hope that she would have the ability to finish.

Chapter Text

Rowan had been fuming since his argument with Aelin.

He wasn’t sure if it constituted as an argument; he hadn’t gotten many words in. Clearly, something had been bothering Aelin that had caused her to lash out.

He hadn’t known what to think when he had come into Aelin’s room and saw her standing there, staring intently at that little baggie. So many thoughts had gone through his head. He hadn’t known if she had fallen back into that trap, if she had been suffering under his nose and he hadn’t noticed.

He had, however, picked up on some strange behavior coming from her that evening. He hadn’t known what had caused it, and she had brushed off his lame attempts at trying to find out what was bothering her. Maybe he should have pursued it more, but when he had tried to help her later, she had bitten his head off. 

Aelin had insisted that she hadn’t fallen back to drugs, that she hadn’t been planning on taking it. He wanted to believe her; she had never lied to him before, but she had shoved him away.

She had been fine earlier in the day, hadn’t seemed off during the week. Aelin had been smiling and laughing and joking as always, even up to the moment they had pulled up to the venue. So, something must have happened during the gala that had set her off. 

Aelin hadn’t been at breakfast that morning. It had been difficult to keep his disappointment and worry to himself. Everyone else had been present, including Aedion. Fenrys had bugged the Ashryver prince for details about his date with Lysandra; Aedion had let it slip that the stylist had come to the palace with him and was with Aelin before another one of her dress-fittings.

So, it seemed Aelin was alright talking with other people, just not with him.

Rowan sliced into his eggs more brutally than they deserved. His mind was running through the possibilities of what she might be saying to Lysandra.

Had he overstepped his bounds? Did he see his relationship with Aelin differently than she did? Rowan truly cared for her, for her well-being. They had been there for one another during some of their darkest times, had brushed away each other’s tears. Had he been reading it all wrong? Had he just ruined something he had grown to hold dear?

Rowan kept to himself for most of the day. He was near-obsessively checking his phone, hoping and dreading to hear from Aelin. And yet, there was nothing. Not a peep from her.

He never would have expected that he would reach this point, but he knew there was no turning back.

Rowan kept himself as busy as he possibly could. He suffered through answering some emails from his cousins. Gods, when they started arriving it would be hell. They wouldn’t even let him hide in his rooms; he would be forced to socialize and catch up. He hated catching up, just answering the same questions twenty times. 

The tedious process eventually became too much for him and he gave up. His mind immediately went back to Aelin. He tried to tell himself that he should give her space, that he should let her come to him when, or if, she wanted to. 

But his patience morphed into frustration. He hadn’t done anything wrong to deserve her scorn, to earn this bitingly cold shoulder. He wished he could say that his decision to act was based just on this feeling, but he was worried for her. It had been a long time since they had gone a day without talking, since they had argued. And… he missed her.

So he ventured out and looked for her.

He went towards her rooms first, only to find them empty. Then, the library. He glanced down every row only to find them barren. He went towards her favorite reading nook, then by the fireplace to see if she had curled up on the floor. Yet, nothing. The gardens were also a bust, but the day was cloudy and the chances of her hanging outside, especially when the autumn air was growing cold, were slim.

Finally, Rowan headed to the gym. He remembered the first time he had sought her out, after what had been their most volatile argument, following Rowan and Aedion chasing her down at the club. She had been kickboxing her tension away then, maybe it would be the same this time. He just hoped she wouldn’t turn her gloves towards him.

Rowan pushed through the doors of the gym, his gaze immediately jumping towards the hanging bags where he had found her before. Aelin wasn’t there, but he heard elegant classical music drifting on the air. He furrowed his brows, following the sounds towards a connected studio.

Rowan had always assumed that the wood-floored studio was for yoga or stretching. He had never bothered utilizing it, but it soon became clear that it had other uses. 

He had found Aelin. She was dancing.

The princess had mentioned that she’d taken ballet lessons when she was younger but had stopped a few years ago. She hadn’t ever brought it up again, so Rowan had assumed she had lost the spark for it. He had been mistaken.

She was beautifully elegant as she moved, as if gravity didn’t dare touch her. 

Rowan had always held respect for ballet dancers. Though he wasn’t terribly knowledgeable about it, he knew the amount of control and skill it took to be able to move one’s body like that. He would never be able to fathom how they could float on the tips of their toes, move as if it wasn’t painfully uncomfortable. 

Aelin didn’t notice him at first as he lingered in the threshold, arms crossed over his chest as he just watched. 

She seemed lost in her movements, Aelin’s eyes softly shut and she twirled and leapt. Although Rowan wasn’t an expert on dance, he could recognize she had skill. Perhaps not as precise as a professional ballerina, but he could tell she had taken her lessons seriously in her youth. Rowan wasn’t surprised; when Aelin set her mind to something, she put her heart and soul into it.

He leaned his shoulder against the doorway as he watched. Gods, she was beautiful. Rowan knew that Aelin was aware she was attractive, but did she know just how ? Her luminous skin was practically glowing in the afternoon light, golden hair pulled back in a low bun on the back of her head. 

He always thought she was lovely, but there was a different standard to it when she was off guard. Like those early hours in the morning when she was still sleeping, tucked up under his arm, full lips parted softly. It was hard to resist the urge to trace the shapes of them with the tips of his fingers. Watching her dance now was like that, face relaxed, letting her body take control. 

Aelin spun once, twice, before her eyes finally fluttered open and immediately landed on him. Her turquoise eyes grew wide in surprise, missing a step and faltering. Aelin managed to right herself before tumbling to the hardwood floor.

“Sorry,” Rowan said quickly. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Aelin let out a short, breathy laugh and shook her head. “You startled me, not scared me. There’s a difference.”

“Ah. I see.”

There was a lull of silence, both of them glued to the spot. He saw Aelin opening and closing her fists at her sides, biting the inside of her cheeks. 

It had become a waiting game, trying to see who would speak first. 

Rowan bit the bullet. “Aelin, I-”

“No,” she said quickly, holding up a hand to stop him. Aelin sucked down a deep, bracing breath. “I’m so sorry about last night. You didn’t do anything wrong, but I acted out. You didn’t deserve that, and I apologize.”

Rowan shook his head. “It’s alright, Aelin. Maybe I came on too hard, I was just worried when I saw… you know.”

“Yeah… I know. You had every right to be, and instead of being pissed off, I should have been thankful that you care,” she said. Her eyes flickered up as she took a step closer. “I was just embarrassed, and ashamed. I am very lucky to have a friend like you, Rowan, and sometimes I let myself forget that... I take it for granted.”

Rowan was thankful for her words, but the word friend rang through his mind like a bell. He knew that was how they had been defining their strange relationship, but his feelings had been shifting as of late. It was his fault for assuming Aelin’s were changing too.

“You have nothing to apologize for, Aelin,” Rowan murmured softly. “I just worried maybe I pushed it a little too far. Maybe I was an overbearing bastard.”

“You weren’t. You were just being a friend, and you deserve an explanation.”

“You don’t have to.”

“No, but I should,” she sighed. Aelin closed the distance between them and grabbed onto his sleeve, tugging him over to a bench pressed against the wall. It was a snug fit, but they managed, legs pressed against one another’s.

Rowan was politely quiet as Aelin situated herself, loosening the bun she wore and allowing her hair to fall freely down her back.

“Last night,” she began softly. “Arobynn managed to get me alone, and he started talking. He said I should end the engagement with you, that it was unfair. He was right, in a way. I don’t want to be the reason you never get the chance to fall in love again.”

Oh gods, she was completely clueless. 

“Why would he even care?” Rowan asked. “We’ve only spoken once. Why would he bother himself with me?”

“It wasn’t for you, it was for himself. He only used you because he knows I care about you. His endgame is getting power by…” she faded off, looking for a moment as if she would be ill. “He suggested that I marry him instead.”

Rowan froze, feeling a burning, unrelenting rage flush through him. He’d had no idea that what Aelin was going to say would elicit such a reaction. He ground his jaw, trying to keep himself from becoming the overbearing bastard Aelin had called him the night before. 

He couldn’t believe the nerve Arobynn had, to think he had the right to insert himself in their affairs. The idea of him being within the general vicinity of Aelin made him see red, and just the thought of her marrying him to spare Rowan was enough to make him murderous. 

“He said that he knew I used to be an addict,” Aelin continued, voice barely above a whisper. “Admitted that he’s the one who brings in the drugs that Archer sells. I always knew he was up to no good, but he just confirmed it. He gave me the drugs, and I guess he got in my head enough that I almost considered doing them.”

Rowan found that he didn’t quite have the words to express himself, not without admitting to the truth he knew deep down in his chest. 

“Aelin…” he breathed at length. “I wish I had a way to make everything right, to make sure everyone is happy. But I would never leave you to deal with Arobynn. In fact, there’s nothing I’d rather do than tear him limb from limb. I agreed to this marriage, Aelin, to help you, to help your kingdom. I’m here for you, no matter what.”

He saw her bottom lip quiver, her eyes growing glassy with unshed tears. She managed to squeeze his hand weakly, to rasp out, “To whatever end?”

Rowan nodded, cupping the back of her head with his free hand, fingers tangling within her terresses, and pulling her close. He pressed his lips to her forehead, lingering perhaps a bit too long to be friendly, but he found that he didn’t care. Not now.

“To whatever end, Fireheart.”

She blinked and peered up at him, brows knitting together in the middle. “My mother used to call me that.”

Rowan hadn’t known that particular fact. “Do you not want me to call you that?”

“No,” Aelin said quickly. “I like it. I really missed hearing it.”

“Well… it suits you.”

It was then that Aelin reached out and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. Instinctively, Rowan pulled her close, relishing the feeling of her warmth, the smell of her flowery perfume. He was thankful that he had sought her out, had managed to make things right with her. 

He could only hope that the rest of the month would be smooth sailing.

Rowan knew he should wake up. He had things he had to do today, people he had to meet; yet it was a struggle to crack open his eyes. 

But eventually, he forced it upon himself.

Rowan took a moment to blink the bleariness from his eyes, taking in the sights around him. His own bedroom, early morning light filtering through the gauzy curtains, something (or someone, rather) warm tucked against his side.

Aelin was still sleeping peacefully, burrowed under his arm and pressed tight against him. Her golden hair was wild, lips parted slightly. She still wore the hoodie bearing the logo of the University of Doranelle, which she had snatched from him the night before. Rowan would let her have it. It looked better on her anyway.

It had been two weeks since their argument; since they had talked things out, everything had gone back to the way it had been before. A happy, easy rhythm, spending their nights and a good portion of their days together. 

And it was a week until the wedding.

It was still hard for Rowan to believe that he would actually be marrying Aelin, that he would be the husband of a princess, one day king consort. Though the king consort part was not until a good deal in the future, it was still a big responsibility. 

But if he had Aelin by his side, it would all be fine.

Even with how grand the wedding would be, how chaotic it would become, he would be able to handle it with Aelin. The palace was swimming with more and more security the closer the wedding got, fortifying the fences around the palace to ensure there would be no unwelcome visitors during the ceremony. When the investigation into the threat yielded no answers, Orlon got more jittery. It was good, Rowan supposed, that there would be so many extra eyes to ensure nothing would happen. It would take two armies to disrupt this wedding.

Rowan allowed himself a few more precious seconds to study her in this peaceful moment. Try as he might, he couldn’t stop himself from running his fingers through her hair, breathing in the scent of her flowery shampoo. 

He moved to roll out of bed, but didn’t get far before two arms wrapped in a vise-like grip around his torso. 

“Where are you going?” Aelin grumbled, eyes still screwed shut. 

“To shower,” Rowan said, smiling softly down  at her. “We have guests coming today.”

She groaned and held him tighter. “It’s just your cousins and friends. You don’t need to impress them.”

“My cousins, no. But my uncle, yes.”

“But you’re so warm ,” Aelin whined, finally opening up her eyes to look up at him. “And I’m freezing.”

He supposed the air was a bit frigid. The autumn airs in Terrasen held a bite to it that Rowan wasn’t too used to. And Aelin’s hands and feet were like ice right now, though the rest of her was decidedly warm.

“If you take a shower, you’ll get warm,” Rowan offered.

Aelin raised a brow, lips curling in a wicked smirk. “ Or you can warm me up in a more fun way.”

She didn’t even give him a chance to try to guess what she was alluding to before she had wrapped a hand around the back of his head and her soft lips pressed against his throat. 

Rowan couldn’t stop himself from releasing a groan at the sensation. He knew he really should go get ready; his uncle would be pissed if he was late. Lorcan too. He hated small talk more than Rowan did, and his friend would never forgive him if he left him with a group of acquaintances. 

But Rowan couldn’t find it within himself to care, not with Aelin’s mouth pressed against him. 

He rolled his weight on top of her, giving in in what had to be record time. He knew he couldn’t deny her.

He grabbed her jaw firmly, but gently, pulling her mouth to his and kissing her deeply. She instantly parted her lips for him, allowing his tongue to sweep in. Aelin’s fingers twisted into his hair, strong legs wrapping around his waist.

Rowan ran his hands from her knees, up the smooth skin of her thighs until they reached the hem of the hoodie she wore. His fingers dipped underneath the thick fabric, up her hips, waists, until they reached her breasts. He smiled against her lips as he found she was wearing nothing underneath.

Rowan tugged the hoodie from her body, tossing it carelessly off to the side. He took a breast into his hand, massaging it gently, feeling Aelin writhe beneath him. Her heels pushed at the sweatpants he wore, impatiently trying to get them off. He helped her, happy to be rid of them, to lose that last barrier between them.

He would never get tired of this, of Aelin’s bare body against his. It was euphoric, it was perfect every time. He didn’t know what it was about her that drove him crazy, but Rowan would never give it up.

Rowan hooked the back of Aelin’s knee over the inside of his elbow, adjusting both of their hips, before pushing into her.

They shared matching moans of pleasure at the sensation. They always fit together perfectly, from the very first stroke.

Aelin arched into him, nails biting into the skin of his shoulder. “ Please fuck me already.”

Rowan scoffed out a small laugh, pressing one last searing kiss to her lips before his mouth moved to the juncture of her neck and shoulder, just where he knew drove her crazy, and started to move.

Rowan took his time with her, drawing out every delicious sound he could from her swollen lips, fucking her exactly the way he knew she loved to be fucked. He was intoxicated by her: her scent, the warmth of her body, the taste of her skin. 

Just… Aelin.

They couldn’t seem to get close enough. Aelin’s arms were wrapped tightly around his shoulders, Rowan’s open hand flat against her back, pressing her as hard against him as possible, feeling every inch of her bare body on his. 

Aelin’s gasps and moans were growing in volume and frequency, telling Rowan she was growing close to her peak. He gripped her hip tighter, thrusting harder, deeper into her. 

Rowan, ” she gasped into his ear, nails raking down his back, no doubt leaving angry, red lines.

He loved it when she said his name in the throes of passion. 

His hand snaked between their bodies, thumb pressing against the apex of her thighs. With that, Aelin came with a cry, tightening around him. Rowan worked her through her high, following her right off the edge, spilling himself inside of her. 

It took them both a few moments to catch their breaths, foreheads pressed against one another’s. When he finally opened his eyes, Aelin was already looking up at him, a smile on her lips.

“I’m thoroughly warm now,” she murmured, brushing a strand of hair from his sweat-glazed forehead. “And I think I’m ready for that shower.”

Rowan shook his head. “If we’re late, I’m pinning it all on you.”

“I’ll deny everything.”

Chapter Text

“Are you sure you can’t see it?”

“I already told you no, Aelin.”

Aelin scowled, trying unsuccessfully to look at her neck where Rowan had left a love bite that morning. She’d had to wear a thick, turtleneck sweater to hide it. At least it was cold and she had an excuse to wear it. Not to mention it looked quite chic paired with the highwaisted, midi-skirt, stockings, and pumps. 

But still.

She was meeting Rowan’s family today, and it would be mortifying if they saw the mark and figured out what, exactly, they had been doing this morning.

Aelin adjusted the collar of her top. “You’re a grown man, Rowan. You can’t keep leaving hickies on me.” 

He smirked. “You weren’t complaining earlier.”

He was right, she hadn’t been. How was she supposed to complain about a hickey when he was giving her everything she ever wanted? 

In the months they had known each other, all those times they had tumbled in the sheets together, they had learned everything that the other liked. It was amazing, and only continued to get better. It was cheesy, but it was almost as if they were made for one another… and such sentiments stretched past their doings in the bedroom. 

Rowan just… got her. Down to her very soul. Every moment she spent with him she cherished, every day was brighter with him at her side. Whether she was doing paperwork, training with Brullo, or lounging in the library in front of the fire… she just wanted him with her. Always.

It had been a little over half a year since they had stumbled into each other at that sleazy club, and in that time, he had worked his way so deeply into her life, he had become irreplaceable. He was her most trusted confidant; she could talk to him about anything and everything without fear of judgement.

Well… almost everything.

There was still that confession pressing against her heart. For the most part, Aelin could ignore it. But there were times when Rowan would do something, look at her in a particular way, and she wanted to scream her feelings to the world.

But she didn’t. 

Aelin fiddled with the waist of her skirt, smoothing the thick fabric. Rowan noticed her fidgeting, and raised a brow.

“If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you’re nervous about meeting my family.”

“Of course I’m nervous!” Aelin snapped, poking him hard in the bicep. “You always talk about how hard to please your uncle is, not to mention you have like, fifty cousins!”

“It’s only fifteen cousins.”

“That’s still an absurd number of cousins! I only have two and haven’t even met one of them! I don’t know what to do with fifteen Rowans!”

Rowan chuckled and shook his head. “You have nothing to worry about. They’re not all like me; you might even get along with them. Besides, you outrank them. Just kick them out if they bother you.”

“You just want peace and quiet.”

“That too.”

Aelin snorted softly, peeking up at the man beside her. “So, how many of them know about the arranged part of this marriage?”

“My uncle Ellys, for sure,” Rowan began. “And he tells my eldest cousin, Enda, just about everything. He’s training him to take his spot one day. And then maybe Enda’s sister, Sellene. But besides them, I’d assume the rest are clueless.”

Aelin nodded thoughtfully, preparing herself for what face she had to put on upon meeting them all, though she hadn’t had to put much thought into her actions lately. Not when it came to pretending to be a couple with Rowan. 

The only thing she had to worry about was how well they knew him. Aelin’s close family and friends had known right away, even without her telling them, that their relationship wasn’t real. Maybe his would too. Aelin was sure, though, that if any of them figured it out Ellys, the uncle who had raised Rowan after his parents’ passing, would put them all in line. He was the patriarch of the family, the one who worked alongside Queen Maeve. Rowan had told her that he was loyal to their queen, and wouldn’t let anyone in his family jeopardize the newfound alliance between Terrasen and Doranelle.

And, of course, there was Maeve herself, who would be arriving the next day.

Aelin had never met the Queen of Doranelle. She had seen photos and videos, read statements, but never had the pleasure of meeting her. She heard Maeve was a cold, no-nonsense woman who wasn’t to be crossed.

Somehow, Aelin was less worried about meeting her than meeting Rowan’s family.

Rowan placed a firm hand on her lower back as they rounded on the door to the sitting room in which Rowan’s family was currently waiting. 

“You ready?” he asked, quirking a brow.

“Always,” Aelin said with a wink.

Rowan made a face as if to say, I wouldn’t be too cocky, before pushing open the door.

Aelin stepped confidently through the threshold, Rowan’s hand a comforting weight against her. She had a wide, bright, charming smile on her face as she glanced over the room. 

It faltered a fraction of an inch when sixteen silver heads turned towards them.

Aelin was shocked at how similar they all looked to one another. Bright, silver hair of various lengths. They were all tall, could be athletes. Hell, maybe some of them were for all she knew. Not to mention they were an unfairly attractive family. 

Lorcan stood out amongst the Whitethorns, with his dark hair and grumpy demeanor. He was speaking with two men who seemed about his age, but looked towards where she stood beside Rowan once he heard them enter. He inclined his head politely in greeting.

The rest of the Whitethorns were scattered around the bright sitting room, sipping on drinks placed out for them. All their gazes turned towards where she and Rowan stood, the conversation fading away almost immediately. The first person Aelin spotted was a well-dressed, older man. He wore a grey three-piece suit, though he had ditched the jacket and draped it over the back on a chair. His facial hair matched the combed back, silver hair on his head. Aelin knew immediately this was Ellys.

There was a beat of all-encompassing silence before it was shattered by an excited squeal.

“Rowan!”

Aelin blinked in surprise as two figures rushed forward and practically tackled her fiancé to the ground as they hugged him. Rowan let out a tiny oof as they collided with his gut, but then a smile softened his lips, and he embraced the two young women back.

“Hey there, you two.”

Aelin got a glimpse of the two as they pulled back, too-wide smiles on both of their faces. They seemed to be close to Aelin’s age, perhaps a year or two younger. They both had similar features: long, silky, pale hair, elegantly round faces and sloped noses, long lashes. They differed mostly in the color of their eyes. The girl on Rowan’s left had the brightest blue eyes Aelin had ever seen, the one on his right had charming, hazel ones. 

“It’s been too long!” one said.

“We missed you!” the other added before turning towards Aelin. “And we’re so excited to meet you , your highness!”

Aelin reacted as quickly as she could as they reached out and each shook her hand. The one with the brown eyes looked at her closely, placing a hand over her heart.

“Gods, you’re even prettier in person!” she sighed.

“Oh-uh, thank you!” said Aelin quickly, trying to catch up with how fast they moved and spoke. It was like meeting a cyclone. 

“Don’t frighten her, guys,” Rowan said, placing a hand on each of their shoulders. He looked down fondly at both of them. “Aelin, there are Ellys’ youngest daughters, Arlene,” a nod to the blue-eyed one. “And Isolde.”

“It’s wonderful to meet you both,” Aelin said earnestly. She could tell Rowan held a special fondness for these two. “I… can’t believe you two are related to Rowan.”

Isolde snorted. “I know. He’s so grumpy, right?”

“I’m sure you’ve managed to see him smile though, haven’t you?” Arlene asked. “It’s not easy, but a few special people can do it.”

Ladies, ” a stern voice, laced with authority spoke up. Aelin looked past the two girls to find Ellys striding towards them, looking disapprovingly at Isolde and Arlene. “You know you’re supposed to curtsy before royalty.”

As if to prove his point, he bowed low at the waist. “Your highness.”

Aelin nodded. “It’s an honor to meet you, but there’s no need to worry about manners, not for Rowan’s family.”

Ellys seemed amused at the sentiment but conceded nevertheless. “As you wish. Allow me to introduce you to House Whitethorn.”

Aelin looked at the crowded room once more, sending a silent prayer to Mala for the strength to remember all of their names.

After a whirlwind thirty minutes and all the brainpower Aelin possessed, she felt as if she had a good understanding of Rowan’s cousins and their places in their lives.

Rowan’s uncle, Ellys, had four children. Enda, the eldest, was a carbon copy of his father. He held himself with the same dignity, power, and propriety. He had some of the most excellent manners Aelin had ever witnessed. 

Ellys’ second eldest was Sellene. She was a tall and elegant woman with a long, lithe body, her silver hair cut in a blunt bob. Aelin thought she could have easily been a model if she wanted to, but learned she instead was a high-powered lawyer. 

The youngest two were Isolde and Arlene. Arlene was older by a year at twenty-one, Isolde the baby. In fact, she was the youngest of all the cousins, a fact she grumbled about not too happily. 

These were the people Rowan had grown up with after he had lost his parents. Aelin could see some resemblances. His uncle and his two oldest children were all a bit on the quiet, thoughtful side, like Rowan. Ellys could be grumpy, especially when it came to his two youngest daughters who seemed to be polar opposites of Sellene and Enda. But Aelin could tell he still loved them immensely. 

Enda and Sellene had been a good deal older when Rowan had come to live with them, but Isolde and Arlene saw him as an older brother. It was sweet, heartwarming, even, to watch the three of them together.

Rowan had been right to say that not all of his cousins were like him. Some were charming and bubbly, others even quieter than he had once been. They had a range of occupations and lifestyles, some working in Doranelle’s palace, others taking a more humble route and becoming teachers. Aelin liked them all.

But Arlene and Isolde seemed to take a special liking towards Aelin. Not that she was complaining. She quickly fell in love with their wits and grins, not to mention they were the Whitethorn cousins closest in age to her. 

Lorcan greeted them, clasping forearms with Rowan. A much more cordial greeting than last time, when they had nearly come to blows because Lorcan failed to warn Rowan about Remelle’s arrival. 

After the initial greeting, many of the cousins, as well as Ellys, went to their rooms to rest a bit after the long journey. Isolde and Arlene, however, were not ready to rest. 

“Would you like to go for lunch?” Aelin asked. “My friends and family should already be there. I can introduce you.”

They quickly agreed to that, happy to see the palace as well as get some food into their stomachs. Lorcan too, agreed to dine with him. Aelin noticed the slight shift in his expression when she mentioned that Elide would be there, leading her to wonder if something had transpired between the two that she was unaware of.

The girls were interested in everything around them, taking in the sights and babbling non-stop, filling Rowan in on everything that had happened with them since he last visited.

“Do you know it’s been a whole year since Rowan visited us?” Arlene asked Aelin, tossing an accusatory glance over at Rowan.

“I did not,” Aelin said, shaking her head playfully at him. “You should do better.”

He rolled his eyes, raising a brow at her as if to say, I can’t believe I have to deal with the three of you now. 

“Do you have a bunch of embarrassing stories about Rowan when he was younger?” Aelin asked the girls. “He’s never told me any and I know that there’s got to be something mortifying.”

Aelin, ” Rowan grumbled warningly.

She thoroughly ignored him, as did the girls.

“Oh, we have so, so many,” Isolde cackled with a wicked smile.

It was then that they arrived at the dining room. Everyone was there, including Elide, Dorian, and Chaol, who had returned to Orynth a few days ago. They wanted some peaceful time together before the halls were flooded with near-strangers. Aelin was glad to have them.

Orlon and Darrow were absent, but they normally took lunch in her uncle’s study, so it wasn’t surprising. 

Aelin introduced the girls to Aedion, Lysandra and their guests. Fenrys, the girls already knew, and were thrilled to see him again. The young lord soaked up their attention happily. Aelin was pretty sure Isolde had a bit of a crush on him, not that she would ever admit to that.

Lorcan took the seat beside Elide, both shooting each other shy glances that were almost too quick to notice, but Aelin did. They were lucky they were so far down the table, or else she would have said something snarky about it. A quick look at Lysandra told the princess that she noticed as well, and was just as bewildered.

The meal was filled with rapid-fire conversation and hearty laughs. 

It was nice, Aelin realized, to have them all here. It was amazing how easily they had all fit in with each other. It was like one big family.

Aelin had always wondered what that would be like, having a large family. Hers had always been small, just her parents, her uncle, Aedion, and Elide from time to time. She loved them all to death, but still, she had wondered how it would feel to have the halls bursting with family members, with raunchy laughter and jokes. She’d thought she would never have that.

But as Aelin looked around the room, she realized her family had been growing without her even noticing. Lysandra and Dorian and Chaol had all become irreplaceable in her life. They were just as much her family as her own flesh and blood.

And now her new friends from Doranelle… Fenrys, who had fit right in as if he had been born in this court, and then Rowan.

Aelin looked to her left, where Rowan sat. He was shaking his head softly at Arlene and Isolde as they animatedly retold a story from their youths. His hand was resting on her thigh, most likely a show for his two younger cousins who believed they were truly in love… though, they couldn’t see the simple touch from where they sat. Nor could anyone. It wasn’t necessary.

But Aelin knew that if he moved his hand, it would disappoint her.

Once they finished lunch, they moved the small party into a cozy parlor. Rowan helped Aelin build a generous fire, filling the room with its warmth and the sound of its crackling. Isolde, Arlene, and Fenrys piled blankets and pillows before the fireplace, settling in. Aelin sat beside Rowan on a snug little loveseat, their sides pressed against one anothers. Lysandra perched herself on Aedion’s lap in a deep armchair. Dorian and Chaol each took a tall barstool, nursing beers. Finally, Elide and Lorcan took the couch.

Wine was poured as they all chatted, sipping, laughing, catching up and getting to know one another. As Aelin indulged in the drink, she found herself leaning deeper and deeper into Rowan’s side. Eventually, she felt him reach out and begin to toy with the ends of her hair. She didn’t know if he was even aware that he was doing it. 

Isolde eventually leaned over the arm of the loveseat, showing Aelin pictures of their youth on her phone. There was one from Isolde’s middle school years, showing a slightly younger Rowan. He was leaner, less muscle, with long hair. 

“Did you wear it in a manbun?” Aelin asked, making Rowan scowl.

Arlene joined, flipping through years of memories.

“Oh, this one is my favorite,” Arlene cooed, flipping the screen for Aelin to see properly. It was a picture of an old photograph, hazy and grainy with age. It showed a chubby baby, a tuft of silver hair on his round head, with familiar pine green eyes. Aelin gaped at it.

“Is that-?”

“Baby Rowan!” Isolde finished for her, reaching out and pinching her cousin’s cheeks. Rowan batted her hands away testily. 

Aelin slapped a hand over her mouth as she took in the photo. It was hard to imagine that the squishy little toddler in the picture had turned into the giant, muscular man at her side. It was hard to believe that Rowan had actually been a baby at some point. She wondered if he’d been scowling since he had popped out of the womb.

“You were so cute,” Aelin said, looking towards Rowan. He tried to look annoyed, but it was clear that his fondness for his two youngest cousins overpowered that emotion.

“He really was,” Arlene agreed. “When are the two of you going to have some kids?”

The blunt question took them by surprise. Rowan choked on his beer while Aelin spewed a mouthful of wine back into her glass, silently thanking the gods there were no judgemental advisors or nobility to see that. Aelin felt her cheeks warm, wiping her mouth as daintily as she could with the back of her hand, before clearing her throat.

“We- uhm, haven’t talked about that yet,” she managed to work out politely, not daring to meet Rowan’s gaze.

There was a beat of tense silence that was shattered when Dorian released a bark of loud laughter, leaning forward in his seat.

“I knew there was a reason we came early,” the prince said, nudging Chaol with his elbow. “How could we miss this?”

“We didn’t mean to pry,” Isolde said apologetically. “We’re just tired of being the youngest ones in the family! And we want a little niece or nephew to spoil!”

“Yeah, Aelin!” Aedion called from across the room. “I want a niece or nephew too!”

“Well so do I!” Aelin exclaimed. “But you don’t see me pressuring you to knock up Lysandra immediately!”

Lysandra hung her head, her curtain of raven hair hiding what was surely a flushed face.

Aelin heard Lorcan scoff out a laugh, the first she had ever heard from him. She didn’t know he was capable of making such a sound. Aelin glanced in his direction, watching as he leaned back on the couch. He clearly didn’t notice her attention, not as he stretched out a casual, yet proprietary arm behind Elide. Aelin clocked their body language, how comfortable they seemed being so close to each other. She noted the small glance Elide cast up at him, the curve to her lips that spoke volumes.

It was then the lightbulb went off in Aelin’s head.

The princess sat bolt upright with a gasp, pointing across the room at the pair. “ You two are fucking!” 

That little smirk on Elide’s face was wiped away at her declaration. Aelin saw her dark eyes grow the size of plates, blood rush up to her cheeks. When she didn’t immediately deny her claim, Aelin knew she was right.

“You’re joking!” Fenrys cried from his spot before the fire. He was gaping at Lorcan, who was sitting there silently and grinding his jaw. “Salvaterre! How the hell did your miserable ass manage to bag Elide?”

“Shut. Up. Fenrys,” Lorcan ground out, glaring daggers at the young lord. 

“How long has this been going on?” Lysandra demanded, raising an impatient brow at Elide.

“I’d rather not talk about this now,” Elide replied, taking a tiny, prim sip of her wine. 

“Don’t you all have any shame?” Chaol asked. “All you guys talk about is sex.”

“No need to be embarrassed if you’re not getting any,” Aelin said with a tiny shrug. “There will be a lot of pretty ladies at the wedding.”

“Chaol has a girlfriend,” Dorian announced. “She’s a doctor.”

“What?!” Aelin cried. “Why didn’t you tell me? Why isn’t she here?”

“Because you all are terrible,” Chaol mumbled. “Not to mention I don’t think you would have room for my plus-one at this wedding.”

Aelin supposed he was right. They already had an insane amount of guests there, the palace was a near-capacity. 

“Fair point, but you have to bring her to visit!” Aelin concluded before swinging her gaze back to Elide and narrowing her eyes at her. “And you’re not in the clear yet, missy. I’m expecting an explanation sometime soon.”

Elide rolled her eyes, but Aelin noted the happy gleam in them. Whatever was going on between her and Lorcan, it was good. For that reason, she wouldn’t be maiming Salvaterre anytime soon.

Isolde and Arlene shared a laugh. “At least we know it’s never boring with you guys.”

Eventually, the night grew late and everyone retired to their rooms for the evening. Rowan said goodnight to Arlene and Isolde, who made him promise that their other cousins wouldn’t get all of his attention for the rest of the week.

Seeing the girls again had been good. Rowan had grown up with them, bandaged scraped knees, glowered at the boys who wanted to take them out when they were in their teen years. Spending time with them again brought him back to his youth.

Rowan knew he should have made more of an effort to spend more time with them. He left for college, met Lyria, joined the air force, and never looked back. Even after losing Lyria, Arlene and Isolde had been the first to reach out with sympathy. Rowan now felt ill with guilt as he remembered how he had ignored their efforts.

It was well over a year after Lyria’s death that Rowan finally saw his family again, but it had been so different. Losing the woman he loved had changed him, made him a stranger to the people he had known almost the entirety of his life. Rowan had seen how they looked at him: the pity, the sorrow. He couldn’t take it, so he visited less and less.

But today had been good. Great, even. They had gotten nearly back to the same dynamic as in their youths, or as close as they could get with everything that Rowan had endured in the recent years. It gave him hope. 

Maybe things could get better.

Rowan walked beside Aelin, heading back to her room for the evening. 

“Isolde and Arlene are a hoot,” the princess said with a tiny laugh. “I know the three of us are going to have fun this week. I can’t wait to hear about teenage Rowan and all the nonsense you got up to.”

Rowan snorted softly. “I didn’t get up to a lot of nonsense as a teenager. My uncle made it quite difficult.”

“Really? No sneaking out to meet with one of your many young, girly admirers from highschool?”

“I didn't have many girly admirers in highschool. I didn’t know how to talk to girls then.”

“You’re joking,” Aelin said, eyes growing wide. “Seriously. You must be joking.”

“Nope.”

“Did you hit a late growth spurt? Bad haircut? B.O?”

“No. Just shy.”

“Wow. Just...wow,” Aelin shook her head softly before smirking. “That means the girls are going to have even more embarrassing stories!” she paused, a contemplative look crossing over her face before looking up towards him. “Do you think we should tell them the truth? That this is arranged?”

Rowan sighed. He had pondered the same thing earlier. “As much as I love them, those girls are the biggest gossips I’ve ever met. So, unless you want the entire world to know by tomorrow afternoon, we shouldn’t. Not to mention they’re romantics. It would break their hearts.”

And it truly would. They loved fairytales and happy endings, had constantly tried to get him a girlfriend even when he had no interest in such. Arlene and Isolde had been so excited when they had found out he proposed to Lyria, had practically immediately started to plan their wedding. 

He could only imagine what they had been thinking when they heard about his engagement to Aelin, that he had managed to find love and happiness again even after hardship, with a beautiful princess nonetheless. It was just like a perfect ending to one of those stories they had loved so much.

Maybe they would take a dramatic, tragic sort of pleasure in the fact that Rowan had still come to care for Aelin, even if the way they had come together wasn’t in the least bit romantic. It would be nice to tell them everything, to explain his conflictions. Maybe the girls would have some solution or bit of wisdom they had gathered in their years of reading romance novels that would answer all his questions.

It was foolish, just wishful thinking.

But Rowan wished he knew what to do.

They came upon the door to her room, slowing to a stop. Aelin turned to him, pressing her back against the aged oak of the door, a vixen’s smile on her lips. She reached out, coyly draping her arms over his shoulder, nimble fingers threading through the hair on the back of his head. Rowan relished the sensation.

“You know,” she drawled. “You could always go back to your room and sneak over to mine. With all your family here, you can finally do those naughty little things you missed out on in your teenage years.”

Rowan chuckled, leaning forward until his lips were nearly brushing hers. “I have no desire to relive my teen years. You know why?”

“Why?”

His hand drifted lower until it brushed against her ass, and he heard her gasp softly at the sensation. When he spoke, it was barely more than a rasp.

“Because when I don’t have to worry about sneaking around, I can fuck you whenever I want.”

Aelin let loose a small, delicious moan, tilting her head back and exposing the length of her throat. “That was hot as hell. Now you better live up to it.”

And so he did.

Chapter Text

Maeve was arriving today.

Holy gods. Queen Maeve of Doranelle was arriving in Orynth today.

It wasn’t as if Aelin hadn’t met other royalty before. She had on a handful of occasions, and had always handled it perfectly. But there was something about Maeve that made her nervous. 

She had heard plenty about the queen from across the sea. That she was cold and cunning, a bit of a bitch. No one had said that explicitly, but it had definitely been more than implied. 

And now Aelin was going to meet her.

Some tiny part of Aelin wondered what Maeve thought of her. She knew the queen deemed her a proper bride for her nephew, but she wondered what else she thought. Aelin knew it didn’t truly matter; Rowan wasn’t close with the queen and held little love for her. She shouldn’t care about her opinion.

But that stupid part of her still did.

Aelin had dressed more formally than normal. It wasn’t every day that she met someone of a higher station than herself. Lysandra picked out a lovely dress of Terrasen green, made with fine, structured satin. The sleeves were long, the hem hitting just at her knees. The modesty was offset by the vee of the neckline. A silver pearl necklace and matching earrings completed the look. 

“You can stop fidgeting,” Rowan murmured from beside her. “You look beautiful.”

Aelin stopped messing with her hair, ducking her face slightly in hopes of hiding the flush his compliment brought to her cheeks. If only he knew the effects his words had on her. Most of the time, when men gave her frilly compliments, Aelin was unaffected, smiling politely and thanking them. But Rowan… she supposed that when you cared for someone, you took their words to heart. 

“Thank you,” Aelin murmured, smoothing her skirts. 

They were lingering in a greeting room. Orlon was there alongside Darrow and Aedion. Ellys, Enda and Sellene were all there to greet their queen as well. 

Thankfully, Aelin didn’t have to sit there stewing in her own nervousness for much longer. There was the sound of purposeful strides and heeled feet hitting the marble floor. Her heart began to beat in rhythm to the clicks.

Aelin sucked down one last breath just as the doorknob turned, and in walked one of the most striking women she had ever seen.

Maeve Adair was breathtakingly beautiful. Creamy, perfect skin that could have been sculpted out of ivory. She had strong bone structure, high cheekbones and a sharp jawline. Stunning. She could have been a screen actress with a face like that. Her hair was long, straight and gleaming, still holding a rich darkness despite her age, save for a thin streak of silver in the front. 

She was donned in an immaculately tailored dress of a violet so dark it was nearly black, highlighting the lean lines of her body. 

Maeve paused, casting an assessing, cool look over the room. Her lips, painted a deep red, curled into a tiny smirk.

“Welcome, Maeve,” Orlon boomed in greeting, striding forward to greet the queen. He reached out before giving her hand a firm shake. “We’re happy to welcome you to Orynth.”

“Happy to be here, Orlon,” Maeve drawled, her voice deep and rich. “It’s so… quaint.”

Aelin refrained from rolling her eyes at the statement. 

Darrow and Aedion bowed their greeting until Maeve gave a dip of her chin, politely dismissing them. Then, Ellys, Sellene, and Enda, stepped up. Rowan’s uncle gave a deep bow before shaking her hand. They worked closely enough that it wasn’t unusual. 

And then, that left Aelin and Rowan.

As one, they took a long stride forward until they stood before the queen. Aelin met her gaze for a heartbeat, holding it steadily, before dipping into a deep curtsy as Rowan bent at the waist beside her.

“It’s an honor to meet you, your majesty,” Aelin said as she rose. “Welcome to Terrasen.”

Maeve looked her up and down, but Aelin didn’t shy away, holding her head up a tad bit higher. Maeve’s dark eyes finally met hers, raising a sculpted brow.

“It’s a pleasure to meet you as well, princess,” she responded. “You’re even lovelier in person.”

Aelin bowed her head. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”

Maeve blinked slowly before looking towards Rowan. “Nephew. You’re looking well.”

“Feeling well. It’s nice to see you again.”

Maeve released a short, nearly-laugh through her nose, as if she could see right through Rowan’s pleasant, diplomatic words. Her eyes swept back and forth between them a handful of times.

“Regardless of how this engagement came to be,” the queen began, “you two do make a charming couple.”

Maeve didn’t bother waiting for either of their responses, brushing past them and striding away, clearly having more interesting things to do. She turned towards the king. “Orlon. Let’s talk business.”

Aelin blinked once, as much surprise as she would let herself display. She looked up towards Rowan, sharing a small, secret laugh. The prince raised his brows, as if to say, See? That wasn’t so bad.

No, she supposed it wasn’t. Aelin knew she could handle anything if she had Rowan at her side.

The rest of the week flew by in a blink.

Rowan was kept busy day and night, greeting guests, spending time with his family, or hiding away with Aelin in an attempt to avoid them. 

He didn’t get to spend as much time with her as he had been, forced to share her with the guests and her family. For an entire day, she was stolen away by her female friends for a so-called “girls’ day”. He was surprisingly disappointed to not see her all day. But, when he saw her again, she was flushed with happiness. And, she had returned with an explanation about Lorcan and Elide.

Apparently, they had hooked up all the way back at Aelin’s birthday party, and had liked each other so much they kept in contact. Lorcan had even visited Perranth a handful of times since then. 

“They’re dating,” Aelin declared, lounging across his bed and picking her way through a box of chocolates someone had given her as an engagement gift. “Elide didn’t say anything because she didn’t know how it was going to turn out, and she knew you and Lorcan were friends and didn’t want to make anything awkward in the future.”

“A valiant sacrifice,” Rowan said.

Aelin narrowed her eyes at him. “I’m still pissed that she didn’t tell me. But I can tell they’re totally in love. It’s just a race between them and Lysandra and Aedion to see who gets hitched next.”

The idea of Lorcan married was comical enough. His friend wasn’t built for domestic life, but… there had been a time when Rowan never thought he would be married himself. Then he met Lyria, lost her, and swore off love all together.

And then there was Aelin.

For a brief moment, Rowan let himself wonder what it would have been like if they had met under different circumstances. If they were normal people, happy people, living simple lives. Would fate have brought them together then? Would they have begun with the same rocky start, or would it have been easier? 

Maybe they would have clicked right away, and Aelin would have instantly ensnared him with her charms. It wouldn’t be long after that Rowan would have asked her on a date. Started off simple for the first, maybe just a dinner, but he would have found somewhere different, something that would impress her. Somewhere beautiful.

They would have a wonderful time and wouldn’t want the night to end. They would already be making plans to see each other again. 

And then maybe it would have been good from there. They would have kept going out, would have eventually gone steady, fallen in love, moved in together. Maybe he would have proposed on his own terms; they would have gotten married, and then lived a long, happy life.

But that wasn’t the hand they had been dealt. 

They weren’t a happy, normal couple. They had been forced together because of money and politics and bad decisions. Their first interaction, before they had even known who the other was, was fueled by bitterness, sorrow, and contempt at their situation. They had been cursed from the beginning. 

Or, maybe just Rowan had. 

To be stuck in an engagement with a woman who had enraged him just as much as she enraptured him. To give into his lust and yet be terrified to face his emotions, to risk seeing that his feelings weren’t returned, to ruin a life-long relationship before it even started. But as Rowan looked towards Aelin, he knew the true depths of what he felt, finally able to admit it to himself. 

Regardless of how he felt about the princess, or how she felt about him, the wedding was tomorrow.

The palace was stuffed with guests and decorators, preparing the temple on the palace grounds for the ceremony, and the largest ballroom for cocktailing and the reception. Rowan tagged along with Aelin for the day, even though they were insanely busy. The decorators and designers wanted their approval on the final looks, if they wanted to change where they placed the flowers, or what bows to wrap around the centerpieces. It was thoroughly exhausting, and Rowan knew Aelin shared his relief when they were finally freed.

“It looks good, doesn’t it?” Aelin asked from beside him, casting a sweeping glance over the temple.

It truly did. There were rows upon rows of pews, elegant, white flower arrangements at the end of each, framing the aisle. There was a fine carpet of Terrasen green stretching from the grand double doors to the altar. There were blooms of Kingsflame decorating the altar, framing the spot in which they would be standing when they swore their vows. The crest of the Galathynius house would hang from a grand banner over their heads. There were statues of their gods and goddesses between the towering, ancient columns that lined the temple.  

It was still hard to believe that he would actually be married by this time tomorrow.

“It looks wonderful,” Rowan agreed. “It seems all those hours of torture were worth it.”

Aelin snorted. “I suppose. It was still hell though.”

He glanced at the princess out of the corner of his eye, raising a brow. “Are you still staying traditional and refusing to show me the dress?”

“Yup. I figured I should keep some sort of tradition, considering I kinda threw the whole waiting until marriage thing out the window. Many times.”

“Heathen,” Rowan teased.

“You didn’t seem to mind my heathenism last night when I sucked your di-”

Aelin!” Rowan hissed, lunging forward and slapping a hand over her wicked mouth. He narrowed his eyes. “We are in a temple!”

She snorted, yanking his hand off her face. “Yeah, and I’m sure Mala would be perfectly happy that we’re getting some!”

“I was wrong. You’re not a heathen. Heathen isn’t a strong enough word for you.”

Aelin tossed her head back in a bright laugh. She reached forward and grabbed his arm, pressing herself to his side and gently guiding him from the temple. Rowan relished the feeling of having her so close, of knowing that she was comfortable enough to show these displays of affection even when they weren’t performing for a crowd. 

Aelin looked up at him, the smile on her face bright enough to light the entire day, before saying, “There aren’t words in the Common Tongue to properly describe me, Prince.”

There was a large, grand feast that evening; every guest that had come to Orynth for the wedding sat at the long dinner table. Rowan had wondered if he would be too nervous to eat tonight, but he wasn't. He was content surrounded by his family and friends. Some were old friends, like Lorcan and Fenrys, and others new. Aelin’s blooming court had all made themselves a regular and welcomed part of his life.

Rowan enjoyed the meal, speaking and laughing with Aelin and his cousins. It was strange to see Maeve and his uncle in Orynth’s halls. All of Rowan’s memories of the two of them included him being bored and quiet and uncomfortable. It must have been a shock for them to be thrust into the ruckus and warmth of Terrasen.

Once the plates had been cleared away, they all moved to the cocktails.

Aelin was immediately commandeered by Arlene and Isolde and some of the other ladies, hanging around and laughing amongst themselves. 

Rowan hung around in the corners with his companions. Fenrys was teasing Lorcan about his blossoming relationship with Elide while Aedion contemplated the next date he should take Lysandra out on. 

Eventually, Rowan wandered away from the little group to get a refill on his drink. He wanted to take it easy on the booze, not wanting to wake up with a hangover on the day he was supposed to be married. He got himself another glass of whiskey, but before he could retreat back to his friends, he was intercepted by others.

“So,” Enda said, striding up towards him with Sellene. “Are you ready for tomorrow?”

Rowan sucked down a deep breath. “I have to be.”

“How are you feeling?” Sellene asked earnestly, placing a soft hand on his shoulder. “Truthfully.”

Rowan took a tiny sip of his whiskey, scoring himself a few moments to compose himself before answering. “Truthfully? I thought I would be miserable right about now. But, I’m not. Not really.”

“It’s good to see that you two get along,” Enda said. “I worried that you two would tear each other apart before you managed to get hitched.”

“Almost did at the beginning, but we’re friends now. I think it’s going to be okay.”

“Friends, huh?” Sellene asked, raising a brow. “I would say more like good friends. Good friends with a beautiful princess, who you also happen to be sleeping with.”

Rowan’s brows furrowed. “How the hell could you possibly know that?”

“I know everything,” Sellene said. “Also, you left a huge hickey on her neck the first day we met. And I’m not stupid.”

“A strange arrangement, but I’m assuming it works for the two of you,” Enda commented. 

He was right, of course. It was a strange arrangement, but it had been working. He could only hope that their impending union wouldn’t too drastically change their dynamic. 

“Rowan…” Enda murmured, taking a step closer. His face was serious, eyes searching him carefully. “There’s more between you and this girl than an arrangement, isn’t there?”

He carefully schooled his face. “I don’t know what you mean.”

“Come on, Ro,” Sellene whispered, head tilted to the side. “The way you look at her… you care for Aelin, don’t you? Beyond friendship and lust. It’s clear.”

Rowan didn’t respond immediately, eyes seeking out a familiar golden-blonde head in the crowd. He found her almost instantly, her side towards him, giving her the perfect view of her elegant profile. She tossed her head back, laughing at something one of her friends had said. Gods, was she stunning.

Rowan knew there was nothing he wouldn’t do for her. Challenge the gods, move the heavens. If she wanted it, it would be done. 

He wanted to make her happy every day, to provide for her, to be the cause of that beautiful smile. And on the days that she was hurting or upset, he wanted to be the first one at her side, the one who she turned to. He wanted to support her, to dry her tears when needed, to hold her as she fell asleep, and wake up tangled in her embrace.

Care for her wasn’t strong enough to describe how he felt about Aelin.

“Yes,” Rowan eventually rasped out. “I do.”

“You have feelings for the princess?” Enda asked.

Rowan shook his head, eyes still glued on Aelin. His throat tightened before he swallowed hard. “No,” he said. “I’m in love with her.”

The moment the words left his lips, it instantly felt as though a momentous weight was lifted off his chest.

For too long, he had known the depths of his feelings and had shoved them so deep inside of himself that they had never seen the light of day. He hadn’t even realized how much the pressure had built up until it was released.

Because he was in love with her.

Completely, utterly, in love with Aelin Galathynius.

“Does she know?” Sellene asked gently.

“No. I haven’t told her anything, at least.”

“Do you think she feels the same?”

Rowan screwed his eyes shut and dragged a hand down his face in frustration. “I have no idea.”

There were a few moments of smothering silence. It was simply torturous, to stew there under the weight of his confession, to look towards Aelin and feel as if the short distance were a canyon. She was close, and yet perpetually out of his reach. How much longer would he be able to pretend that it didn’t kill him?

“Are you going to tell her?” Sellene eventually asked, punching a shocking hole right through the thick silence.

“What good will that do?” Rowan sighed. “The wedding is tomorrow. I don’t want to fuck this all up now.”

“What if something… good comes out of it?” Enda suggested. “What if she feels the same?”

Gods, that was a big if. He had never even considered what it would mean if his feelings were returned. If things were normal, they could start dating. But no. They were getting married tomorrow, no matter what. There was absolutely nothing on the earth that would stop that. 

“I just-” Rowan started before screwing his eyes shut and pinching the bridge of his nose. “I just don’t know.”

He hated that there was a mix of pity and sympathy on his cousins’ faces. Maybe it would have been better just to keep his sentiments to himself, if only to spare himself from their penetrating gazes.

“You’ll know what to do, Rowan,” Enda said gently. “And whatever comes out of it, you know you’ll have us there for you.”

And although Rowan appreciated the sentiment, he couldn’t make himself respond. All he could do was look towards Aelin, feel that ache deep in his chest, and hope an answer would reveal itself to him.

Soon.

Aelin had wondered if she was going to be terrified by this point.

When she had first learned she was going to be married to a stranger, she figured that by this point, she would be hunched over a toilet and spewing out her guts, hydrating only with some wine she would probably be drinking right out of the bottle. 

But little did she know how close she would become with Prince Rowan Whitethorn. 

In the two seasons she had known him, he had made himself indispensable in her life. 

She had grown to be excited to see him everyday, to enjoy every second they spent together. He had become one of her closest friends, one of the few people to whom she told everything, and probably the person who understood her the best.

The gods had truly been kind to her by giving her Rowan. Her future husband could have been plenty of lords or heirs or princes, but she had gotten Rowan. Rowan, who treated her kindly, who listened to her, who would always be there when she needed him. 

Aelin had been worried that her engagement would change her life.

Little had she known that it would change her life for the better. 

The evening was nice, spending time with her friends and family, drinking and laughing. It had all been wonderful. Aelin had been hanging with her female friends. It began with all of them, Elide, Lysandra, Arlene and Isolde. 

However, as the evening wore on, some of them started to be stolen away by their male companions. Aedion covertly swiped Lysandra away to go on a walk through the gardens. Lorcan and Elide slunk away to curl up on a seat in the corner, leaving Aelin alone with the girls.

“Have you two talked about a honeymoon yet?” Arlene asked.

“No, not really,” Aelin said. “Planning the wedding has been so hectic. We might just skip over the honeymoon all together.”

“What! No way!” Isolde exclaimed. “You two deserve it! Somewhere warm and tropical. It’s too damn cold here.”

Aelin chuckled softly. She was right, of course. It was freezing in Terrasen during mid-autumn. The first snows were close; Aelin could practically feel it in her bones. A lifetime in the north gave her the ability to sense the oncoming frost.

“I must say, I’m so excited for tomorrow!” Isolde continued. “I’m so happy for you and Rowan. You’ve been so good for him.”

Aelin glanced down at her wine, feigning a sort of bashfulness. “Well, we’ve been good for eachother.”

“No, you don’t understand,” Arlene said, reaching out and placing a hand on Aelin’s forearm. She was surprised by the way her eyes bore into her own, as if the girl was searching her very soul.

“Before Rowan lost Lyria…” Isolde jumped in gently. “He was very different than he was when you two met. Don’t get me wrong, he wasn’t bubbly or a social butterfly, still a bit grumpy… but he smiled and laughed more, had fun.”

“And after Lyria died… it was like we didn’t know him anymore.”

Aelin felt her heart wrench in her chest at their tone and the look on their faces. It was clearly sorrow, heartbreak for the cousin they had grown up with. She had known that Rowan had struggled after Lyria, but she had never heard the experience from the outside, what it had been like to watch Rowan in pain. Gods, Aelin knew it would have wrecked her.

“But now,” Arlene said, turning towards Aelin with a grin. “It’s almost like he’s back to his old self. He’s… lighter than I’ve seen him in years.”

“And the way he looks at you…” Isolde sighed. “It’s the same way he looked at Lyria. We didn’t know if he would ever look at someone like that again. But then you came along. He is so in love with you, Aelin.”

Just like that, Aelin was rendered speechless.

She had never even considered the L-word until now, hadn’t even thought of it. And then here she was, with it thrown right in her face.

Love? 

No, it couldn’t be. They were pretending, had been since day one. What the girls were perceiving was nothing more than a few months of practice acting like they were in a relationship. 

There was no way that Rowan looked at her the same way he had looked at Lyria. She had been the love of his life, had been the woman he had willingly proposed to, was about to start a family with. Aelin… she was the woman he had ended up with. The first time they had met, it was clear what their intentions had been: one night of sex, and then leave each other’s lives for good. But, through some strange twist of fate, they had met again.

He had never considered her romantically, so it couldn’t be love.

Aelin looked across the room, finding Rowan standing with Enda and Sellene.

She knew clearly how she felt about the silver-haired prince. There was no question about it.

The only question was if love would make things easier, or decidedly more complicated.

As the evening wore on, Aelin knew she couldn’t spend the entire time with her friends. She had to make her rounds, to greet guests and make small-talk, suffer through the same spiel of congratulations and praises that was quickly growing tiresome.

At some point, she and Rowan had found themselves side by side again as they socialized. Aelin managed to keep the thoughts of her conversation with Arlene and Isolde to a minimum. She knew that if she focused too much on the L-word she would drive herself insane by the end of the night. 

But, something else had caught her attention.

Rowan.

Or, rather, the way Rowan was acting.

Maybe other people wouldn’t notice the change in his behavior, but Aelin saw it clear as day. He was stiff as a board beside her, seizing up whenever she would brush her shoulder against his or place a hand on his arm. He barely even looked at her.

It hurt. Far more than Aelin cared to admit.

She didn’t know what had caused such a sudden and drastic shift in his demeanor. Everything had been fine earlier that day, laughing, joking, throwing in a casual touch or two. And now… he was acting as if she were a stranger again.

Maybe it was the nerves finally kicking into gear. Maybe everything had just hit him suddenly and he was doing his best to deal with it. 

Hell, maybe he was trying to concoct an escape plan before he had to be at the temple tomorrow morning. The thing that pissed Aelin off the most was that she had no idea what it could be. They had bared their souls to one another and yet in the moment, Aelin was clueless. 

She managed to make her way through all of the greetings and conversations that she needed to. She expected that there would be another guest lingering somewhere, ready to pounce on them, but was pleasantly surprised that they were left alone for a moment. She sent a silent thanks to the gods for that.

Aelin released a deep breath, glancing up at Rowan. She noted the clench to his jaw, just how tightly he was holding his glass. She cast a quick look around, to ensure that they weren’t about to get snuck up on. When she deemed them safe, Aelin turned and planted herself before the prince.

“Ro…” she murmured softly, tugging his gaze towards hers. Instantly, she could see something was paining him. She risked reaching out and placing her hand on his arm. “What’s wrong?”

Aelin saw his throat bob as he swallowed hard. “It’s… nothing.”

Bullshit,” Aelin hissed, quietly enough to not be overheard. “You’ve been acting weird all night. Did something happen? Did I do something wrong?”

“No, Aelin, gods no. It’s just-” Rowan cut himself off with a heavy sigh, dragging a hand down his face in exasperation. He knocked back the rest of the amber liquid in his glass, green eyes searching the room before landing back on her again. “Can we talk? Somewhere a bit more private?”

She was surprised by the tone of his voice. It was rather serious, grave, almost. Aelin nodded slowly. “Yeah. Of course.”

Rowan disposed of his glass before reaching down and grabbing her hand. He held it firmly as he carefully guided her through the room, both of them trying their best to avoid meeting others’ gazes. It was easier now that the party had started to die down for the night. It was practically over now, mostly just Aelin’s friends and family lingering and lounging.

They swept from the ballroom. It seemed that when Rowan wanted privacy, he meant it. He walked her a good distance down the hall until they found a quiet, empty corner. It seemed he deemed it adequate, slowing to a stop and planting himself in front of Aelin.

Rowan’s eyes were a fraction of an inch wider than they normally were, perhaps the only thing that gave away his confliction.

“Are you sure you’re alright?” Aelin asked again. “Is it the wedding? Your uncle? Did Aedion say something stupid?”

“It’s none of that Aelin,” he assured her quickly, but didn’t continue. Either not having the words, or not being ready to say them. 

So, she bit the bullet and began to speak. 

“You can tell me anything, Rowan,” Aelin urged. 

Still, he didn’t say anything, eyes skipping down to his shoes. Aelin felt her throat tighten up. She wanted him to be comfortable telling her anything, and in the past, he had been. The only reason she could fathom his lack of words was that whatever he had to say would hurt her. 

“I know that this wedding isn’t exactly what either of us wanted,” Aelin rasped. She hated that her eyes burnt. “I understand if you really can’t stomach doing it. We can figure something out now, get you out of the palace if you need-”

Aelin,” Rowan interrupted firmly, taking a step closer. “It’s not the wedding. I swear.”

“What is it then?”

“It’s you.”

Aelin blinked and flinched back at his words. They weren’t cruel or accusatory, but the idea that she was the source of his confliction was a bit of a slap to the face.

“Did I do something?” she dared to ask. “Did someone say something?”

“No, no,” Rowan’s sighed, eyes screwing shut in frustration. “It’s just…” His eyes opened and met hers. There was something powerful in their depths, something that took her breath away. “Aelin, it’s that I… want you.”

She raised a brow. “You want me? Listen Rowan, if you want to have sex our wedding night is tomorrow and-”

Aelin!” 

Her mouth instantly snapped shut at his voice, when he stepped into her space and cradled her face in his hands. Aelin’s breath hitched in her throat at his closeness, at the way his eyes bore into hers so deeply. His thumbs began to skim soothing circles on the skin of her cheekbones, and it took everything in her to not let her eyes flutter shut at the comforting sensation. 

“Aelin Galathynius…” Rowan whispered, her name falling so tenderly from his lips. He looked at her intently for a few more heartbeats, not even daring to blink. She wondered what could be so difficult to get out that it was taking this long, but her questions were more than answered by his next utterance. 

I am in love with you.”

Aelin didn’t even have the opportunity to try and stop the tiny gasp that escaped her before it had already gone. For a moment, she was sure that she had misheard him, because that couldn’t be right. Rowan couldn’t love her. 

Yet there was nothing but sincerity on his handsome face. Yet in his eyes there was vulnerability and fear. Of course he would be frightened after dropping that bomb. Because he had placed a dagger in Aelin’s hand and now stood with his heart bared, giving her the power to drive it home with a few words.

But Aelin was dumb-struck. Her mind was whirling so fast that it was practically blank, not giving her a moment to gather her thoughts. All she could do was stare at the man she was supposed to marry tomorrow, the man who had just confessed his love to her. 

Aelin always knew what to say. She was eloquent and intelligent and well-read, always had something witty or snide up her sleeve and yet, for the first time in her life, Aelin couldn’t even force words to her lips.

“I… I-” Aelin stuttered uselessly, mouth opening and closing without forming any meaningful words. At least the sound of her pounding heart drowned out the silence that would have been there instead.

Rowan released a short, shaking breath. She knew her silence was hurting him, could practically see his heart breaking through his eyes.

Aelin swallowed hard before finally finding the strength to summon her voice. “Rowan, I-”

“There you two are!”

Rowan dropped her face and took a step back at the sound of Arlene’s voice. She followed his gaze over her shoulder, finding the two girls striding their way with huge smiles. Aelin quickly swiped at her face, hoping to eradicate any signs of her turmoil before looking back at them and forcing a grin of her own.

“Of course you two would sneak off,” Isolde chastised. “Party’s over, time to go your separate ways until tomorrow!”

Right. Aelin had forgotten about that little tradition. Damn, had they come at a bad time.

“Yes, of course,” Aelin said. “But we were kinda in the middle of something and-”

“There will be plenty of time for romancing each other later,” Arlene said, taking Aelin’s hand and tugging her off to the side. “I know Rowan will be able to survive the night by himself, but we’re gonna stay with you!”

Aelin didn’t even have time to argue, nor did she think it would have done any good. She was stubborn, she knew, but with Arlene and Isolde together, there was no way that she would win. 

“We’ll see you tomorrow morning, Rowan!” Isolde tossed back at her cousin, sharing a tiny laugh with her sister.

With a girl on either side of her, Aelin couldn’t turn back even if she wanted. All she managed to do was cast one last look over her shoulder, meeting Rowan’s eyes. The look on his face knocked the air from her lungs. It was nothing short of devastated. 

And it was all her fault. 

Rowan had revealed his heart to her, and because of her incompetence, she had managed to rip it out with her bare hands.

Oh gods. 

What the hell had she done? What the hell was she going to do?

Chapter Text

Rowan relied almost entirely on muscle memory to make his way through the halls. He felt like he had been torn from his body and then unceremoniously shoved back in. Everything just felt a little bit wrong. 

He still couldn’t believe what he had done. He was sure it was because of what his cousins had said to him. If it hadn’t been for Enda and Sellene, he probably wouldn’t have said anything. And yet they had gotten right into his head.

He had told Aelin he was in love with her. And she had said nothing. Just stood there and gaped at him.

He should have just listened to his gut and kept his emotions to himself, even if it killed him. There was no way she returned his sentiments, not with the way she had reacted. He would never forget that look on her face, the size of her eyes, the parting of her lips. She had been a deer in headlights. 

Of course he would fuck everything up the day before the wedding. Gods, was he an idiot.

Rowan was thankful when the door to his suite was within his sight, but less thankful when he saw it cracked open and heard a steady murmur of voices streaming from inside. He took a moment to brace himself before stepping in.

It seemed his companions had decided to move the after-party into his rooms. Fenrys, Lorcan, and Aedion were sprawled across the sitting area, working their way through a bottle of something that Rowan couldn’t be bothered to identify.

Fenrys was the first one to notice him. He grinned widely, already grabbing an empty glass and filling it up for him.

“There he is!” he said. “We figured you’d come back alone after the girls said they were separating you and Aelin for the night.”

Rowan didn’t say anything as he took the drink from Fenrys, trying to ignore how the sound of Aelin’s name practically stung. 

“What the hell is wrong with you?” grumbled Lorcan from his spot deep in his armchair. “You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”

Rowan knew he could easily brush their concern off, make up a little white lie, but it seemed that it was the night of speaking truths, so he didn’t hold back.

“I told Aelin I’m in love with her.”

Aedion choked on his drink violently, doubling over in his seat as he coughed a lung up. Fenrys simply gawked at him while Lorcan’s eyes simply grew wide. For him, that was positively dramatic. 

“You told her that you’re in love with her or you are in love with her?” Aedion asked as soon as he managed to control his breathing.

“Both.”

It seemed that was all it took to put a damper on the once-lively atmosphere in the room. Rowan dared to look towards his friends, to see what their reactions were. In general, they simply seemed shocked and bewildered. 

“Oh… wow, ” Fenrys eventually said at length. He dragged a hand down his face. “I mean, I know you two have been banging-”

Dude!” Aedion hissed in disgust.

The young lord kept going. “But I didn’t know it went that far. How long have you known?”

“A couple months maybe?” Rowan breathed, running a hand through his hair. He slowly circled the seating area and plopped down. “It just kinda snuck up on me, I guess.”

“Did she say anything back?” Lorcan asked, leaning forward and resting his elbows on his knees.

“No. Nothing. The girls swept her away before, but… to be honest, I don’t know if she would have said anything anyway,” Rowan admitted. “I told her and she stood there silently and just looked at me. I have no idea what she was thinking.”

“Listen, man,” Aedion said. “I can’t read Aelin’s mind, and I can’t tell you what she was thinking when you told her. But I can tell that she really cares for you. You’ve made her really happy since you’ve arrived. Just… give her time.”

He supposed the young prince was right. Aedion was the one who had known Aelin the best, the longest. Rowan had, to be fair, sprung it on her out of the blue. He clearly wasn’t the best communicator. Maybe if he had done it differently, planned out his words better, there would have been a different result.

Rowan finished what he had left in his glass in one gulp and slumped back in his seat, praying to any god that would listen that he hadn’t fucked things up beyond repair.

Aelin slept fitfully that night. 

Her mind was a hurricane, playing Rowan’s words over and over again, picking through every syllable relentlessly. 

Arlene and Isolde had acted as sentries, teasing that she and Rowan shouldn’t sneak away to see each other the night before the wedding, that it would bring bad luck. They were rather superstitious, those two. 

Aelin didn’t know if their presence was a blessing or a curse. Mainly because she was conflicted as to whether she wanted to see Rowan and talk with him, or avoid him until the last possible minute. 

Aelin spent the night bemoaning the absurdity of her situation. The gods must have been having a good laugh at her expense. Everything with Rowan was so backwards, even from the beginning. Starting with what was supposed to be a one-night stand, then an arranged marriage, a few weeks of hating one another, a timid friendship, casual sex, growing feelings, and now… Rowan tells her that he loves her the day before the wedding. 

Most women would like to know that their future husband loved them, but their situation was a bit different. 

And gods was she an asshole for leaving him hanging like that. Aelin had frozen up when confronted with the truth. It had just been so sudden and unexpected.

Not to mention, Aelin had never gotten the chance to tell a man that she loved him before.

She had been in love with Sam. Deeply, unconditionally, and yet she had made the same mistake. Sam had told her he loved her, and she had gone mute. Because of her damned incompetence, Sam had died without knowing just how deeply in love she was.

Aelin had never even tasted the words on her lips. I’m in love with you. It was a beautiful statement, deeply meaningful. All Aelin could do was hope that she would be able to get it out, if she ever got to that point.

Aelin knew how she felt about Rowan, had known for a while, but never thought she would reach the point where she had to admit it aloud. 

When the morning thankfully arrived, so did a small army of women to help her prepare, Lysandra leading them valiantly. Isolde and Arlene said their goodbyes, giddily telling her that they would see her at the ceremony. Aelin was just glad she was able to respond without vomiting. 

Lysandra had created a strict schedule to glam her up before the ceremony. Aelin knew her appearance would be important today. There would be cameras everywhere; film crews had been setting up outside the temple since yesterday morning, eager to get the best shot of her and Rowan. All royal weddings were dramatic affairs, and pictures circulated for generations. Aelin knew her dress, hair, and makeup would all influence those of future brides all over Terrasen for years to come. 

The morning started out with a wonderful bath, someone shampooing and deep-conditioning her hair. Aelin would admit that the scratch of their nails against her scalp was heavenly, but she probably would have been able to enjoy it more if her mind wasn’t so damned preoccupied. 

The bath was the last minute to breathe before the morning really started. She was taken out of the bath and plopped in front of the vanity, some people tackling her hair while others worked at her nails, shaping and polishing them with a clear gloss. As the hairdressers continued to tug and twist at her tresses, a different team started to work on her face. A sheet-mask, exfoliation, dermaplaning, plucking her brows into perfect arches all before they got to work on her makeup. 

Lysandra had practically become a general as she commanded her team. She instructed them on how to do the makeup, the hair, to get her some breakfast and coffee. Aelin liked to watch her friend in her element. It helped distract her a bit. Not a lot, but it did enough.

The women were doing the finishing touches on Aelin’s makeup when she noticed how Lysandra was looking at her. Her friend was normally quick to pick up on even the slightest shifts in her mood, but this morning had been exceptionally busy. However, Aelin knew Lysandra had finally noticed there was something on her mind. 

The accessories were minimal, simply a pair of diamond studs in her ears and her engagement ring. The accessories weren’t the main event. The dress was.

The dress. Gods, it was a work of art.

Aelin needed assistance getting into it, clasping the buttons. There was a seamstress there in case anything needed a last minute fix, but it was perfect. All she did was fluff out the skirts into a wide circle, helping place the veil on her head. The veil was an heirloom of the Ashryver family. Her mother had worn it when she married her father, and now it was Aelin’s turn to carry on the tradition.

After the veil was placed, Aelin finally dared to look into the mirror and see how she would appear as she was married.

She was stunning. Aelin always knew she was beautiful, but today, it was special. 

Her hair was twisted up elegantly, showing off her face and the swoop of her neck. Her skin was practically glowing after all the work the makeup team had done, her lashes long and the bright color of her eyes highlighted by the eyeliner and shadow. The veil was beautiful and ethereal,sweeping to the ground in a long, lacy train. And then the dress…

It was probably the most beautiful thing she had ever worn.

The sleeves were long and constructed of sheer, delicate lace. The neckline was high, made of the same lace that covered the entire bodice. There was a sash at her middle, highlighting her waist, before the dress fanned out in the silky skirts. They weren’t as voluminous as a true ballgown, but they were still heavy and fine, perfectly befitting of a princess.

Gods, she wished her mother were here. Part of Aelin told her that her parents were there with her, in a way, but she still wouldn’t have minded their true presence. 

Aelin thoroughly thanked her team, as did Lysandra. They all congratulated Aelin one last time before they began to stream out, eventually leaving her alone with her friend.

Lysandra released a long, dramatic breath as she closed the door behind the last of the team, strolling back towards where Aelin stood, still looking at herself in the mirror. She looked in the mirror towards the stylist, who was already ready for the ceremony. Lysandra looked beautiful, as always, in a fine silk dress of Terrasen green, her long, raven hair tumbling freely over her shoulders.

“How are you feeling, Ace?” Lysandra asked, coming up to her side. 

“Fine,” Aelin worked out, toying with her earrings. 

“You’re not nervous or anything?”

“Not really, no.”

“Then what the fuck is wrong with you?” Lysandra demanded, raising an impatient brow before pointing right in the middle of her face. “And don’t bullshit me.”

Aelin released a heavy sigh, biting down on the inside of her cheek. She figured she had nothing to lose at the point. No reason to keep it to herself.

“Last night, Rowan told me that he loves me.”

Lysandra blinked once, twice, emerald eyes blown wide. “Oh. Wow. Wow. That is so not what I expected to hear.”

Aelin laughed dryly. “Yeah. Me neither.”

Lysandra dragged a hand through her hair. “What did you say?”

“Nothing. I stood there like a coward,” Aelin spat. “Then, the girls swooped in before either of us got another word in. How could I just stand there?”

Lysandra was pensive for a moment, chewing on her words. She rounded Aelin so that she was standing in front of her, reaching out and grabbing her hands with a tight squeeze.

“Aelin… do you love him back?”

For a heartbeat, Aelin stared at their intertwined hands. When she finally lifted her gaze and met Lysandra’s bright eyes, the princess held no doubt in her heart.

“Yes,” Aelin whispered. “I do. I do love him.”

Lysandra’s lips softened into a serene smile, reaching forward and embracing her tightly. 

“I’m so happy for you,” she said. “And I’m so happy for me because Aedion owes me a hundred dollars now.”

“You took bets on my love life?”

“Absolutely. It’s been so long since I’ve seen you as happy as you are around Rowan,” Lysandra explained. “And you make him happy too. It was only a matter of time. I thought you two would confess before the wedding, Aedion thought it would be after.”

“I technically still haven’t told him,” Aelin pointed out. “But I will. I'll tell him on the altar.”

Lysandra snorted. “Bit backwards, isn’t it? Telling someone you love them for the first time the day of the wedding.”

“Perhaps. But… I’m happy.”

“Good, Aelin.” Lysandra placed a hand on her cheek gently. “You deserve this. You deserve to be happy with the man you love.”

Aelin felt her throat tighten and her eyes begin to burn. “Thank you, Lys.”

It seemed her friend was in the same boat as her, pulling back and fanning at her eyes. “Gods, we are not allowed to cry now. This makeup took way too long to ruin it before pictures.”

They shared a laugh. It felt inexplicably amazing to have shared what she was feeling, to get it off her chest. Aelin felt as if she were as light as air. She had forgotten what it felt like. To be in love. To be loved back.

She glanced at the time, suddenly thrown back into reality.

“Well…” she breathed, turning towards her friend and beaming, “I suppose it’s time to go. I don’t want to be late for my own wedding.”

It was Rowan’s wedding day.

It almost didn’t feel real.

He hadn’t really given what the day would be like much thought. He hadn’t needed to really bother imagining anything. Nearly from the moment the engagement had been made official, everything had been set out for him.

He had imagined his wedding once, when he was engaged to Lyria. He knew it was going to be a spring wedding. The venue would have been a beautiful garden, filled with flowers. Lyria would have loved that. She would have worn some kind of free-flowing gown, soft and feminine. Flowers in her hair, a beautiful smile on her face.

But that vision never got any further than his head. 

And the picture of a small, intimate ceremony had been shattered into a million pieces. 

Today, he would be married in front of the eyes of the entire world. There had been press setting up in front of the palace for days, extra security brought in to ensure everything went smoothly. After the threat sent to Aelin, they had perhaps overcompensated, though Rowan wouldn’t say it was overcompensating when it came to Aelin’s safety. 

Rowan was nearly robotic as he got prepared for the ceremony. He could barely manage to utter a few words as he slipped into his tux. The most words he managed to get in at a time was when Isolde and Arlene came into his room to congratulate him again. 

All Rowan could think about was what had happened the night before. The image of Aelin’s face after he confessed what he felt: her parted lips, her wide eyes, her silence… it was tortuous. 

He had gotten through all of the acting he had needed to do in the past with no problems. Even when he had hated Aelin, he had still managed to pretend to be in love with her. But now… he didn’t know how he was supposed to look like a man on the happiest day of his life with the weight of all that had transpired between them. 

Only he would be able to fuck everything up the night before the wedding. Gods help him.

Rowan ran a hand down his face and glanced at himself in the mirror. His hair had been trimmed and done neatly, but there were bags under his eyes that he could only hope people didn’t notice. The tux was nice, probably the nicest thing he ever had or ever would wear. 

He wondered how Aelin was doing, what she was feeling. Was she a ball of nerves? Did his mistake last night leave her tossing and turning all night as he had been? He wished he could see her, to talk to her once more before the ceremony.

But he was out of luck. And out of time.

There was a polite knock on his door before it creaked open and Aedion poked his head in. The Ashryver prince was dressed in a manner befitting his station, golden hair combed and tied back neatly. Yet, his face was grim. 

“You ready?” Aedion asked.

Rowan gave a stiff nod. “I have no choice but to be.”

Aedion’s face was bordering pity, but knew better than to let himself cross that threshold. “Well then. It’s time.”

Rowan swallowed hard and ground his jaw. “Have you spoken to Aelin at all?”

“I haven’t seen her since last night. Sorry.”

He tried not to let his disappointment show. It would have been nice to have gotten a small insight into Aelin’s mindset as of now. But, he would make do with what he had. Rowan straightened the lapels of his jacket one last time.

It was time to get married.

Rowan had never seen so many people in a temple before, not even on religious holidays. Every spare inch that could have been used was taken full advantage of. 

There were plenty of faces Rowan recognized in the crowd. His family, his friends, the royalty and nobility of Terrasen he had met over the months… but there were also plenty of folk with whom he had never once crossed paths in his life. Strange that they were there on what was meant to be such an important day. 

The temple was decorated beautifully with soft white drapes and flower arrangements. The pews were stuffed with people in their finery, with what must have been millions of dollars worth of jewels and clothing among the guests. Maybe if some of them had bothered to open their wallets then Terrasen wouldn’t have been struggling so much to begin with.

Rowan stood up at the altar beside an older priestess. He hoped he looked more at ease than he truly felt. Standing here, waiting, was excruciating. 

He tried to distract himself by glancing into the crowd. It seemed Fenrys and Lorcan were hissing an argument back and forth. Elide, at Lorcan’s side, was shaking her head softly at them, though she had a fond smile on her face. Lysandra and Aedion were beside them, holding one another’s hands, murmuring quietly between the two of them. Isolde and Arlene noticed his gaze and waved excitedly at him. Rowan managed a smile for their sake.

Maeve was perched beside Orlon and Darrow, looking perfectly bored at the whole thing. Rowan didn’t imagine she cared much about the ceremony, but rather the politics that would follow their impending marriage.

There were a few cameramen lingering on the outskirts, moving silently and nearly unseen. Rowan had known that they would be filmed, but it was still strange. He had to continuously remind himself to not look at the cameras.

There were also countless security guards pressed against the walls, standing as still as the statues of the gods scattered throughout the temples. Rowan recognized the one stationed right by the door. Ress. Aelin had a soft spot for that one.

He wondered how much longer he would have to wait. The more seconds that passed, the more nervous he grew. And Rowan never got nervous. 

A movement at the end of the aisle grabbed his attention. A darkly dressed woman slipped up to the string band sitting in the corner and whispered something to them. Rowan saw them nod and speak softly amongst themselves, readying their instruments. 

It seemed the gods had answered his prayers. Or taken pity on him. One of the two.

The music began, soft and lovely. It was a piece Aelin had picked out herself. Rowan had been beside her when she heard the sample, remembered that beautifully serene look that had passed over her face when the first few notes had played. Rowan had watched her longer than he cared to admit. When the song had ended, Aelin had worn such a lovely smile on her face, Rowan had known it would be the song.

He stood up straighter as he heard the grand double doors begin to slowly open. 

Oh gods. This was really happening.

The doors opened fully, and as one, everyone in the pews rose to their feet. They turned towards the entrance, waiting patiently for the arrival of the bride.

Rowan’s breath caught in his throat at the first glimpse of movement. At first, it was just the swish of a white skirt and delicate shoe. Then, another step, and one more, and then Rowan saw her.

Rowan had always known Aelin Galathynius was beautiful, from the first moment he had spotted her dancing across the club as if she were the only person there. But now… the way she looked… it stole the breath right from his lungs.

Aelin was practically glowing in her gown. The white lace and satin popped on her golden-tan skin, silky hair swept back and framing the curves of her face. A tiara perched on the top of her head, holding the veil that trailed so far behind her. The dress was intricate and beautiful, befitting of a princess such as Aelin.

This was her. This was the woman he loved.

Aelin held her head high as she walked slowly down the aisle, a bouquet of white roses clutched between her hands. She was practically glowing in the early afternoon light that cut down from the high, stained glass windows. 

Those stunning eyes of hers finally met his, and Rowan swore time stopped. The air between them grew taut and electrified, everything said and unsaid lingering between them like a chasm. He wanted a sign, something, anything, to show that he hadn’t ruined what he had grown to cherish.

And then she smiled.

Aelin smiled at him, broadly, happily, fondly. Instantly, he knew that it wasn’t faked or forced. It was for him and only him. The cameras and guests be damned. Aelin was looking to him. And he knew that everything would be okay.

There was a glimmer in those turquoise eyes that seemed to say, I have something to tell you, prince.

Rowan smiled back. I’m ready for you, princess.

For a moment, everything seemed to be perfect. It was a fairytale moment, standing in the beautiful temple, before people they both loved and cherished. For a second, they weren’t a prince and a princess, just two people. Happy. Aelin was nearly halfway down the aisle, halfway to him, halfway to him hearing whatever words were waiting on her lips.

For a moment, Rowan was happy.

But then movement over Aelin’s shoulder caught his eye. 

Time seemed to slow as a group of men dressed in black, wearing masks, flooded through the towering doors. Aelin’s smile fell as she noted the change in his expression. She barely had time to glance over her shoulder before the shooting started.

Instantly, it was pandemonium.

There was the rapid firing of bullets from the guns of the masked men, sending everyone into a frenzy. The screams rose above the sounds of the shots, people springing out of their seats and trying to escape. 

Instantly, he lost sight of Aelin in the swell of guests.

His blood turned to ice and fear unlike which he had ever experienced flushed through him. Without thinking twice about it, Rowan took off into the fray.

“Aelin!” he cried, shoving through people, trying to listen for her voice amidst the screams of terror and cries of what he assumed to be the wounded. “ Aelin!”

There were flashes of hair and jewels and dresses, all forming a solid, yet fluid wall that was near-impossible for Rowan to push through. Bodies crashed into his, barely allowing him to take a few steps at a time. 

He couldn’t see her. Not a glimpse of golden hair or a peek of that white gown.

Aelin!” he bellowed again, feeling desperation flow through him. 

A weeping woman crashed into him, causing him to struggle to maintain his balance. He barely had the opportunity to ensure she was alright before she was running again. 

Aelin. Where was Aelin?

Just as abruptly as it had started, it was over. The shots ceased, the screams stopped. There was only the sounds of sobs and gasps filling the air.

Rowan finally managed to push through the thick of it, coming up upon the double doors. Still, no sight of his would-be wife, yet there was a familiar face slumped against the doorway, clutching his leg and writhing in pain. Ress.

Rowan fell to his knees before the man, taking a quick look at his injury. He was bleeding profusely, but by the looks of it, the bullet hadn’t nicked an artery. 

“Aelin,” Rowan asked him, hoping his mind wasn’t too muddled with pain to understand. “Where is she? What happened?”

“It was Cairn,” Ress groaned. “He was working with those men. He gassed our guards and led these men right into the temple. While they distracted everyone, created chaos, he grabbed the princess. Put something over her mouth, probably chloroform, and dragged her out.” He pointed out the doors with a bloodstained hand. “That way.”

Rowan didn’t bother to utter a thank you, immediately sprinting out of the temple, trying his best not to slip over used bullet casings. He flew over the marble floors until he burst outside into the cold, mid-autumn air.

Only to find nothing.

No sign of Aelin, nor the men who had taken her. 

Rowan’s chest rose and fell steeply with the heavy breaths he sucked down. His head swiveled around, trying to figure out how they could have disappeared into thin air. They had taken her right from under all of their noses, so fast and brutal they might as well have ripped out his very heart. 

No. Gods, no. This couldn’t be happening. 

Rowan turned his face to the sky as his world came crumbling down around him. Something bitingly cold landed on his cheek. The first snowfall.

The prince clenched his hands into tight fists, his eyes burning, before he unleashed himself.

Fuck!”

Chapter Text

When Rowan went back inside the temple, it looked as though a war had been fought in its halls. The bullets had damaged the ancient architecture, taking out huge chunks and defacing the images of their gods. The once-beautiful decorations had been torn to shreds, some splattered with blood.

He scanned the room, looking for the faces of his friends and family. He spotted Aedion just as the Ashryver prince spotted him. He was sitting beside Lysandra, who was a bit pale and shaken, but looked unharmed. 

“They took her,” Rowan said pathetically. “They took Aelin.”

Aedion looked heartbroken. “I know.”

“Is anyone hurt?” 

“Nothing life threatening,” Lorcan reported, strolling up to them. He had shed the jacket of his suit and rolled his sleeves up his scar-scattered forearms. “I don’t think they were shooting to kill, just to make a distraction.”

“Well, it fucking worked,” Fenrys snapped from where he sat beside Arlene and Isolde. The girls were fine, at least. Frightened, but unharmed.

“How did this happen?” Maeve demanded snappily. Somehow, despite all that had happened, she barely looked frazzled. “How does a rabble break through palace security and steal your princess away in broad daylight?”

“We knew it was an inside man. Ress saw it was Cairn,” Rowan explained. “He must have been plotting this for months, maybe since he got the job.”

“It’s my fault,” Orlon croaked from where he was hunched over. His wrinkled face was streaked with tears. “I didn’t do enough to keep her safe. I should have…. I should have…”

“This isn’t your fault, Your Majesty,” Rowan said as gently as he could. “This was beyond any of us.”

It was true, it wasn’t any of their faults, but gods would it feel good to pin the blame on someone. The only person any of them could blame would be the person who had organized it, and that person was unknown to them now.

“Are they going to kill her?” Isolde sniffed, eyes puffy and red.

Her question made Rowan flinch.

“No,” Elide said grimly. “If it was meant to be an assassination, they would have done it here and done it far quieter. They want something with her.”

“A ransom?” Arlene suggested.

“Or a message,” Lysandra provided. 

“It doesn’t matter why they took her,” Rowan ground out. “What matters is that we find her as soon as possible.”

“We’ve already sent word to the police to set up a perimeter and block the intersections," Darrow reported. “Our security team is checking the cameras as we speak.”

“Good,” Aedion grumbled. “I want to be there when they watch. Anyone else coming?”

Rowan could think of nothing else he’d rather do.

The room was dark, lit only by the wall of screens before them, playing footage of the palace, temple, and castle grounds. It made no sense that anyone was able to sneak up on them with all the eyes scattered across the territory.

The answer came soon enough, however, when the techs who worked in the security office found evidence that one of the streams had been tampered with. Someone had interrupted it and played a loop of peaceful video while the men had pulled up. Clearly, they had driven in, and yet they had no idea what their car, or cars, looked like. They were going in blind.

The lack of answers was frustrating on its own. Every minute without answers of where they had taken her grew more and more painful.

The blockade put up by the police yielded no answers either. It didn’t make any sense; they should have been able to find her… unless whoever took her had men on the inside there as well. It wasn’t an outlandish idea after all that had happened. 

Maybe they had been foolish to think that everything could have gone well. Perhaps they shouldn’t have made the wedding such a big deal, then Aelin would be safe, and by his side.

But one mistake too many ripped her far out of his reach. 

He made himself sick to his stomach when he thought about Aelin. If she was hurt, how she was being treated, if she was frightened. He knew Aelin didn’t scare easily. She was strong, hard-headed, but… she was alone.

If something happened to her… gods, Rowan didn’t know what he would do with himself. 

A painful hour and a half dragged by with no progress. The mood in the room was dismal and dark. Strange to think that this was the day Rowan was supposed to be married. 

Orlon seemed to be hit quite hard by this, though that was expected. His niece, who he had watched grow up, one of the last members of his household, had suddenly been stolen from under them. The guilt the old king must be feeling… Rowan couldn't even begin to imagine it. 

Aedion, Lysandra, and Elide were all in there, stewing in worry for their missing princess. Fenrys and Lorcan were there too, providing support in any way they could. 

Maeve lingered about, too. She was always one to hold a grudge, whether the slight was against her personally or a potential ally. She had wanted to build ties with Terrasen for years. Rowan could only imagine she was furious that some rebels decided to ruin it all.

Rowan sat, hunched over, head in his hands. He had rid himself of most of his finery, wearing only what had once been a crisp button down and his slacks. He knew he looked a mess. Felt like it too. 

Someone sat down in front of him. Fenrys.

“How are you holding up?”

Rowan managed to reign in the bitter scoff that wanted to escape. He knew he shouldn’t be cruel to Fenrys simply because he was feeling like shit.

“I could be better,” is what the prince ended up going with.

He could see the sorrow in Fenrys’ eyes. He had become good friends with Aelin since arriving at the palace. What happened must be hurting him as well. 

“I’m sorry, Rowan,” he murmured. “I know what she means to you.”

He didn’t know what to say, and so he said nothing at all.

Another near-silent ten minutes passed, filled only by the clicking of keyboards and occasional beep from one of the machines.

“Your Majesty?” a weak voice spoke from in front of a sleek computer screen. A woman turned in her seat towards them, brows furrowed. “I- I don’t know how this is happening, but someone is sending us a video message.”

Orlon stood, nodding to the widescreen television on the wall. “Can you project it onto this?”

The woman nodded, typed something quickly on her keyboard, and the television flickered to life. At first, it was a hazy, gray screen. Rowan rose to his feet, brows furrowed, taking a few steps closer.

It was then that the image appeared.

And Rowan wished he had remained seated.

“Gods, no…”

The scene could have been set anywhere. Dark, cold, cement room. Nothing that could have told them where it was being broadcasted from. But Rowan barely noticed the environment. All he had eyes for was the person planted in the middle of the screen.

Aelin.

She still wore her gown, but the tiara and veil had been lost somewhere along the way. Her hair, that had once been twisted up so perfectly, was in disarray. She seemed unharmed, no blood or bruises that he could see. There was a piece of cloth shoved in her mouth, effectively gagging her. From what he could see, she was tied to a chair, arms secured behind her.

Yet her eyes held no tears nor fear, only unrelenting, burning rage.

“Oh, Fireheart…” Orlon whispered in horror.

For a few tense moments, there was only Aelin, and the sounds of her breathing heavily through her nose. Her eyes flickered towards something behind the camera, following its path until it appeared where they could see it. A man, and a familiar one at that.

Cairn.

Rowan wished he could reach through that screen and punch his teeth down his throat.

The man had a slimy smile on his face as he planted himself behind Aelin.

“Good evening to all of you watching,” Cairn drawled. “Kings, queens, princes, lords, what-have-you… I’m happy to have your attention.

“Since I knew you all would have figured out by now that I was the one working inside the palace, I got the honor of speaking with you all,” he continued. “Please forgive our intrusion this afternoon, but we needed to make a statement. And, as you can see, your princess is now our honored guest.”

Cairn ran his hand down the swoop of Aelin’s neck until it stilled on her shoulder. Rowan could see how his touch disgusted her, how she shied away as far as she could manage while strapped to the chair.

“Should you wish to have your sweet princess returned, we demand payment,” Cairn said. “I know Terrasen isn’t doing well in the money department as of late, but it matters not. We want eight-hundred million in cash within the next five days, and I want immunity to any charges that would be pressed against me. My associates are unknown to you, so that part doesn’t apply to them.

“If you refuse, or if five days pass and we do not receive what we ask for…” Cairn reached to his side and produced a pistol, jabbing the barrel into Aelin’s temple hard enough that she winced slightly. “I’ll pull this trigger. And I’ll be happy to do it.”

Rowan’s heart was racing at the image of Aelin with a gun to her head and yet, in true Aelin fashion, she held no fear. Aelin simply held her head higher. A challenge.

Cairn chuckled darkly and put the gun back. He raised a brow down at Aelin. “Anything you wish to say to your family, princess?”

He tugged the gag roughly from her mouth. Aelin gasped down one breath before her head whirled around and she spat right in Cairn’s face.

“Go fuck yourself, you coward.”

Cairn moved dangerously slowly as he wiped at her face. He scoffed out a laugh and sneered down at her. “Oh, we are going to have so much fun together, princess.

Quicker than a wink, he drew his arm back and backhanded her across the face. The resounding smack of his knuckles passing over her cheek rattled through Rowan’s brain, as did the tiny grunt of pain she released.

Aelin rightened herself swiftly, working her jaw, and glaring at Cairn with the wrath of a thousand men. A small trail of blood trickled from the cut in her cheek, starkly red against her flesh.

Cairn tugged the gag back into her mouth before looking once again at the camera.

“Think about it,Your Majesties,” Cairn said. “We’ll be reaching out again soon.”

With that, the feed cut away, leaving nothing but a blank screen.

The room was deathly silent, all trying to process what it was exactly that they had just witnessed. Aelin was alive, for now. And she was guaranteed five more days of life. And if they didn’t agree to give the money to these men, she would die.

“Okay,” Aedion breathed, voice weaker than anything Rowan ever remembered hearing from him. Seeing his little cousin in that situation, watching helplessly as she was hit across the face, had shaken them all. “So. What do we know now?”

“They’re somewhere within a two-hour drive of the palace,” Lorcan said. 

“It looks like they’re keeping her in a warehouse,” Fenrys added.

Elide frowned. “Or a basement. Or a garage. What we saw in that video didn’t give us enough information to narrow down possible locations.”

“There’s also no way to tell they drove the entire way,” Darrow said. “They could have jumped onto a private jet or a helicopter. The blockades didn’t find them, so it's a possibility. That completely changes the scope of possible sites.”

Maeve turned to the woman at the computer, raising a dark brow. “Can you trace the source of the video? Get a general location?”

“I-I’ve tried, your majesty,” the woman stuttered. “But whoever is broadcasting it knows what they’re doing. I wasn’t able to get a trace on it, but I can keep on working at it.”

Maeve pursed her lips. “Do that.”

“We don’t have that kind of money,” Orlon croaked. “And if they don’t get that money then Aelin…” he couldn’t even finish his statement.

Rowan shook his head, eyes screwing shut. This… this was a nightmare. But it was really happening. There was a group of people holding Aelin hostage, with the ability to put a bullet through her head whenever they damn well pleased. 

They wanted money they knew Terrasen didn’t have. What was their motive? Cripple the kingdom? Prove a point? Cause chaos?

Rowan ground his jaw. “We have to find her. Whatever it takes.”

“We’ve already sent out teams and investigators,” Darrow said as gently as he could. “We won’t stop until we get Aelin back safely.”

“My resources are yours,” Maeve said. “This act cannot go unpunished.”

“Agreed,” Lysandra all but growled. 

“Well what the fuck are we supposed to do until then?” Rowan shouted. “Do you expect me to just go on living day-to-day life when some sociopath has Aelin chained up somewhere? We have to do something.”

“I’m afraid there’s not much we can do, prince,” Orlon sighed, keeping his voice peaceful and even while Rowan raged. It was selfish of him to do it, the prince knew. The king was just as affected by this as he was. “We have no idea where they are, how many are in their numbers… we have to wait until we learn more. Then we can act.”

Rowan wanted to scream, to curse, to flip furniture and punch holes in walls. Instead, he braced himself by sucking down a long breath, ensuring that he would be able to speak with a level head.

“What do we do while we wait?” Rowan asked.

Orlon’s warm brown eyes were glimmering with sorrow. “We pick a god, and we pray.”

When Aelin Ashryver Galathynius had imagined how her wedding day would go this morning, it was nothing like the reality.

She had imagined that she would have walked down the aisle right towards Rowan, stood before him, and whispered I love you too. He would have smiled, they would have said their vows, and then shared a kiss. And it would have been real and kind and loving and they never would have had to pretend ever again.

Because they loved each other. They really did.

They would have posed for some photos, waved at their people, danced. It would have been the start of something wonderful. The way she felt about Rowan… it was unlike anything she had ever experienced before. It would have been nice to love, to be loved, once more.

But what was supposed to be a fairytale wedding turned into a nightmare.

Never in a million years did Aelin think her wedding day would end with her being drugged and kidnapped. It was fucking annoying.

It had all happened so fast. One moment, she was walking down the aisle, and Rowan was smiling at her so beautifully. Her heart was full of joy and love. She was among her friends and her family, and she was about to tell Rowan that she loved him back.

She remembered so clearly the shift in Rowan’s face, the terror that flashed through his pine green eyes. The next thing she remembered was the shooting and the screaming. Before Aelin even had the chance to take a step, someone had grabbed her from behind and pressed a foul smelling cloth over her mouth. She struggled as hard as she could, but it had acted fast. The last thing Aelin remembered before the darkness overtook her was Cairn and his smile that promised violence.

When Aelin finally came to, her wrists had been chained, a gag stuffed into her mouth, and she was being strapped to a chair. Even though she was woozy, she had tried to struggle out of her restraints. Still, nothing came of it. 

There were no words to describe the levels of rage Aelin descended into when Cairn put that camera on and recorded the taunts to her family. The idea of her friends and family seeing her in such a situation, tied up, struck across the face. The throbbing in her cheek was worth it to know that she had pissed Cairn off.

The idea that Cairn had been working under her for so long, had been in charge of her and Rowan’s safety many times. 

Aelin didn’t take her eyes off of Cairn as he turned off the camera. As soon as the light flickered off, two more men streamed into the room and began untying her from her chair. Her wrists remained chained, but at least someone roughly tugged the gag from her mouth.

“I’ll kill you for this,” Aelin vowed the moment she had use of her mouth. 

Cairn raised an unimpressed brow. “I’d like to see you try, princess.”

The two men, both who appeared to be in their mid-thirties, were burly. Ugly. They laughed at her too. No doubt, they looked at her and saw nothing more than a young princess in a pretty dress, trying to seem threatening.

Aelin would make sure that one day, they would regret underestimating her.

“Who’s behind all of this?” Aelin demanded. “I know your dumb ass couldn’t pull this off on your own.”

“You talk a pretty big game for a girl in chains.”

Aelin glowered at him. “I bet you’re loving all of this, aren’t you?”

“More than you could possibly know.” Cairn took the end of the chains that attached to the cuffs around her wrists and gave a single, hard tug that sent her tumbling from the seat. Aelin’s knees barked in pain as they hit the cold, cement ground. He locked the end to a hook protruding from the wall. “You have no idea how much I hated every moment I had to spend with your spoiled, bitchy, entitled ass.”

“You weren’t a bundle of joy either,” she grumbled.

“I’m going to enjoy this time with you, princess. Maybe I’ll knock you down a few pegs.” Cairn turned, moving towards the door with the other men flanking his side.

“You won’t get that money!” Aelin shouted after him. “And when they find me, you’re going to suffer.”

“Oh, princess…” Cairn chuckled without turning around. “If only you knew half as much as you think you do.”

With that, he slammed the heavy, metal door shut behind him, the vibrations ringing through Aelin’s head. Something else clicked, most likely another lock, before the sounds of footfalls faded away in the distance. She strained her ears until the only thing left to listen to was the silence.

Aelin pressed her forehead to the frigid floor.

“Fuck,” she hissed out under her breath. She sat herself up, taking the first full look at the room she was being held in.

It was small and dark and dismal, lit only by a single, yellow light. It was little more than four walls and a little bench, which she assumed was meant to be a bed of sorts. Her wrists were chained, limiting the range of motion of her hands. The chain was long enough that she could pace around in a small circle, not that she would have had a lot of room to move even without the chain. 

No windows, no warmth. All she had was the dress that she wore and her wits. She had no idea where she was, what was waiting for her outside that door, or if she would ever get out again. Terrasen didn’t have the money he demanded and if they didn’t get it in five days…

The feeling of the barrel of the gun against her forehead lingered like a brand.

What was her family thinking? Had anyone been hurt? Aelin’s ears still rang with the sounds of the guns firing. She had been grabbed so quickly that she hadn’t been able to tell if anyone had been hit. That temple had been so full with people, friends, family… if she heard that any of them were injured, the guilt would eat her alive.

Aelin plopped down helplessly on the bench, glancing down at her hands. Instantly, her eyes caught on her bare finger that once held her engagement ring. It was gone. Had it been lost in the scuffle, or had they taken it from her? Regardless, she missed its weight. It had become comforting over the months. Aelin sighed, looking up at the solid ceiling, hoping each and every one of the gods could see her as she opened her mouth and screamed one thing.

“Fuck you!”

Chapter Text

Sit, they said.

Be patient.

Pray.

There was no way in hell that Rowan would be able to do any of that, not when Aelin was gods-know-where at the mercy of men who had already shown they had no problem hurting her. Every moment Rowan sat idle was another moment he spent imagining what terrible things they could be doing to her.

He had isolated himself in his room and locked the doors. Part of him wanted to scream and rage, to smash the furniture in his room to pieces out of spite. Yet, he knew it wouldn’t accomplish anything besides breaking his knuckles. 

They hadn’t gotten any new information regarding where Aelin was or who took her.

It was all over the news, however.

By this time, Rowan assumed everyone in the world with internet access knew about the failure that was their wedding. There were even video clips of when it all went to hell. Rowan knew that Orlon and his team of investigators had combed over those few seconds of video, trying to find something that would clue them into what had happened or where they had gone.

Still… nothing.

He knew people came to his room to check up on him, but Rowan couldn’t handle speaking with others, seeing their pity. Still, it didn’t feel good to turn them away, especially when he heard Arlene and Isolde’s voices just outside his door. 

Orlon had told him to wait, to be patient.

There was no way in hell Rowan was doing that.

When the sun finally sunk below the tops of the mountains, Rowan tore off his finery. He changed into dark clothing, comfortable and easy to move in. He knew that his plans were reckless, but that wasn’t going to stop him. Not now. 

He took a page out of Aelin’s book and snuck out. 

He took the same garden path she had shown him a few months ago, set out a plan of places to check out. Warehouses, old garages, empty factories, anywhere they could be hiding her. Rowan knew there were only so many places he could investigate as one person, but it was better than sitting on his ass. 

He went all night, jumping from one place to another, trying to find signs of life. But, they were all barren. No signs of life, or of Aelin. 

It snowed throughout the night, covering the ground in a soft, white carpet. It was bitingly cold, but Rowan hardly felt it. Aelin had told him before how much she loved the first snowfall. It was a shame she wasn’t here to see it. It truly was beautiful.

Every new place Rowan ventured, he knew he was pushing his luck. He could have easily gotten arrested for trespassing. Gods, he couldn’t imagine what the headlines would look like if he got caught. Not to mention surely dealing with his uncle’s wrath.

He supposed that he was lucky that most of Terrasen’s police force was currently preoccupied with searching for the princess. None of them would be patrolling aimlessly.

Rowan made it back to the palace just before the sun rose. He knew he should be exhausted, and maybe he was, but it was hard to feel it under the frustration and dejection. Maybe the fatigue would hit him all at once when he was least expecting it, but for now, he wanted to comb every inch of the continent until he found her.

He figured his years in the air force would have given him some kind of idea as to how to proceed, but nothing came to him. Apparently, all his time there had taught him was how to fly a jet and how to take orders. Fucking useless.

He trudged through the halls slowly, just wanting to make it back to his sanctuary and take a moment to gather himself before anyone spoke to him again. Because he couldn’t hide away anymore. He wasn’t the only one hurting.

Rowan was almost back to his suite, but didn’t quite make it.

“Where the hell were you?”

The prince froze, eyes screwing shut with a sigh. He turned and saw Aedion standing there.

“I couldn’t just sit there,” was all Rowan could provide. “I went looking.”

“Are you out of your fucking mind?” Aedion hissed, stalking forward a few steps. “You shouldn’t have done that.”

“I already did it.”

Aedion narrowed his Ashryver eyes dangerously. “What were you planning on doing if, by some miracle, you managed to find her? You think you could have busted her out on her own? You would have gotten yourself killed.”

“I knew the risks. Knowing she’s out there is killing me.”

“You think you’re the only one? She’s like my little sister and she’s gone.” The anguish in his voice cut right through Rowan. Aedion had always been the one with a permanent easy grin on his face, who laughed and joked. But now… Rowan could see he was trying to hold back tears. Aedion released a shaking breath and dragged a hand down his face. “How could I let this happen…”

Rowan pitied him, but knew Aedion was proud enough to shun those sentiments. “It isn’t your fault.”

“Fucking feels like it.” Aedion released a bitter laugh. “When we were kids, I was always by her side. Kept her safe, bandaged her cuts, dried her tears… I should have done more, should have fought against the wedding plans after that threat. I knew she was at risk and I just… didn’t do anything.”

Rowan didn’t say anything for a few moments. Aedion had offered up that vulnerable piece of himself, it was only fair that Rowan did the same.

“I’m terrified,” Rowan confessed in a low whisper.

Aedion nodded somberly. “Me too.”

“I’ve lost someone I loved before. I… I don’t think I can survive it again.”

“We’ll get her back,” Aedion said, forcing some conviction into his voice. “We have to.”

Rowan wanted to believe him, wanted to give in to optimism. And yet… he couldn’t. Hoping and staying positive wouldn’t do shit. Action would.

And Rowan would do whatever it took to get Aelin back.

The snow continued to fall throughout the next day. 

Early the next morning, a meeting was called. Orlon, Aedion, and the king’s council had all gathered to discuss what they knew and the next course of action. The king had invited Rowan along as well. The prince knew that even if he hadn’t been invited, he would have been there anyway.

Rowan sat next to Aedion, hoping he didn’t look as disheveled as he felt. 

There had been a staggering shift in the palace overnight. The halls that had previously been stuffed to the brim with excited guests had become as silent and barren as a graveyard. Rowan’s cousins had all traveled back to Doranelle. Isolde and Arlene had wanted to stay, but his uncle would be having none of that.

It was good that they were far away from the shitshow Orynth had become. 

Orlon looked awful. He looked as if he had aged twenty years overnight. Darrow was clearly trying his best to be supportive, but the events had taken a toll on him as well.

The king released a heavy sigh as he slid into his seat, looking over the others seated in the boardroom with tired eyes.

“I suppose you all know why we're here,” he began, his voice terribly gravelly. “But before we begin, I should let you all know what we received earlier this morning.”

Rowan sat up straighter in his seat, unaware that anything else had happened. Judging by the look on Aedion’s face, he hadn’t known either.

Orlon put a small box on the table. Rowan’s stomach dropped as he recognized what it held.

Aelin’s engagement ring.

It felt like a lifetime ago since he had slid that ring on to her finger. They had hated each other's guts then, could barely make eye contact. Funny how much had changed since then. 

“It came with a note,” Darrow supplied further. “‘Four days.’”

A threat, and a taunt. 

“It’s clear that whoever these men are have extensive resources and an understanding of the palace,” one of the advisors mused. “I think we should do another sweep of the palace security.”

There were murmurs of agreement.

“Have there been any leads?”

“No. Nothing.”

Rowan ground his jaw in frustration, but kept silent.

“Four more days to find her or else they’ll kill her?” a man clarified from the end at the table. Rowan nearly flinched at how bluntly he worded it. “If the princess is gone, then they have no chance at the money. Seems like a foolish bargain.”

“It’s not completely about the money,” Aedion said. “Clearly, they want to shake the foundation of Terrasen, cause chaos. They wouldn’t have done it so publicly if they didn’t.”

“I can’t stomach gambling Aelin’s life on whether or not we manage to find her in time,” Orlon said. “We need to pay them.”

“We don’t have the money.”

“We can take out a loan from another country.”

“Terrasen cannot afford to be put in debt!” an advisor shouted. “Not to mention we cannot negotiate nor give these men what they want. It makes Terrasen look weak.”

Rowan had kept silent, but no longer.

Pride?” Rowan spat, the word bitter and vile on his tongue. “You care more about pride than the safety of your princess? My wife is being held hostage and all you bastards can think about is image. You should be doing everything in your power to bring Aelin back immediately!”

There were a few beats of silence after his outburst. He knew each and every man at that table was glaring daggers at him. But Rowan didn’t back down, glowering right back.

“Prince Whitethorn,” one began tensely. “Since you’ve so clearly forgotten, Aelin Galathynius is not your wife, as the wedding was interrupted. Therefore, you are still a foreign prince who was invited to this meeting as a courtesy. It would do you well to remember that.”

“And it would do you well, sir,” Aedion ground out. “To remember that Prince Whitethorn is still engaged to your princess. When we get her back safely, she will be unhappy to hear about how you’ve spoken to him. Not to mention, when they do get married, he will eventually become king consort. I know he has a great memory.”

The advisor who had spoken ground his jaw, but kept whatever words he was thinking to himself. Like it or not, Aedion outranked him. He wouldn’t speak against the Ashryver prince. He didn’t bother apologizing to Rowan either. 

They jumped right back into their debates, disregarding anything he had said.

Cowards, the bunch of them. Rowan couldn’t even force himself to listen to their words anymore, not after they had shown their true colors. 

He was vaguely aware of them deciding to create more specialized teams to search for Aelin. There were brief discussions of raising taxes to gather the money needed, but that was quickly disregarded. It was for the best. Rowan knew that if Aelin found out her salvation had come at the expense of her already struggling people, it would weigh on her for the rest of her life.

They disbanded. Rowan was prepared to hole himself up in the library with a map and satellite imagery, trying to mark places Aelin could be. He was ready to spend every waking moment working. Whatever it took.

But before he could slip away, Aedion was at his side again.

“You should take this,” the Ashryver prince said, pressing something into his palm.

Rowan looked down in his hand and found Aelin’s ring. “Why?”

“So you can give it back to her once she’s back safe.”

Rowan swallowed hard but managed a nod, tucking the ring safely into his pocket. He looked towards Aedion and placed a hand on his shoulder. He had come through for him, and Rowan would do the same. They would need one another to get through this. 

“Thank you, brother.”

Aelin was hungry.

It was more of an annoyance than a life-threatening problem, but it was uncomfortable. She knew that the human body could survive about three weeks without food. It was a pain in the ass, but survivable. 

Though they may not be giving her food, they gave her water. She supposed they didn’t want her to die quite yet, or else they would lose their bargaining chip. 

She wasn’t sure how long she had been gone. Without a window to mark the passage of the sun, time was meaningless. Besides, she didn’t even know how much time had passed between her failure of a wedding and waking up in her cell. 

So far, they had given her water three times. Three different men brought it in, all unfamiliar to her. It was always in a plastic cup. Apparently, they didn’t trust her with glass. Probably worried she would either turn it on herself, or, more likely, them.

If given the opportunity, Aelin definitely would have sliced their faces up with a good shard of glass.

She knew she wasn’t just going to sit her idle until one of them decided they were tired of her bitchy comments about their appearances and put a bullet in her head. But, she knew that acting too soon would be foolish. She needed to learn more about where she was.

Aelin had been straining her ears at all hours, hoping to catch snippets of conversations. She had heard a few things here and there.

“Are they even any close?” one man had murmured.

“Nah, not even close.”

Aelin kept herself as close to the door as her chains would allow her, hoping to hear more, but that was all she got from that interaction. She couldn’t know exactly what they were discussing, but she assumed it was the police or investigators, whoever was out trying to find her.

Listening helped her understand the layout of the facility she was in. It was at least two stories and she was on the bottom. Sometimes, she heard voices or crashes from over her head, but nothing from below. Steps came from both ways in the hall outside her room, meaning it wasn’t a dead end. Judging by the flow of foot traffic, Aelin would guess that the exit was to the left outside the door. 

She sat on the bench that was supposed to be a bed of sorts, back pressed against the cold wall. It was cold as hell in her cell, and they didn’t bother giving her a blanket. At least her wedding dress was thick. She had never figured that it would have any practical use. When she finally got out, she’d have to commend Lysandra for her design. 

She hissed in discomfort as the cuffs around her wrists aggravated the already raw skin. It hurt like a bitch. She supposed that what she deserved for trying to wiggle her way out of them for hours. 

Aelin sat up straighter when she heard footsteps approaching her door. Most of the time, it was a false alarm, but not now. She heard a click, a heavy thump, and then her door opened.

“Cairn,” Aelin greeted with a roll of her eyes. “I must say, not super excited about seeing your ugly mug.”

“Shut up.”

“So sweet,” she cooed. “But next time do you think they could send in the guy from yesterday? He was much cuter and, between you and me, I think he has a bit of a crush on me.”

Cairn placed some water on the floor, about as far as the chains would allow her to move. Coward wouldn’t even hand it to her himself. 

“Moving on from your booty-call fiancé so quickly?” Cairn asked. “I always knew you were a whore.”

“No need to resort to name calling just because you’re not getting any.” 

Cairn shook his head. “You’re so lucky they told me not to touch you. I think your nose is just a little too straight.”

“You’re the only one who thinks that. When am I going to meet the guy in charge? I’m tired of dealing with you.”

As if summoned, there was a deceptively polite knock on the door, as if she were in an expensive suite rather than some kind of holding cell. Cairn’s brows rose, a viscous smile growing on his lips.

“Now. Have fun.”

Aelin watched from her perch on the bench as Cairn strode towards the door. She used the opportunity to scan his body. No keys that she could see, but there was a gun hanging from the holster around his waist. No other visible weapons. 

Cairn opened the door. He paused at the threshold to greet someone. She didn’t hear exactly what they said, nor could she yet see who it was he was talking to. Aelin pulled her shoulders back, held her head higher. She had negotiated with politicians and royalty, and held her own with the rulers of the world. It would do whoever was leading this rabble well to remember who the hell they were dealing with.

Cairn slipped from the cell. From Aelin’s position, she couldn’t yet see the new visitor. But, she heard a few, slow footsteps, steadily creeping closer. One foot appeared from behind the door, then the other, attached to lean legs wearing starched trousers. An equally well-clad torso. Finally, a familiar face.

For once in her life, Aelin was unable to keep her mask intact. Her eyes grew wide in surprise before narrowed in anger, shaking her head in disbelief. She opened her mouth and hissed, “ You fucking bastard.”

Arobynn Hamel simply chuckled, unfazed by her anger, and slid his hands into his pockets. “Oh princess. It’s always a pleasure. I heard you wanted to see me.”

Aelin could barely believe her eyes. The businessman who had built such a reputation for himself, who had been invited to the palace on countless occasions, was the one who had organized all of this. 

She sprung to her feet, rushing forward, fueled more by fury than anything. But, before she could reach him and tear his head off with her bare hands, she was stopped by the chains. Arobynn simply smirked. He hadn’t even flinched. Smug piece of shit.

“No need to throw a fit, princess,” Arobynn drawled. “We can sit down and talk like reasonable people.”

“I don’t think a reasonable person chains another to a wall.”

“At least I gave you enough slack to move around. Be grateful, your highness.” Arobynn raised a brow, those cold, silver eyes of his flickering towards the bench in the corner. “Now, please have a seat. I imagine you have many questions.”

Aelin considered hurtling insult after insult at him, but eventually decided against it. This was her best chance to get some real, useful information that may be able to help her out of this shitty situation. So, begrudgingly, she complied and sat herself primly on the edge of the cold, metal bench. 

Arobynn, once satisfied that she was listening, grabbed the metal chair she had been tied to earlier and dragged it before her. He lowered himself into it with a lazy grace, stretching his long legs out before him.

“Is there anything I can get you?” he asked, though she knew it was an empty offer. 

“I’ve actually been craving some lobster and caviar,” Aelin said sarcastically. “Also, some champagne would be nice. Stone crabs, if they’re in season. I can never remember. And macarons, while you’re at it. The ones from the bakery down on Fifth Street? Those are my favorite.”

Arobynn gave a low laugh. “Oh, you are fun.”

Aelin didn’t say anything, simply staring down the man across from her evenly. He stared right back, the air between them tense and rigid. It seemed to be a waiting game to see who would speak first. The princess had no problem with it being her.

“So. This was your play all along?” Aelin asked. “How long have you been planning this?”

“Long enough,” Arobynn said, leaning back in his seat and crossing his ankle over his knee. “It all paid off though. Went perfectly. I surprise myself sometimes.”

“You told me you’re a wealthy man. What’s with resorting to kidnapping? Fall on hard times?”

“It’s not about the money, Aelin. I’m sure you’ve figured it out by now.”

She had. A while ago.

“So all that marriage talk was for nothing?” Aelin questioned. “Just wanted to make me feel like shit?”

“No, that was genuine,” Arobynn shrugged. “Had you agreed, none of this would have happened. You didn’t want to give up that pretty prince, did you?”

Aelin bit the inside of her lip at the mention of Rowan, hoping she wouldn’t let it show that his taunts about her fiancé did affect her. 

“Was Rowan hurt? During the wedding?” Aelin asked softly, knowing she was showing a vulnerability. Yet, she worried so much about him that she was willing to make the sacrifice. 

“No. There were only minor injuries, no deaths. I’m not a monster, princess.”

Aelin rolled her eyes. 

“So if it’s not about the money, it’s about the power then, isn’t it? I wouldn’t marry you and make you king consort and now you’re angry? I truly don’t understand you, Mister Hamel. You’ve shown your hand, you’ve shown your face. When I get out of here, they’re going to lock you up so fast your head will spin.”

“I’m surprised you haven’t figured it out yet. You’re not getting out of here. Not alive, that is.”

There was something about the sureness, the pure, unadulterated confidence that oozed out of Arobynn in that moment that made Aelin’s stomach drop. She had faith in her family and their investigators and yet… Arobynn’s face was hard and unrelenting. He held no doubt.

Arobynn leaned forward in his seat. “Listen, Aelin… Terrasen has been under the rule of the monarchy for far too long. Times have changed and yet our government hasn’t. Hell, think about it, you had a godsdamned arranged marriage. The Galathynius rule has become ineffectual in the fast few years. Our economy is in shambles and the only thing our king could do to fix it was sell off his heir? Ridiculous.”

Aelin bared her teeth in a snarl. The way he spoke about her family was practically inviting her to bash his teeth in. 

“Had you agreed to my proposal, Aelin,” he continued. “I would have been content as king consort. But now… Terrasen needs a change. The people need to see how ineffectual the monarchy is. We were able to crash your wedding without even trying. Your people won’t find you. We keep sending them taunts; it’ll drive your poor uncle insane. When you’re gone, he’ll lose it entirely. He’ll give up and with no heir, it’ll be almost too easy. And when Terrasen is in disarray… we push for change.”

“You think you’ll gain power just like that?” Aelin asked. “You think the people would elect you?”

“Yes. I do.”

“There are a lot of if’s in your plan,” she pointed out. “You’re rather confident that the people will be quick to turn on the monarchy. How do you know that by killing me you won't just make me a martyr?”

“You’d think that, wouldn’t you?” Arobynn laughed. “That you’re Terrasen’s little princess? That your death will crush the hearts of millions? Perhaps now, yes. But not when your people find out that you were a junkie.”

It felt as if the blood in her veins froze. Ever since she was born, her image had been carefully monitored and built. Aelin knew in her heart that her struggles after the loss of Sam didn’t make her a terrible person, but there were plenty of ignorant people with hate in their hearts who would turn against her in an instant. That mixed in with good story spinning, Aelin wouldn’t be a martyr anymore. In the eyes of her people, she’d be a foolish girl who got what was coming to her.

“I have evidence. It’ll be easy,” Arobynn said.

Aelin found no words could be summoned to her lips. She felt her world crashing down around her. She really was stuck in this hell hole with no path to escape. Arobynn Hamel was a smart and resourceful man. If he was so certain that her family wouldn’t find her, part of Aelin believed him too. Holy gods she was going to die here. She would never see her family again, wouldn’t laugh with Aedion or gossip with Lysandra and Elide again. She wouldn’t get one last hug from her uncle, wouldn’t get to finish that book she started a few days ago.

And she would never be able to tell Rowan she loved him back.

Even if Aelin detested it, she felt her eyes burning with tears she wanted to hold back, but didn’t have the strength to. One traitorous tear leaked from her swimming eyes, trailing down her cheek.

“Oh, no need to cry, sweetheart,” Arobynn crooned, reaching forward and brushing the tear away. Aelin was so numb she couldn’t even feel disgusted by his touch. “Think about it. Now you won't be locking Prince Rowan into a loveless marriage. He’ll be free. He’ll probably even be relieved that you’re gone.”

Aelin knew his statements were meant to be cruel, and they weren’t really what hurt. What hurt was thinking about Rowan, how he would react to this. He had said he loved her, and she knew in her gut he was being truthful. He had already lost Lyria and now…

“Oh dear… surely that look doesn’t mean what I think it means,” Arobynn laughed. “Did you manage to get that poor man to fall in love with you too? Then I suppose it will be quite tragic for him. He’s a strong boy, I’m sure. No need to cry for him.”

Aelin sucked down a trembling breath, determined to keep herself together. “I’m not crying for him,” she fibbed. “I’m crying because I’m pissed as hell. I’m never going to get my wedding night and I was really looking forward to it.”

Arobynn smirked, a disgusting, slimy smirk that only a creep like him could achieve. “Well, princess, if that’s what you’re really missing, I would gladly take Prince Whitethorn’s position.”

He reached forward, placing a hand on her skirts and running it up her thigh. Aelin felt white-hot fury flash through her, acting purely on instinct as she reached up with her bound hands and raked her nails down his face.

Arobynn jumped back with a hiss and a filthy curse, slapping a hand over the wound. He ground his jaw, slumping back in his seat before pulling his hand away. Aelin had done a deal on his face, three bright red lines stretching from his temple to his jaw, small trickles of blood oozing out. Arobynn sat there was a terrifyingly cold sort of calmness as he wiped away some of the blood with the back of his hand. 

Those silver eyes flashed to her. He moved faster than he had any right to move, lunging forward, wrapping his hands around her throat, and pinning her down on the bench. Instantly, he had immobilized her. Her dress and her chains made it impossible to fight him off.

Aelin tried to weeze down a breath, but his grip was tight and painful, and she couldn’t even choke out a curse. 

Arobynn’s eyes were wild and manic, normally perfectly maintained hair becoming a wild, red mess. He leaned his face close to hers, ensuring she would hear each and every word he hissed out.

“Remember this, princess!” he snapped. “You will not be leaving this cell alive, and your family will not see you again. Except for when we put a fucking bullet in your head and drop your worthless body on the front steps of the palace. Three days.”

All Aelin wanted to do was tell him to fuck off, but she couldn’t. There were blackspots appearing in her vision, head becoming light. 

Arobynn held her down for a few more beats, until she was certain she was going to pass out. But then, he was suddenly gone, and glorious air rushed back into her lungs. Aelin rolled onto her side and hacked, trying to even her breathing again. 

Aelin’s eyes were watering as she watched Arobynn stand, straighten his suit, and stalk off without another word, leaving her alone in her cell once again.

She rubbed at her neck, the tender flesh that she knew would bruise. 

Arobynn wanted her dead, wanted the monarchy toppled, wanted power for himself. He was certain that she wouldn’t walk out of this cell. Three more days, he had threatened. 

No.

There was no way in hell.

She was Aelin fucking Galathynius, the heir of a mighty bloodline. She was strong and intelligent and most importantly, stubborn. She did some of her best work out of spite. Whether she would do it to spite Arobynn, or to spite the gods who seemed to have it out for her, she wasn’t going to take this lying down. It was more than a fight for her life, it was a fight for her kingdom, for her family.

Aelin was getting out of here, no matter what it took. 

Chapter Text

Rowan spent the following night scouring the city again. Aedion once more expressed his disapproval with what he was doing, but he understood. He, Lysandra, and Elide pitched in, helping Rowan research possible locations. Fenrys and Lorcan assisted as well, splitting territory with Rowan so they could cover more land in less time.

With every step Rowan took, Aelin’s engagement ring bounced just over his heart. He had strung it onto a simple, silver chain and wore it around his neck. That way there wouldn’t even be a moment where he let himself forget about where she was. 

The snows continued to fall thicker, but Rowan barely registered the cold.

It was another unsuccessful night.

They returned to the palace, dejected, frustrated. Rowan hadn’t slept in two days, felt as though he didn’t deserve it. He had been running purely on anger and desperation for over forty-eight hours. He didn’t think he could let himself rest until he found her. 

Early afternoon came. Rowan was back at it with his maps, running through possibility after possibility. They thought that they were at a building or warehouse, that they were somewhere within Orynth. But maybe they had been too quick to settle on that. Maybe she was far away now, on a ship. Or maybe they had taken a plane. 

Or, maybe not. Terrasen was the largest kingdom on the continent, and Orynth the largest city within it. There were thousands of nooks and crannies they could have hid Aelin.

The news had been talking about her kidnapping non-stop. At first, Terrasen’s investigators had been optimistic about the people knowing about what happened, thinking someone would see or know something that would point them in the right direction. Yet, after many unuseful tips and misidentified sightings of Aelin, it seemed that nothing good was coming out of it.

There was a knock on his door before it opened and Aedion stepped in, his face somber and grave. Rowan knew that whatever he came to share, it wasn’t good. 

“We got another message from them,” Aedion explained. “A video.”

Rowan followed the Ashryver prince to the control center. It was bustling, practically bursting with personnel. Maeve had called in some of her most talented computer scientists to help the cause. They, along with the team from Terrasen, were trying to find the source of the messages, studying and breaking down the videos in hopes of finding some kind of clue. As far as Rowan was aware, they were unsuccessful.

Maeve had headed back to Doranelle, though she would still offer her assistance.

The new video wasn’t much different from the first. It was Cairn, standing behind Aelin, spewing taunts and threats, reminding them that only two days remained until they were out of time. 

Rowan could hardly pay attention to his words, all he could see was Aelin.

She looked rough, to say the least. Dark, heavy circles had made their home under her eyes. Her golden hair was twisted up into a mess, nothing like the way it had looked a few days ago. The cut Cairn had left on her cheek had scabbed over, but it didn’t seem deep enough to leave a scar. 

Once again, there was a gag stretched between her lips, keeping her silent. Yet, Rowan’s eyes were glued on her throat, and the dark, finger-shaped bruises that decorated it. Someone had laid their hands on her again, and Rowan hadn’t been able to stop it. 

And despite the dismal situation, Aelin’s eyes burned with an inner fire. She looked straight into the camera, head held high, as if to say, I’m here. I’m with you. I’m still fighting.

Of course Aelin wouldn’t give up. Gods bless her stubborn soul. 

But… it was a good sign, at least. She hadn’t given up on herself, or them. She hadn’t let them break her.

Rowan didn’t think he could stand there and watch the teams work. The exhaustion hit him suddenly like a ton of bricks; keeping his eyes open became a monumental effort. He swept from the control room, not bothering with goodbyes.

He didn’t want to waste time sleeping, but he knew that he would be no good for anyone if he was sleeping on his feet. He just needed an hour or two to rest and recharge, and then he would jump right back into it. 

He managed to make it into his room, and he was practically asleep before he collapsed onto the bed. The blessed darkness consumed him quickly, dragging him down quickly into its depths.

But it seemed even in his slumber, he wouldn’t allow himself to find peace.

He found himself in that little, cement shoebox they used as Aelin’s cell. The edges of his vision were hazy, but he could see enough. 

Not that he was worried about his surroundings when Aelin was standing in front of him. 

She looked as she had in the video, hair falling limply down her back, pale face and chapped lips. Those bruises around her throat somehow seemed even darker, seemed to suck away all of the light around them.

She still wore her wedding gown. The silk skirts were wrinkled and the delicate lace on the bodice and sleeves was torn in multiple places.

Rowan didn’t even think about the impossibility of the situation; he was too relieved because she was right there. She was with him, and alive and unharmed for the most part.

“Aelin,” he whispered. Rowan tried to take a step towards her, but found he couldn’t gain an inch. He was stuck.

Aelin’s head tilted to the side, watching him with those stunning eyes of hers. 

“Where are you?” she rasped. 

Rowan’s heart wrenched in her chest at her words, the hopelessness in her voice. So at odds with the woman who had been in the video that day, but maybe it had all been a front. A way to comfort her family.

“We’re looking,” Rowan said pathetically. “We’re looking for you right now, Aelin. We just… we just don’t know yet.”

The expression on her face didn’t change at all. “I don’t have much time left. By this time tomorrow, it might be too late.”

“No. No, don't think that,” Rowan urged, wishing he could reach her, hold her, provide some kind of comfort. “We’re going to find you, Aelin.”

She shook her head. “No. You won’t.”

Rowan didn’t know what to say, not when she said what she did with such conviction. She held his gaze for a few more moments before everything began to fade. He tried his hardest to hold on to the image of Aelin, even if he knew somewhere deep down that it wasn’t real. 

But despite his best efforts, the dream slipped through his fingers.

Rowan woke up alone in his room, a hollow, empty feeling in his chest. He sighed heavily and sat up, digging his knuckles into his eyes, banishing the lingering fatigue from them. Although Aelin in his dream hadn’t been real, the emotions he felt were real enough.

Aelin was still out there.

He had to find her.

Aelin had been hurt before. 

A sprained ankle from rough-housing with Aedion as children, a concussion from falling from a tree she shouldn’t have tried to climb, a busted lip when she didn’t bob fast enough when training with Brullo. She had tiny scars and bruises she had accumulated over the years. 

Aelin wasn’t a helpless damsel. She had no problems getting scraped up now and again. It was inevitable. Brullo hadn’t pulled punches; not out of cruelty, but rather to teach her. She got bloody knuckles, small burns peppering her hands and forearms from used bullet casings when she was at the range.

Aelin had a high pain tolerance; she didn’t shed tears over cuts and bruises.

But gods, was that different from purposefully causing herself pain.

She wasn’t doing it for the hell of it, no. There was a reason, but it still hurt like a bitch.

Aelin had torn some silky strips from the bottoms of her skirts, bundling them up and creating a bite, hoping it would stop her from screaming and muffling any noises she may make by accident. The part of her that loved luxury and clothes cried at the fact she was ruining such a beautiful gown.

But the part of her that wanted to live was much louder and told her to do whatever it took. Even if it meant sacrificing the most beautiful dress she had ever worn.

Aelin chomped down on the roll of fabric, sucking down a few, bracing breaths. She stared intently down at her chained hands, knowing what she had to do but not looking forward to it. Regardless, it was now or never. Every second counted.

There was no point in hesitating any longer. It was time to bite the bullet.

Aelin popped her left thumb out of its socket with a tiny pop. She bit down hard on the fabric, whimpering through the gag. Her eyes burned with tears as she finally slipped her hand out one cuff. It hurt just as much popping it back into place. 

Aelin cursed each and every god as she repeated the process with the right thumb.  

Fucking fuck,” Aelin hissed, the profanities muffled by her gag. Those would be swollen later, maybe bruised. But she couldn’t bring herself to care.

She was free.

Aelin spat the fabric from her mouth, relishing the feeling of her now un-bound wrists. They were still raw and near-bleeding, but now they wouldn’t be irritated anymore. 

More importantly, she had means to escape.

She knew she wouldn’t be able to walk right out that door. They locked it when they left, opened it to come in and bring her water or record a taunt to her family, and then would lock it once again when they left. 

That meant she only had a short window of time to bust out. But she had to be patient. 

Aelin used her new-found freedom to pull back her hair, using a bit of fabric from her dress to tie it back. She would need full visibility to do what needed to be done.

And then, all there was left to do was wait.

She sat back on the bench, head tilted back against the cold wall. It had been so frigid in her cell, she had, at some point, stopped feeling the cold. She wondered if the snows had started to fall yet. It was possible. They weren’t far off when she had been taken.

Aelin rested her eyes as she waited, keeping her ears strained for the sound of any footfalls. When some approached, she sat up straighter and prepared herself. Yet, the first few times were false alarms.

It was about forty minutes after freeing herself that it did finally happen. Heavy footfalls reached her cell door; there was the sound of the lock clicking. Aelin hid her now-free hands in her skirts just as the metal door swung open and in strolled a tall, lanky man carrying a glass of water.

Maybe the gods were looking out for her a little. The man was one she hadn’t seen before, who was smaller and younger than the others. If it had been Arobynn or Cairn, it wouldn’t have been easy, but she had more than a chance now.

He was dressed in dark clothing, a gun resting on his hip. 

“You don’t happen to have some snacks hidden on you by chance?” Aelin asked as sweetly as she could.

The man glanced at her. Aelin could tell he tried to keep it quick, but there was a certain level of intrigue she picked up in his gaze. She was a princess, she was used to it. Regardless of who this man worked for, what he believed about the monarchy, Aelin was still a bit of a celebrity.

“Hungry?” he asked.

The small talk was a good sign. This would work in her favor.

Aelin let out a short, indecent moan. “Ravenous. I haven’t had a bite to eat in four days. So, do you have some chips? Or maybe a burger stashed on you?”

He looked like he wanted to laugh. “Afraid not.”

“Could you get me something?”

“I don’t think I’m allowed.”

Aelin bit her bottom lip and fluttered her lashes. “Is there something I could do to convince you?”

Aelin was a smart woman. She knew she was beautiful and she knew that men were stupid, which generally was a combination that worked out well for her. A shift in her posture, and simple touch to a man’s shoulder, a sultry laugh, and she could have them begging for her on their knees in no time. She also knew she looked a little worse for wear at the moment, but she knew how to work with what she had. Successfully, judging by the gleam in the man’s eyes.

The man raised a brow. “Such as?”

Aelin forced a vixen’s smile onto her lips, propping her heels up on the edge of the bench and angling her knees apart. The skirts managed to hide anything too scandalous, but she was sure he got the message.

The man didn’t move right away, not a complete fool. “You’re willing to give it up for a bag of chips?” he asked slowly.

“I figure if I’m going to die, I’d like to eat something one more time,” Aelin shrugged, watching each and every slow step the man took towards her. “And, if I’m going to die, I might as well get laid one more time.”

His brows rose. “When Mister Hamel said you weren’t the innocent little princess we thought you were, I didn’t believe him at first.”

Aelin struggled to contain her fury at the mention of Arobynn; the moment was too important to let emotions ruin it. “Why don’t you come here and see for yourself?”

The gleam in his eye was disgusting and she knew whatever was going through his head was vile and filthy. Regardless, she had succeeded. The man came closer, falling unwittingly into her web. And he would pay.

The man reached the bench, leaning over her, his too-eager hands already moving towards her breasts. 

Aelin struck.

One of her hands grabbed the gun, slipping it from its holster. Her other hand shot forward with a fast and dirty move that Brullo told her to only use in desperate circumstances. It sure as hell was desperate. She hit the man in the throat hard, using the junction of her thumb and forefinger. 

The man doubled over, choking and gagging instantly. Aelin made full use of the brief distraction, flicking off the safety on the gun, pointing the barrel under his chin, and firing.

Warm blood splattered across her face as his head rocked back and he dropped like a stone, limp body crumbling to the ground.

Aelin blinked, releasing a shaking breath.

Holy fuck. She had just killed someone.

She swallowed hard, glancing down at her once-pristine white gown. It had become a monochrome Jackson Pollock painting. Lysandra would be so disappointed, but she would have to get over it.

Aelin pushed herself onto shaking feet, willing herself to remain strong. She didn’t have time to freak out about taking someone’s life. She had to worry about her own. 

Aelin quickly searched the body of the man she had killed, finding an extra clip filled with bullets. She snatched that up and shoved it down the bodice of her gown. 

She knew that she had to work quickly and efficiently. There was no way in hell someone hadn’t heard that shot, meaning there were definitely men rushing in her direction. Every second she hesitated was a second she didn’t have to escape.

Aelin moved swiftly towards the door, her feet clad in nothing but a pair of sheer stockings. Her shoes had been lost somewhere along the way. The heels would have been impractical anyway. 

She sent a quick prayer to Mala, and to whatever god Brullo worshipped, knowing she would need every lesson he had ever taught her in the past fourteen years to get out. And then, she moved.

Aelin opened the door and checked the hall with her stolen gun held high. It was clear as of now, but in the distance, she could hear voices.

She stepped out into the hall, hugging the wall as she moved. Her steps were quiet, though her skirts made a bit too much noise for her liking. Not much she could do about that anyway. 

Shouts sounded closer to where she was, and Aelin’s heart jumped in her chest. Adrenaline was coursing through her veins as her grip tightened on the pistol. She could hear footsteps thundering her way from around the corner. Three men, by the sound of it. 

Aelin turned around the corner, eyes instantly zeroing in on the men. Her gun was already raised and she fired three quick shots. Each one struck true, and they hit the floor with cries of pain. Brullo would be proud. As she sprinted past their prone bodies, she swooped down and snatched up a gun they had dropped. 

She hated that she was completely clueless about the layout of this facility. All she could do was trust that her gut was telling her the right way to go. The gods owed her one after all the shit they had put her through in the past few days. 

Aelin pressed herself as flat against the wall as she could as another group rushed past. They were moving so fast that they didn’t even notice her. She was slipping down the hall before she knew it.

Think. She had to think. One wrong choice meant certain death.

The halls were a labyrinth of cold, cement walls and occasional doors. There were no signs, nothing marking the direction of an exit. It was a miracle anyone managed to find their way through here.

She turned a corner and nearly collided with someone. Aelin acted quickly, bringing the butt of the pistol down on his head. The man collapsed, and would probably have a nasty headache if he ever awoke. 

Just as she looked up from the man she had just disabled, someone appeared at the other end of the hall. Someone familiar, at that. 

Cairn. 

She saw recognition and then fury flash through his dark eyes, as he reached for the gun at his side. Aelin fired before he could raise it, hitting his right shoulder. Cairn cursed a filthy, rotten curse, clutching the wound as his gun clattered to the ground. 

Bitch,” he growled. He moved to grab the gun with his other hand, but Aelin didn’t hesitate before pulling the trigger once more and hitting his knee cap.

Cairn fell, more profanities falling from his lips. Aelin reached his side and kicked away the weapon, raising an unimpressed eyebrow at his writhing, whimpering form and the pools of blood growing around him.

“If you’re going to insult me,” Aelin drawled. “You could at least think of something more creative than bitch.

Her fist whipped out and struck true across his cheek. It was an effective hit, knocking him out. Hitting him with the gun would have worked as well, and would have spared her knuckles from splitting, but she wanted the satisfaction of doing it herself. If anything, the stinging of broken flesh merely invigorated her further, reminded her she was still alive and intended to keep it that way. 

She spat on Cairn for good measure before stalking down the halls again. She took out the spent clip and replaced it with the full one she had stashed in her bodice. 

Aelin continued down the path she was heading, figuring there had to be an exit somewhere. She would keep moving until she found one.

The halls had become starkly quiet, only the sound of Aelin’s breath and the swish of her skirts filling the cold air. Every time she turned a corner, her gun was held high, ready to fire. She wondered what she looked like in those moments. Hair wild, wearing a wedding dress, soaked in the blood of other men. 

Aelin’s heart was a pounding wardrum in her ears.

Close. She had to be close.

She turned one more corner, her stomach dropping when, at first glance, it appeared to be a deadend. But no. There was a door at the end. A bit of hazy light spilled from beneath it through the gap between the bottom and the floor. A cold draft blew from under the door, making her legs break out into gooseflesh. But… it smelled of pine and snow, of her home .

A shaky smile found its way onto her lips as she took a step towards freedom.

But something cold and metal bumped into the back of her head.

“I’m impressed, princess,” Arobynn Hamel purred. “You did quite a number on my men.”

Fuck.

“It’s amazing you were able to pull off what you did with this shoddy excuse for a team,” Aelin said back, hoping her voice held more bravado than she truly felt.

Arobynn laughed lowly. “Why don’t you put down that gun and I’ll take you back to your cell?”

“Why wait? Just pull the trigger. You’re going to kill me by the end of the day, anyway.”

“Very true.” Arobynn pressed the gun harder into the back of her head. “But, since you’ve killed so many of my men, I’ve decided I want to take my time with you. You’ll be dead before the sun sets, but it won’t be fast, princess.”

Aelin knew she was between a rock and a hard place. By that, she meant death now or death later. There was a gun pressing into the back of her head and if she made even the slightest mistake, her brains would be splattered against the wall. If she did what he told her to, she would surely be dead by the end of the day.

There was only one thing to do, and she only had one chance to do it. 

She moved as fast as her body would allow. Aelin spun and grabbed his wrist, dragging it down away from her head. Her own gun rose, pointing just underneath Arobynn’s chin.

Time slowed in that moment. Aelin noted every miniscule twitch of muscle of Arobynn’s face in those few milliseconds: the curl of his upper lip, the flash of rage in his silver eyes, the slight raise of his brows, the only sign of fear she had ever seen on his face.

They pulled their triggers at the same time. 

A sharp, burning pain burst through the left side of Aelin’s abdomen. She had been shot.

But Aelin had the better angle.

Arobynn’s head rocked back as the bullet passed through his head, a splatter of blood spraying across her face, soaking into her hair. His limp body tipped forward, threatening to knock Aelin off her feet. She managed to shrug off his dead weight, but not before the entire front of her gown was stained a crimson red. 

And Arobynn Hamel was dead. 

The dull sound of his body hitting the floor echoed through Aelin’s mind. Soon, it was drowned out by a high-pitched ringing that bounced around her ears. She might have blown out an eardrum with that final shot. 

Aelin pressed her hand into her abdomen, white-hot pain flowing through her. The wound was gushing blood, slowly saturating her skirts. Gods, that couldn’t all be coming from her, could it? The hand she had pressed against her wound was stained a bright red.

Her vision was swimming, legs weak, but her eyes still rose to that door, towards freedom. She had to get there.

Aelin began stumbling towards it, resting her weight against the wall, her bloody hands leaving red streaks against the cement. Good gods, it hurt like hell, but she wasn’t going to let that stop her. Not when she had fought so hard. 

Keep going. She had to keep fucking going. Arobynn was dead, she couldn’t let him win from hell. 

Aelin threw her weight into the door, stumbling into the bitingly cold fresh air. She almost fell as her bare feet were met with a shin-high pile of snow, but she managed to right herself before she took a tumble. 

The day was gray and dreary. It was hard to tell what time it was when the heavens were obscured by heavy, dark clouds. 

Aelin cast a sweeping look at her surroundings, hoping to deduce where the hell she had been taken. It looked like an icy wasteland; blinding white snow and nondescript gray buildings. Maybe they actually weren’t nondescript and her vision was just swimming.

It didn’t matter. She had to keep moving.

Aelin trudged through the snow, her toes growing numb from the cold. Each step became harder and harder, but she couldn’t give up, wouldn’t give up. 

She should be shivering from the cold, but she wasn’t. It wasn’t a good sign.

One more step, Aelin thought to herself over and over. Just one more step.

She tried, but eventually, her strength failed her. Aelin’s legs gave out and she collapsed back into the soft bed of snow, barely even feeling the burning cold. 

She had to get up. She had to. 

But Aelin couldn’t. There was no strength left in her body, no way she could push to her feet even if she wanted to. 

Aelin looked up towards the gray sky, watching as fat flakes of snow drifted from the clouds and kissed her face. It sucked that she was going to die here, bleeding out in the snow or freezing to death, whichever came first. She had been so close to being in the clear, to getting home, to finding Rowan and telling him how she truly felt.

If she had one regret in life, it would be that she never got to tell Rowan that she was in love with him.

A lone tear fell from the corner of her eye, cutting a burning path down her cheek. Her short breaths clouded before her face, becoming smaller with each passing one. Aelin’s vision began to grow darker and darker, trying to hold on for as long as she possibly could.

But eventually, her eyes fluttered shut and her head lolled to the side.

Oblivion was swift as it claimed her.

Chapter Text

Every minute that passed by without news as to Aelin’s location felt like a flaming knife plunging into Rowan’s heart. It was a reminder that he had failed, and he kept on failing. His own shortcomings would have a direct effect on the woman he loved. 

The day was coming to an end, the sun nearly complete with its descent. Rowan didn’t know what condition Aelin was in. Today was the last day they had to either find her or choke up the money. They had yet to do either.

Rowan knew there were some out there who had already given up hope and were grieving their princess. But not him. He wouldn’t give up.

And yet he had been on edge for the past three hours, waiting for someone to come up to him and tell him that he had failed, that Aelin was dead. Every time he heard someone’s steps near the library, where he was working, he felt his heart preparing itself for tragedy.

When the sky began to darken, Rowan felt the hopelessness begin to creep up on him. He couldn’t lose her… he couldn’t. 

He didn’t know what he was going to do with himself without Aelin. In the months they had spent together, she had become such a vital, important part of his life he couldn’t imagine it without her. He had even let himself start picturing a life with her after they got married. 

It would have been good.

They would have been happy. 

Rowan leaned back in his seat, dragging a frustrated hand down his face. He had forced himself to remain strong these past few days but he was at the end of his tether. His eyes burned with tears that practically begged to be shed.

He sent a silent prayer to Mala, knowing that the goddess held Aelin in her heart. He prayed for her safety, for her salvation. Should Mala come through, she would become the god that Rowan prayed to everyday.

He scoured his map again and again, hoping his mind would find something he had missed, something new would click. 

Rowan wasn’t sure how much time had passed, only knowing the sun had set. Even if the final day had ended, he didn’t stop working. If he stopped working, that meant it was over. He wasn’t ready to admit that, to admit defeat. 

To admit Aelin was truly gone. 

The tip of Rowan’s finger traced the winding roads on the map, but it paused its track when he heard the sound of someone running at full-speed towards him. Rowan’s heart stopped for a moment, bracing himself for news.

Aedion skidded to a stop outside the library doors, chest heaving with the heavy breaths he sucked down. His turquoise eyes instantly found Rowan.

Rowan searched Aedion’s face, trying to find clues about whatever it was he came to share. His brows were furrowed, eyes worried, but not heartbroken.

“They found her,” Aedion gasped. “Aelin. They found her.”

The air in Rowan’s lungs escaped all at once as he pushed to his feet. He almost didn’t believe he had heard the Ashryver prince correctly, that he imagined it. But no. It was real. 

“Where is she?” Rowan whispered.

“Orynth General,” Aedion said, naming the biggest hospital in the city. “I… I don’t know much, but they said she’s- she’s hurt pretty bad. We’re heading there now.”

Rowan nodded and moved quickly, following Aedion. They sprinted through the halls down towards the garage where the others were waiting. Orlon and Darrow were already seated in one car, buckling themselves in. Lysandra was tying her hair back with an elastic Fenrys lended her, Lorcan running a comforting hand up and down Elide’s back. 

They piled into one of the dark sedans the palace used and tore from the underground garage. 

Rowan knew the drivers were speeding, but it still felt far too slow. He had to get to that hospital, had to see Aelin. No one was aware of the extent of her injuries, and the anticipation was eating away at him.

Rowan was out of the car almost before it had slowed to a complete stop outside the hospital. They all rushed through the doors in a wave, filing into the entry room and storming up to the desk. Rowan felt bad for the young nurse working there, who no doubt recognized her king before her.

“Aelin Galathynius,” Orlon panted. “Where is she?”

The nurse blinked once, probably unaware that the princess was anywhere within the facility. 

“One moment, Your Highness,” the nurse squeaked, reaching for the phone and making a quick call.

Rowan didn’t pay much attention to her murmurings, too wired. He couldn’t stand sitting here waiting when he knew Aelin was somewhere in this building, hurt. He considered just taking off and searching the halls all by himself until he found her. 

But a doctor swept into the room, coming straight towards them. 

“Your Majesty,” he said, addressing Orlon with a quick bow. “You can all come with me.”

“Do you know how she is?” Aedion asked as they strode briskly through the hospital halls.

“I’m afraid not,” the doctor said. “They took her right into surgery and I haven’t heard anything.” They arrived at a private waiting room with a couple couches and chairs, the walls painted a soothing, pale yellow. There were two people already waiting there, standing up as they walked in. 

“You can wait here until we have some more news for you,” the doctor announced. He motioned towards the people standing, a man and a woman. “These are the people who found the princess. They might be able to fill in some blanks for you.”

With that, the doctor left and shut the door behind them. 

Rowan took a moment to study the strangers standing there. They both wore dark clothing, somber and serious looks on their faces. One was a man, the other a woman. 

The woman was a good deal shorter than the man. She was lovely, with gold-dusted skin, wine-red hair pulled back into a high ponytail, and intriguing golden eyes. The man was tall and strong, light brown skin, dark, angular eyes, and silky black hair falling just past his chin. He seemed a bit less approachable than his female counterpart.

“You two found Aelin?” Elide asked, the first one willing to break the silence.

The woman nodded. “We did. She was outside a warehouse in the old industrial district on the outskirts of the city.”

“And you just happened to come across her?” Aedion asked, brows furrowing. 

The man’s lips tightened. “Not exactly.”

The woman stepped forward, bowing respectfully towards Orlon. “My name is Bryce Quinlan and this is my partner Hunt Athalar. We are on a task force from Lunathion, tracing shipments of a new drug that originated in our city.”

“Our investigation led us to Orynth,” the man, Hunt, continued, crossing his arms over his chest. “We knew there was a big dealer somewhere here. We didn’t know who, at first, but then we traced everything to Arobynn Hamel. We decided to head to a warehouse he owned under a different name, thinking there would be some answers there. But when we got there…”

“We found the princess outside, unconscious,” Bryce finished. Her face was tight, eyes pitying. 

“What happened to her?” Lysandra asked. “She’s hurt, isn’t she?”

The newcomers hesitated a moment.

“Gunshot wound,” Hunt said simply. “Close range, in the abdomen. Heavy bleeding. I don’t know much more than that. We called for an ambulance immediately.”

Rowan stood there silently, his mind racing. Aelin was alive, in surgery, most likely getting a bullet pulled from her stomach. And the man to blame… the man who had taken her, had been lingering in the shadows the entire time. Right under their noses.

Arobynn Hamel. 

“Is he being arrested?” Rowan demanded. “Hamel? Is he already in custody?”

“Not needed,” Hunt said. “He’s dead.”

Dead. 

Rowan shook his head and ground his jaw. It was unfair that he didn’t receive punishment for what he did, that he didn’t suffer longer. He should have been locked away for the rest of his miserable life. Hell, Rowan would have liked to see him once more for himself.

“Who killed him?” Fenrys asked.

“We think she did,” Bryce explained. “Aelin, I mean.”

“She… did some serious damage in there.” Hunt nodded appreciatively. “Didn’t expect that.”

Of course she did. All those hours she had spent training with Brullo, at the shooting range, working harder and harder. There was no way in hell those assholes had been expecting that. 

Regardless of his fear and frustrations and worries… for the first time since the wedding went to hell, Rowan had hope.

A few hours trudged by, the minutes seemingly stretching longer and longer. The ignorance was what was truly painful, not knowing what was happening to Aelin in that operating room. They wouldn’t know anything until it was done.

Rowan hadn’t moved from the seat he had taken in the corner, lost in his thoughts. Fenrys had ventured out once to get some shitty snacks for everyone else. He had offered him a bag of chips, but Rowan hadn’t had the stomach for any kind of food. 

The two agents from Lunathion remained. They wanted to make sure that Aelin was alright, and hoped to ask her some questions once she had the strength to. Bryce sat with Lysandra and Elide, seemingly getting along swimmingly. Rowan heard a few witty snips from the red-head, knowing Aelin would like her if they met. They had that same fiery spirit. 

The man, Hunt, was more reserved. They seemed to be near opposites but when Rowan would look up at him, Hunt would be watching Bryce with a fond softness on his normally rigid face. He cared for her, it was clear. 

Going into the second hour without any news, the others had kept their distance from Rowan, knowing he needed his space. But, someone sat beside him. Hunt.

He didn’t say anything at first, giving Rowan the impression he wasn’t one for words. Something he could relate to.

“I’m sorry about all of this,” Hunt said at length. 

Rowan was silent at a few moments, unsure of what to say. He didn’t know this man, but he owed him a great deal of thanks. “It’s… it’s not how I expected this all to go.”

It was an understatement. Nothing had gone the way he had planned from the first moment he had met Aelin. She had been throwing him curveballs from the get go. Aelin wasn’t what he had expected, their relationship had been a confusing whirlwind, he never thought his feelings for her would become what they currently were. 

“Was she awake at all when you were with her?” Rowan asked.

Hunt shook his head.

Rowan sighed. “Tell me what she was like when you saw her.”

Hunt cringed slightly. “It’s not pretty.”

“Tell me the truth. Please.”

Rowan watched as Hunt sighed and rubbed at his eyes. The dark-haired man leaned back in his seat, threading his fingers over his stomach. 

“When we saw her, we thought she was already dead,” Hunt admitted. “She had bled out in the snow. She was so pale and so cold. Her lips were tinted blue. We couldn’t tell she was in her wedding dress at first, there was so much blood on it. It really looked like we were too late. But, she was barely breathing and her heart was beating faintly. If we had been a few minutes later… I don’t think she would have made it.”

The image Hunt painted played in Rowan’s mind, the thought of the woman he loved in such a vulnerable, helpless position made his heart throb. It wasn’t fair that she had suffered like that. It should have been him.

“Thank you,” Rowan rasped. “For getting her here. Gods, I just wish that bastard Hamel would have suffered more. He deserved to rot in jail.”

“Well, the boss might not, but one of my team found a couple of Hamel’s men alive in there. Most of them are already in custody, but one of them had been shot twice. He’s in this hospital somewhere.”

“Do you have his name?”

“Cairn.”

Rowan sat up straighter at the mention of that name; the entire room seemed to fall into silence. The rat himself was somewhere in this building, and it seemed Aelin had gotten a couple of good shots in. Good for her.

“What room?” Aedion asked.

Aedion ,” Orlon scolded. “You can’t do anything reckless.”

“It’s not reckless if I’ve been carefully planning out exactly how I’d kill Cairn if I ever saw him again. I think then it’s well thought out and responsible.”

Darrow shook his head disapprovingly. “You still can’t just go there and-”

“Room one-thirteen,” Bryce announced, looking up from her phone. It appeared she had texted one of her colleagues for the information while they had been debating.

Bryce!” Hunt chided.

“What?” she said, holding up her hands in defence. “It’s not like they’re going to kill him. And don’t act you wouldn’t do the same thing if he had taken someone you cared about.”

Hunt looked like he wanted to argue, but simply ended up huffing out a short breath. Rowan recognized that look. Bryce was used to getting her way, and Hunt had gotten used to losing. 

“Excellent,” Aedion said, pushing to his feet. “Rowan?”

He was almost already out the door. “Let’s go.”

He and Aedion stormed down the halls, searching for room one-thirteen. They ignored the looks doctors, nurses, and patients shot them as they moved, no doubt confused as to why two princes were scouring their halls. 

It didn’t take long for them to find the room. It especially wasn’t hard to miss with the two, burly guards stationed outside the door. They stood straighter when they saw Rowan and Aedion making a beeline for the door.

“I’m sorry, Your Highnesses,” one said, crossing his arm in front of the doorknob before they could reach it. “We can’t let you in there.”

Aedion ground his jaw. “He kidnapped my cousin.” He jerked his head towards Rowan. “ On their wedding day.”

The guards looked guilty. “I understand. And believe me when I say I think he deserves nothing more than to get beaten to a bloody pulp, but we need him alive for the trial.”

Rowan supposed he saw the reasoning. Part of him wanted to maim Cairn for what he had done, but he knew that Cairn needed to see justice for what he did. Not only that, there was a good chance that he would be able to provide information that could lead to the arrest of others who wanted to hurt Aelin and the royal family.

He and Aedion gave bregruding nods, shifting away from the door and instead planting themselves in front of the window that gave a view into Cairn’s room. 

The man was tied down in the hospital bed, eyes shut. Either sleeping peacefully or still knocked out. There was a dark bruise blooming on his cheek, bandages wrapped around his shoulder and his leg propped up. Hunt had said he had been shot twice. Once was clearly in the shoulder, Rowan would wager the other was in the knee. Smart choices by Aelin. 

They lingered in the window for a few moments before anything changed. As if he felt that he was being watched, Cairn’s eyes began to flutter open. It took a few moments before his eyes began to clear, recognizing where he was. His face was tight in pain, jaw clenched tightly. Good. He needed to suffer a bit. Rowan hoped every ounce of pain reminded him of just who, exactly, had dealt those wounds. 

Cairn’s gaze eventually lifted towards them, and his already pale face lost the last bits of color. Rowan saw his throat bob as he swallowed hard, eyes flickering back and forth between him and Aedion.

Rowan took a savage sort of pleasure in the fact he looked utterly petrified. 

Neither of the princes moved, they didn’t falter. They pinned Cairn down with their gazes and refused to back down.

They may not be able to lay a finger on him, but they would ensure he didn’t know peace.

Rowan didn’t know how long they stood there, pinning Cairn with their gazes and refusing to relent. The man squirmed uncomfortably, but wasn’t able to move far with his restrained hands. Fitting, since he had bound Aelin’s wrists earlier that week. Cairn tried to avert his gaze, but couldn’t escape the princes.

Eventually, Cairn was rescued by a doctor sweeping into the room. He seemed relieved, but the doctor only looked at him with a cold disdain. The doctor’s hands weren’t quite gentle as she poked and prodded at Cairn’s injuries, making him wince and grind his jaw.

“Let’s go,” Rowan said at length. “Maybe they have news about Aelin.”

They headed back to the waiting room, only to learn that there hadn’t been anything said about the princess yet. Rowan tried not to let himself be too disappointed by it.

For another thirty minutes, they waited as patiently as they could. Rowan sat quietly, fuming, mind racing fast and faster. Lorcan sat beside him, a silent yet somewhat comforting presence. Bryce was chattering, trying to fill the silence and distract them a bit. It might have worked for the others, but not so much for Rowan. Still, he appreciated the effort.

Eventually, there was a polite knock on the door before it opened. Rowan rose to his feet just as a surgeon walked into the room. Although he seemed weary, there was still a brightness to his eyes. It gave Rowan hope.

“Good evening,” he greeted, though it was well into the night. He bowed quickly at the waist in Orlon’s direction before straightening. “My name is Doctor Nox Owen. I imagine you have some questions regarding the princess. Allow me to begin by saying she is currently in stable condition.”

Immense relief flowed through Rowan at the surgeon’s words. Aelin was alive, she was safe. 

“Oh, thank the gods,” Orlon breathed. Beside him, Darrow looked to the ceiling and shot a prayer to the heavens. 

“The princess was shot in the abdomen,” Doctor Owen explained. “Luckily, it didn’t hit any organs, though there was extensive bleeding. Aelin lost a lot of blood before she made it to the hospital. She experienced mild hypothermia, malnutrition, and slight dehydration. There was bruising around her throat, fractures in the knuckles of her right hand, and swelling on her thumb joints. Besides that, just scattered cuts and bruises.”

“Will there be any lingering damage?” Aedion question.

“Besides a scar from the bullet, no. I expect she will make a full recovery,” Doctor Owen looked towards Bryce and Hunt. “Thank goodness you two found her when you did. She wouldn’t have lasted much longer out there.”

“Is she awake?” 

“Not yet. The princess’ body had been through a traumatic experience. She needs a lot of time to heal. I’m not sure how long it will be until she awakes.”

“Can we see her?” Rowan asked, needing to see Aelin with his own eyes to verify everything that he had just heard.

Doctor Owen nodded. “Of course. Follow me.”

The surgeon led them through the hospital until they reached a private suite. There were two security guards stationed outside her door, ensuring that no one else would be able to lay a hand on her. Once they saw their king approaching, they bowed and stepped aside.

Rowan didn’t go in immediately, slipping off to the side and standing before the window, peeking into the room. He watched as Orlon, Darrow, Aedion, Elide, and Lysandra flowed into the room, watched as their faces contorted into sorrow as they laid eyes on the princess. He heard Orlon releasing a shaking sob, the rest of them following suit, finally giving in to the emotions they had been trying to keep at bay for so long.

Rowan hardly paid attention to the crying family, eyes pinned on the woman he had been prepared to marry.

Aelin was nearly unrecognizable. The woman laying on that hospital bed couldn’t be the same as the one who had been walking down the aisle five days ago. Aelin had been a radiant bride, glowing in her gown, smiling widely.

And now…

Aelin was pale. So pale. The blood loss had stolen the flush from her cheeks, the brightness of her skin. The bruise across her cheek and the ones snaking across her throat stood out even more against her washed-out flesh. The drab hospital gown she wore did little to help liven her up. Gods, he knew she would hate it. Creature of luxury. 

Her golden hair was fanned out across her pillow, messy, tangled. He supposed there hadn’t been time to fix it between surgery and now. There was an oxygen mask over her mouth, a few IVs hanging around her, providing some much-needed fluids. 

Aelin. Who stood so tall, who burned brightly and spoke her mind, the woman with a sharp wit and wicked tongue, the future queen… she had never looked so small before. 

Rowan watched as her family circled her bed, Aedion smoothing away her hair and Lysandra squeezing her hand. He was thankful they were reunited again.

A presence slipped up on either of Rowan’s sides. Bryce and Hunt.

“She’s a fighter,” Hunt commented, looking in on the princess. “Both physically and mentally. She’s going to be fine.”

“When she wakes up, after she has some time to rest and recover,” Bryce said, holding out a slip of paper for Rowan, “ask if she would give us a call.”

Rowan nodded and took the card from her, slipping it into his pocket. “I will. Thank you both again for getting her back to us.”

“You’re very welcome.”

Bryce raised a playful brow. “I hope you two still manage to have a nice wedding. And honeymoon. You deserve it after this.”

Rowan released a short laugh. “She deserves the world.”

The pair said a quiet goodbye before slipping away down the hall. They had some work cut out for them, as did Terrasen’s investigation teams. There were plentiful documents found in Arobynn’s warehouse that would help them with tracing their drug. And, would help them find anyone else Arobynn was working with and lead to their arrests.

Rowan lingered outside the suite as Aelin’s family sat with her. He knew they were talking, either with the unconscious princess or amongst each other. Either way, he didn’t want to interrupt the sacred moment. 

He was patient. Time didn’t have meaning anymore, not like it had been for the past week where every second could have meant the difference between life and death for Aelin. She was safe now, resting. He would wait however long it was necessary to be with her again.

Eventually, Aedion slipped from the room. His eyes were red from crying, but he was happy and relieved, that much was clear. 

“Orlon’s exhausted and needs some rest,” the Ashryver prince explained. “We’re heading back to the palace for a bit, to rest and bathe for a bit. You want to come?”

Rowan shook his head. “No. I think I’ll stay here with Aelin.”

Aedion gave a tiny small. “I figured you’d say that. We’ll bring you back a change of clothes.”

He clasped Rowan’s shoulder firmly as the rest of his family streamed from Aelin’s suite. The events of the past few days all seemed to take their toll on them. They all had tired eyes, shoulders slumping slightly, the weight of the world resting on them all. They had all been running on full-speed for the past five days. They were about to crash.

They all said a brief farewell, stumbling down the hall towards the car that would take them back to the palace.

Rowan didn’t go into the room right away, lingering in front of the window for a few more heartbeats. He sucked down a deep, bracing breath, nodding at the guards stationed outside her door, before stepping in.

The room was quiet, save for the steady beep of her heart monitor. Rowan stepped softly, not wanting to make too much noise. He knew that she wouldn’t wake up if he was loud, she wasn’t really sleeping. 

Someone had already pulled a seat up to the side of her bed. Rowan lowered himself into it, eyes glued on Aelin the entire time. She was so still, she could have been carved from marble. 

“Aelin…” he rasped, feeling his eyes burn as he looked towards her. He looked towards her hand, the already scabbing cuts on her knuckles. Rowan reached out slowly and took her hand within his. Her fingers were cold. 

He couldn’t find the words to say for a while, just sitting there and watching the shallow rise and fall of her chest. The beep of the monitor filled his head. 

“Fireheart…” Rowan murmured at length, using his free hand to stroke her hair. “I’m so sorry. I wish none of this had happened. It- it should have been me.”

The tears began to fall, hot and racing down his face. 

“I should have stopped it. I should have found you,” Rowan continued. He didn't bother to wipe the tears away as they dripped down his face, dampening the scratchy sheets on Aelin’s cot. He leaned forward and pressed his lips against her forehead. He lingered there for a few moments, savoring the warmth of her skin, her scent.

“You were alone, but I’m here now.” Rowan settled back in the seat, holding her hand tighter. “And I promise I’ll be here for you now, no matter what. To whatever end.”

He wished she would do something to show that she understood his words. A blink or a twitch of her fingers but… there was nothing. She just kept breathing. Yet, that was enough. 

“I love you, Aelin Galathynius,” Rowan said. “I’ll be here when you’re ready.”

Chapter Text

Three long days dragged by. 

Rowan rarely left Aelin’s side, making his home in the seat by her bed. He left his post on only a few occasions. To relieve himself, to shower in the en suite bathroom (they were fortunate enough that Aelin had been given a nice, private room as she healed), or to move to allow one of her family members to sit beside her.

The days were monotonous. He sat there, the air filled with the steady beep of her heart monitor. He would eat when he had the stomach to, doze off when his eyes became too heavy to keep open. Nurses would come in, examine Aelin and her IVs, change her bandages, make sure everything was progressing properly.

The doctors and nurses assured him that everything was looking good. It was still hard to believe them when Aelin hadn’t even stirred. Yet, he held on to hope with all that he had in him.

The others traveled back and forth between the hospital and the palace. Orlon and Darrow were working on damage control, speaking to the media, updating the country on the state of the princess and the organization that had taken her. 

Confessions from Cairn as well as documents found in Arobynn Hamel’s warehouse led to the arrests of plenty of others as well as plenty of new starting points in their investigation. It was a relief to hear, to know that there were less and less people out there who wanted to hurt Aelin.

It was late. The sun had long ago disappeared behind the mountaintops, the sky descending into a cold, snowy night. Aelin’s family had headed home a few hours ago, leaving him alone with Aelin. 

Rowan tried to keep himself distracted with the book Elide had brought for him. It had worked for about an hour or two before he had marked his page and leaned back in his seat. He was content to watch the snow fall through the windows, a deceivingly peaceful sight. 

Part of him wished he could sleep, but his body didn’t seem to want to obey. Most nights had been sleepless as of late. Still, he laced his fingers across his stomach, tilted his head back, and tried to at least rest his eyes. He breathed deeply through his nose, trying to release the tension he held in his body from the position he kept himself in all day.

He wasn’t sure how much time passed as he rested, trying mostly unsuccessfully to forget about his troubles for a moment. 

But then he heard it.

A sigh.

Rowan’s eyes flew open, sitting bolt upright and looking towards where the sound had come from. Aelin.

He stared at her prone from, hardly daring to blink, in case he missed something. 

She didn’t move. Not a fluttering lash or even a change in the pattern of her breath. Rowan couldn’t stop the disappointment from flooding through him. Perhaps it had been his imagination, maybe his desperate soul had dreamed it. 

He had just about given up hope when movement caught his eye. Aelin’s fingers twitched, curling into the sheets she laid on. Her eyelids began flickering, a soft groan coming from her throat.

Rowan grabbed her hand, watching her face as it twisted and contorted. She was waking up.

Finally, finally, Aelin’s eyes cracked open. Rowan’s heart jumped in his chest as she blinked slowly, clearing her gaze. Those stunning eyes of hers were open, but he could tell they weren’t truly seeing anything at first. They were heavily-lidded and glued on the ceiling for a few, too-long heartbeats.

And as quickly as it had come, it changed.

Aelin eyes flashed in fear, sucking down a sharp and terror-filled breath. Her body flinched and she cried out, probably from bothering her wound. Rowan didn’t know what to do as she tore her hand out of his, clawing at the oxygen mask on her face.

“Take it off,” she sobbed, her voice terribly raw. She managed to rip off her oxygen mask, going immediately after the IVs in her arms. “Take it off, take it off!”

Rowan acted as quickly as he could, grabbing Aelin’s wrists and prying her hands away from her arms before she hurt herself or tore her stitches in her panic. He didn’t want to restrain her, but he had to. 

Aelin writhed and struggled against his grip, and it broke his heart to see the pure, unadulterated terror in her eyes. 

Aelin,” Rowan said once, hoping to ground her with his voice. It was clear she didn’t recognize where she was quite yet. So, he repeated himself. “ Aelin, you’re okay. You’re okay. You’re safe now. You’re free.”

Something clicked then, and she instantly stopped struggling. She blinked, and then there was clarity in her eyes. She took a few moments to look at her hands, her body, her surroundings, before she finally turned to look at him. Those vibrant eyes of hers were swimming with unshed tears. She swallowed hard.

“Rowan?” Aelin croaked.

A watery smile worked its way to his lips. Hearing her voice again destroyed him and built him up again all over. It was the most beautiful thing he had ever heard. 

“Hey there, Fireheart.”

That was her undoing. Aelin’s face shattered and she surged forward with a sob, throwing her arms around his neck and burying her face in his shoulder. Rowan instantly enveloped her in his arms, feeling her body shake as she cried. He tangled his fingers in her hair, feeling tears of his own making well in his eyes. 

She was here, she was alive, she was safe.

“Oh gods,” Aelin wept. He had never seen her cry like this before. “I- I thought I was dead. I should be dead. Arobynn, and- and…”

“Breathe, Aelin,” Rowan murmured softly. “Take a breath.”

She followed his words, sucking down a deep, wobbling breath. She pulled back far enough to meet his gaze. “My family. Arobynn said no one was hurt but he’s a lying piece of shit and I-”

“They’re safe. All of them,” Rowan explained gently. “Ress was shot in the leg, but he’s already on the mend.”

Her eyes narrowed. “They hurt Ress? Gods, I should have made them suffer more.”

Despite everything that had happened, Rowan laughed. Aelin was still Aelin, no matter what horrors she had gone through.

“How long have I been here?” Aelin asked. “Where’s everyone else?”

“You’ve been here for three days. Your family is back at the palace, getting some sleep. They’ve been busy since you arrived here.”

She nodded before wincing, placing a hand on her stomach, over her healing wound. Aelin frowned to herself. “That bastard really shot me, huh? Probably gonna leave a nasty scar.”

Rowan followed her gaze, as if he could see through the hospital gown and bandages to the wound beneath. His heart clenched painfully in his chest. “I’m sorry, Aelin.”

“It’s okay. I don’t really get to wear bikinis anyway.”

“No, I mean I’m sorry this happened to you. I’m sorry I couldn’t stop it, I’m sorry I couldn’t find you in time, and I’m sorry you got hurt because of it.” Rowan’s eyes flickered down. “I’m sorry I failed you.”

Silence blanketed them, heavy and smothering. 

“You can’t think like that, Rowan,” Aelin rasped, placing her palm on his cheek and urging him to look at her. “You didn’t fail me, not even close. Thinking of you, thinking of my family… it made me want to fight. It’s the reason I’m here now.”

Rowan covered the back of her hand with his own, pressing it more firmly into his face. He met her eyes again, every feeling he held for her rushing at once to the surface. He remembered the last conversation they’d had the night before she had been swept away at the wedding. He had confessed his love for her, but she hadn’t responded. Yet, at the wedding, she had looked as if she wanted to say something to him when she got to the altar.

Only she never got the chance.

“Aelin…” Rowan whispered. “I just-”

The door opened and a doctor strolled in, grinning when she saw that Aelin was awake. She bowed at the waist politely, unaware that she had interrupted something. Rowan leaned away from the princess, who settled back in her bed as if nothing had happened.

“Your Highness,” the doctor spoke. “I’m glad to see that you’re finally awake. How are you feeling?”

“I’m in a bit of pain,” Aelin admitted, wiggling in her spot in an attempt to ease some of the discomfort. “And I’m exhausted.”

The doctor nodded and checked her charts. “That’s to be expected. I’ll get you on some pain medication and the nurses will be in soon to check your wounds again. I’ll send word to your family that you’re awake.”

Rowan watched as Aelin smiled and gave a shallow, thankful nod. “Thank you so much.”

Rowan had hoped that they would have some time alone, but as soon as the doctor swept out, the nurses streamed in. It mattered not. He had waited this long, he could wait longer. 

Aelin sent him a tiny smile.

Yes. He could wait.

Aelin sat patiently as the nurses came and gave her a checkup, checking her vitals, changing her dosages. She tried not to cringe as she caught her first glimpse at the wound Arobynn had left. It was a bit of puckered, red skin, tied together by a handful of stitches. It was ugly and painful.

Maybe in the past, Aelin would have been pissed about the scar that now decorated her body. But now, she would wear it as a badge of pride. That she had fought, and she had triumphed. 

As the nurses chatted with her and asked her questions, Aelin couldn’t stop herself from throwing glances at Rowan. Every time she looked at him, he was already looking at her with a smile on his lips.

Her heart was full as she looked at Rowan. One of the thoughts that had kept her going was seeing Rowan again and telling him that she loved him. As soon as they were alone again, she had to tell him. She hadn’t gotten shot for nothing.

She had wondered what it would be like to see Rowan again after she was freed. She’d worried that her inability to respond when he had confessed his feelings to her would’ve built walls back up between them. And yet… it felt good. Natural. It had been wonderful to see Rowan when she woke.

For a moment, when she had first awoken and her world was blurry, she had truly thought she was dead, and that seeing Rowan again was one last gift before she was taken to the Otherworld. But then the pain had shocked her back into reality. 

It was still hard to believe that she was safe, that she wasn’t dead and was no longer chained in a cell. Arobynn was dead. She was free. Free to live her life, to smile and laugh, free to love. 

The nurses finished changing her bandages, telling her that if she needed anything to call. Aelin thanked them all thoroughly as they left, shutting the doors behind them and leaving her alone with Rowan again.

Aelin tested her movement, seeing if it caused too much pain. Once she deemed it possible, she moved slowly to the edge of the hospital bed.

“Don’t strain yourself, Fireheart,” Rowan cautioned. 

Aelin raised an unimpressed brow. Mother hen.

He smiled, raising his hands in surrender. My mistake.

She settled herself right before Rowan, reaching out a hand. He seemed to understand what she wanted, placing his hand within their own, allowing her to squeeze it gently.

“I want to talk to you,” she whispered. “Before my family gets here or whatever the hell is in my IV knocks me out.”

She saw Rowan clench his jaw, lips pressed tight. She could see the worry in his eyes.

“Before everything happened…” Aelin began slowly, thinking carefully about each and every word that she uttered. “You told me something. You said that you loved me. Did… did you mean that?”

She saw Rowan’s throat bob as he swallowed hard. Waiting for him to answer was excruciating, leaving her to wonder if it had been a spur of the moment thing, that maybe he had indulged too much in the whiskey and it had slipped out. 

But, Rowan eventually nodded. “I meant every word. I do love you, Aelin. I have for a while, but I didn’t want to drive you away if you felt differently, so I kept it to myself until I couldn’t stand it any longer. If I was too forward, if you don’t feel the same, then I understand and I’m sorry. But, it doesn’t change the way I feel about you.”

Aelin felt her eyes begin to burn at his confession. Hearing it again, hearing that the reasons he kept his sentiments to himself were the same that kept her from admitting her true feelings. She let out a tiny laugh at the irony of it all.

She felt Rowan watching her every move as she pushed to her feet with shaking arms. He held her hand, ensuring she didn’t tumble on her weak legs, as she closed the distance between them. He helped her as she lowered herself onto his lap, placing one hand on his chest and the other on his jaw. She could tell he was barely breathing as he waited for her to speak. 

“Rowan Whitethorn…” she began softly, slowly, “since the day I met you, you’ve been changing my life for the better, even when I couldn’t see it at first. You’ve become my closest friend, someone I can no longer imagine my life without. We’ve both been fooling ourselves for far too long.

“When you told me you loved me, I panicked. I’ve never told anyone that I love them before, not even Sam. So I was scared, and it made me stupid. I should have told you this then. Actually, I should have told you this a long time ago.”

The way Rowan looked at her in that moment was unlike anything Aelin had ever experienced before.

Aelin leaned in close, pressing her lips to his softly, tenderly, lingering for a moment before pulling back. He was looking at her as if she were holy, reaching out to brush her hair from her face. Such a small touch spoke volumes.

“I’m in love with you, Rowan,” she finally admitted. “Hopelessly, completely, in love with you.”

As soon as Aelin uttered those words, a monumental weight was lifted from her shoulders, from her heart. It was glorious, to love, to be loved. All her past, foolish fears became nothing but a distant memory as she looked to Rowan. And when he smiled at her… her heart burned with such a fierce happiness she wondered if she would die from it.

“Truly?” Rowan asked softly, squeezing her waist gently.

Aelin nodded and smiled. “I love you.” She kissed his forehead. “I love you.” Another on his chin. “ I love you.” A final kiss on his lips. 

Rowan’s arms wrapped around her, holding her tightly in his warm, comforting embrace. Aelin practically melted into him, framing his face with her hands as she kissed him. 

It was perfect. Beyond perfect, actually. They had kissed plenty of times in the past, but it had never been like this. It had never filled Aelin’s heart with such intense love before. She tasted the salty tang of tears where their lips met. She didn’t know if they were from her or Rowan, but it didn’t matter. She was happy; good gods was she happy. 

Eventually, they pulled back. Rowan’s hand was on her cheek, brushing away her happy tears. There was a look on his face that she couldn’t quite read. 

“What?” she whispered, furrowing her brows.

“Nothing,” Rowan soothed. “It’s just… I’m so damn lucky.”

Aelin released a short laugh and kissed him again, because she could. “Damn right you are. Don’t forget it.”

She settled against his chest, letting Rowan wrap her up in his arms again. He was warm, and his pine and snow scent was terribly comforting. A flash of silver and green caught her eyes, and she saw that he wore her engagement ring around his neck. She had feared she’d lost it forever, but it had been safe with the man she loved the whole time. She liked the sight of him wearing it. Her eyes fluttered shut as he began to stroke her hair, basking in the glory of being with someone she loved wholly.

They had both suffered in their own ways through their lives. But, the gods had rewarded them for every bit of pain endured, every tear shed, by letting them find each other. 

Aelin would thank them for this blessing every day for the rest of her life.

Aelin moved back to her bed before her family streamed in. Rowan held her hand, got her water and food when she asked for it in the meantime. Rowan knew she was positively ravenous. She hadn’t had solid food in her stomach for over a week.

Rowan had been surviving off hospital food for the past three days, so he knew it left much to be desired. Still, that didn’t stop Aelin from scarfing down one plate in record timing, already asking for more before she had finished chewing her final bite.

Aelin had polished off her second plate of dinner, slumping back in her bed. Rowan got her some water, listened diligently as she lamented how horrible the hospital gown was and how badly she wanted to bathe.

He had just finished reassuring her that once she was better, he would make sure she got a nice, long bath. She made him promise to bring her chocolates during it, since apparently isolation and imprisonment had worked up a craving for it. How could he deny her?

It was about an hour before dawn when Aelin’s family arrived. 

Rowan saw the shift in her face as she laid eyes on the first one to walk into the room. Orlon. The others followed closely behind. Darrow, Aedion, Elide, and Lysandra all filled the room and Aelin broke down in tears again.

Rowan stepped outside for a bit and allowed them their privacy. He didn’t need to linger on the edges for their tearful reunions. He had already shared one with Aelin.

He found Lorcan and Fenrys lingering outside the room. He greeted his friends, clasping forearms with both.

“How is she?” Fenrys asked, brows pinching together in the middle. 

“She’s doing well,” Rowan said, slipping his hands in his pockets. “The bullet wound hurts her, and she’s tired, but besides that… she’s good.”

“Did she say anything about what happened while she was gone?” Lorcan questioned.

Rowan shook his head, glancing towards Aelin as she cried and hugged Lysandra. He knew she had much more to divest about what she had endured, and he was sure she was affected in ways he couldn’t begin to imagine. There would be a time to talk that through, but for now, Aelin seemed content to soak in the joy she deserved.

“Not yet.”

They lapsed into silence for a few beats, just watching as the family reunited. Elide pulled back from embracing the princess. Aelin brushed away her tears, nodding at something she had been asked. Her eyes flicked towards Rowan through the window, smiling at him broadly. It was beautiful.

The small gesture didn’t go unnoticed by Rowan’s companions. 

“You two talked about it, did you?” Fenrys asked. “About what you told her the night before the wedding?”

Rowan nodded. “Yes.”

“And?” Lorcan demanded testily. “What did she say?”

Rowan couldn’t have stopped the smile that stretched his face even if he had wanted to. “She loves me.”

Fenrys clapped him on the back. “Took you two long enough.”

“Elide says she’s known that you two have been in love for months,” Lorcan said. “I’m happy for you. You two deserve this.”

He was right, Rowan knew. They had both been foolish for long enough, and it had tortured the both of them. Keeping their feelings to themselves, hiding their emotions, had been exhausting. But now… there was no more pretending, no more secrets. They could be happy.

And they sure as hell deserved to be happy.

Chapter Text

Aelin was kept in the hospital for the following four days. She probably could have gone home sooner if not for her family’s worries that something would go wrong with her wound, though it was healing just fine. 

Although part of Aelin was itching to get out and get moving again, she understood that she needed to be at full health. Her image once leaving the hospital would be important. She needed to show the people that she was strong; that what those men had done hadn’t damaged her beyond repair. 

Rowan stayed with her over the four days. He helped to make the hours bearable. Her family spent as much time as they could with her as well, bringing her books and her laptop to stay entertained. 

There were a few visits by the palace’s investigative team, asking her to recount what had happened to her. She told them the broad details, things that would help with the trial, unwilling to let them know the experiences that had hit her the most. Her hopelessness, Arobynn’s taunting, her fear… the investigators didn’t need to know of those things.

But she didn’t keep them bottled up.

Some nights, she had been able to convince Rowan to sit beside her in her tiny bed. He was careful about it, not wanting to bother her wound. It was a tight fit, but Aelin didn’t care. She liked having Rowan so close to her, legs against legs, shoulders against shoulders. Rowan held her hand, let her lean against him, tucking her under his arm. 

Aelin whispered to Rowan about what had happened over those long, five days locked away. The conditions of her tiny cell, the taunting and jeers from her captors. She told him about the fear Arobynn had planted within her, the nights when the hopelessness seemed to drown her. She told him about what she had done to free herself, the lives she had taken and the blood she still felt staining her hands. 

Rowan had listened intently, offering her support when her voice wavered, strength when her hands shook. It was still hard to believe that it had all happened, and that she was here now, in the arms of the man she loved. 

During the days, she would watch movies on her laptop with Rowan, and in the evenings, she convinced him to read aloud to her. Much to Aelin’s joy, Lysandra had brought her rather… passionate romance novels. It was infinitely entertaining to watch Rowan scowl at the filth on the pages, but at Aelin’s urging, he still read to her. 

It was teasing for her just as much as it teased him. Hearing Rowan’s deep voice describe such debauchery lit a smoldering fire in Aelin’s core. She could see the heat in his own eyes when he would peek up at her over the edge of the pages. There wasn’t much they could do now in terms of intimacy. There was no privacy in the hospital. But still… it gave her many wonderful ideas about what to do once she was back in the palace. 

Eventually, her stay in the hospital came to an end. The doctors removed her stitches, and Aelin got a good glimpse of her new scar. A small, twisted bunch of pale flesh on her stomach. It wasn’t horrendous, but she was sure it would take some getting used to. At least it didn’t hurt as much anymore. 

Her entire family had come to the hospital when she was released. Lysandra helped her prepare, knowing that they would be seen out in public and there had been paparazzi stationed outside the hospital for days, ready to get the first glimpse at their now-healed princess.

Aelin had to admit that it was nice to get dressed up after lazing away for over a week, even if she was unconscious for part of it. The look was simple, but, as always, elegant. Lysandra had swept her hair back in a sleek, low ponytail. She wore a heavy, cream sweater and high waisted trousers. She wore a pair of pretty, embroidered flats rather than her preferred heels, not wanted to tempt fate. Not to mention, the ground was frozen and she didn’t want to bust ass the moment she stepped outside. 

Aelin tossed her coat, a pretty grey peacoat, over her forearm, running her fingers through her hair once more. She was ready. 

Her family surrounded her, light and hope in their eyes.

“Oh, Aelin,” Lysandra breathed, placing her hand on the princess’ cheek. “You look like yourself again.”

“I feel like myself again, Lys,” Aelin said. “Thanks to you. Thanks to all of you.”

Orlon stepped forward and pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “You ready to go home?”

She beamed and nodded vigorously. “More than ready.”

Rowan came up to her side, slipping his fingers between her own and giving her hand a firm squeeze. She would imagine he was just as eager to get out of here as she was.

They swept from the room that had been her home for the past week, two security guards falling in step with them. Aelin noticed how all of the patients, doctors, and nurses stared as they passed, making their way down the halls. Some would stop and bow, others that Aelin had gotten to know well during her stay shouting goodbyes and well wishes. She waved goodbye, thanking them all again for their help and care.

As they reached the front doors, they paused to put on their warmer clothing. Rowan helped her slip into her coat, pressing a quick kiss to her temple. She grinned up at him, grabbing his hand once more, and with that, they stepped through the doors.

The late autumn air instantly attacked any sliver of bare skin not covered by clothing. The world around her was a bright, icy wonderland. It was a shame she had missed out on the first snowfall, but her kingdom was beautiful nevertheless. 

Lysandra had been right, there was a small party of paparazzi waiting outside for them. Their cameras started clicking in a frenzy, calling out towards her. Aelin felt her heart pulse with fear, despite herself. The lights obscured her vision, and the bodies of the photographers were a writhing mass. She didn’t have a good enough view to make sure she wasn’t about to be ambushed and relive the wedding all over again and-

“It’s okay, Fireheart,” Rowan murmured to her, no doubt noting how her body had tensed. “You’re safe.”

His voice soothed her, reminded her that the worst was in the past. But, the fear didn’t leave completely. It would do her good to talk to a therapist sometime soon. She’d make an appointment once she returned to the palace.

The cars waiting outside for them were already nice and warm. Aelin slid into the back seat, situated between Rowan and Fenrys. She was near vibrating with excitement, ready to finally be home.

Aelin’s eyes welled with tears once the palace finally came within her sight, the familiar grounds blanketed in pure snow. So many memories rushed by her of winter days spent in the gardens, throwing snowballs at Aedion with deadly precision, building snowpeople with her parents. There had been a moment where she had thought she would never see her home again, and yet here it was, greeting her like an old friend.

“Getting emotional there, Ace?” Fenrys teased, nudging her with his elbow.

“No,” Aelin lied, wiping at her eyes. “You just smell like wet dog and it’s making my eyes water.”

“I will turn this car around and drop you right back off at the hospital.” 

“You’d miss me too much.” 

They rolled to a stop outside the front of the palace. Rowan held open the door for her, giving her a hand out. 

Aelin bathed in the biting coldness of the air, breathing in the smell of pine and snow that either came from the mountains or the man who pulled her to his side.

“Welcome home, Aelin,” Rowan whispered. 

Aelin wrapped her arms around Rowan’s torso, stealing his warmth. 

Yes. She was undoubtedly home.

They went nearly straight to the dining room for lunch. Aelin dug into the hearty stew the cooks made, much preferring it to the hospital food. It warmed her to the core, chasing away the last bits of cold that had lingered since she was imprisoned.

Eating at the table with her friends and family… it was like nothing had ever changed. They laughed and teased and told stories… it was wonderful. Rowan was at her side, casting her meaningful glances from time to time, holding her hand under the table. 

Blessed. The gods had truly blessed her.

As the plates were being cleared away, Darrow’s phone chimed. It wasn’t unusual for him to take phone calls during lunch, which was normally why he ate in the office with Orlon on most days. He apologized, which everyone at the table was quick to wave off. The past few days had been a whirlwind. It was only expected that he would be busy.

Darrow picked up the phone. Aelin would have blocked it all out if she hadn’t heard his shift in tone so early on.

“Hello? Yes… yes, of course.” Aelin saw her uncle’s husband frown, brows pinching together. “I see. For certain?”

Aelin looked towards Rowan questioningly. Do you know what this is about? She had been unconscious and isolated for long enough there were still things she was catching up on. He may have known something she did not.

But he only shook his head discreetly. No idea.

“That’s good news, I suppose,” Darrow continued. “Thank you so much for the information. Have a good day.”

The entire table had fallen into silence as Darrow hung up the phone and slipped it into his pocket. They all looked to him expectantly, waiting for him to share the news he had just received.

Darrow leaned forward in his seat, placing his elbows on the table and lacing his fingers into a bridge.

“I’ve just received news,” he began. “That the evidence found in Arobynn Hamel’s warehouse was more than enough to convict him of treason. Because of that, his assets are now the property of Terrasen’s government.”

Aelin gasped. “ All of his assets?”

Darrow nodded. “Every last penny. It’s more than enough to get Terrasen back on its feet.”

Aelin couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Arobynn Hamel had been astronomically rich, and now his money was going towards saving the country he had sought to take over. Oh, he must be turning over in his grave. She hoped he could see it all from hell. 

They were saved. Terrasen was saved.

She released a short laugh. “I should have gotten shot ages ago.”

Different variations of That’s not funny and That’s highly inappropriate, Aelin came from Orlon, Darrow, Aedion, and Rowan. But Lorcan actually laughed. Out loud. She hadn’t even known he was capable of making such a sound. 

Although Aelin was overjoyed to hear that her country was saved, that her people would no longer struggle as they had been for the past couple of years… there was something heavy in the pit of her gut.

Rowan had been brought into her life to help get Terrasen back on its feet through his and Maeve’s economic support. But now… it wasn’t necessary. There was no reason for them to marry anymore.

The thought startled her. 

Yes, Rowan had confessed his love and she had done the same. But… Terrasen wasn’t his home. Maybe he wouldn’t want to get married now that he had the choice, maybe he would go back to Doranelle for some time. After all that had happened, it would be easy enough to spin a tale about postponing the wedding indefinitely.

She glanced at Rowan from the corner of her eye. Their relationship had never been a conventional one, right from the start. She loved him with every atom of her being. Perhaps he would want to take a step back, take it a bit slower. Although Aelin would miss him terribly if he wanted a break from the cameras and posturing of Terrasen’s court, she would respect his decision if he went back to Doranelle for a bit.

They definitely had a serious talk coming in their future.

But… that could wait.

The rest of the day was spent with her friends and family, celebrating both Aelin’s return and the news of Terrasen’s salvation. Orlon and Darrow went to get some work done after they had finished lunch, needing to organize and plan ahead now that they were in possession of Arobynn’s assets. 

Aelin and the others hung around the parlor, drinking hot chocolates and sitting around the roaring fire. She sat tucked under Rowan’s arm, basking in how beautiful and natural it felt. No more pretending, no more worrying if it was just for show. 

Some time in the evening, Rowan’s phone rang. Arlene and Isolde facetimed him, wanting to see Aelin again to see how she was doing. The princess felt herself start to cry again at their kind words and worry. She told them they would have to make another trip to Orynth in the near future. She got another call not much later from Dorian and Chaol, checking up on her.

She was beyond thankful for the wonderful friends and family she had in her life. 

Slowly, the night grew dark. Aelin eventually claimed weariness and said goodnight to her family. She embraced them all, saying she would see them all in the morning. 

She slipped away with Rowan, holding his hand as they meandered down the dark, quiet halls, heading towards her rooms.

“You have no idea how excited I am to sleep in a real bed,” Aelin grinned.

“Truly, it was a miracle you survived as long as you did without your silk sheets.”

“I shall never take them for granted again.”

They reached her rooms. Aelin grinned upon seeing them. Nothing had changed, as if they had been frozen in time. Untouched, her sanctuary. 

Aelin released a heavy, happy sigh, turning to face Rowan. She rolled on the tips of her toes and pressed a sweet, slow kiss to his lips. 

“I like doing this,” Aelin murmured. 

“Doing what?”

“Kissing you. Just because I can.”

Rowan laughed, a low, deep sound that was like music to Aelin’s ears. He pulled back far enough to look her in the eyes, head cocking to the side. He reached up, running his finger down the middle of her brows where she had unknowingly worked a crease.

“What’s on your mind, Fireheart?”

“Just… thinking about what’s next.”

“What’s next? Aelin, you can rest for a minute or two. You've been through enough.”

Aelin sighed. “I know but… things have changed so much. For Terrasen, for us. Where- where will you go?”

“Go?” Rowan repeated incredulously. “What are you talking about?”

“It’s just-” Aelin said in exasperation, taking a step back and pacing upon her plush carpet. “Terrasen isn’t your home, Rowan. You didn’t have much of a choice when you came here but now… Terrasen has money. You’re free to go wherever you’d like. And no matter what you want to do… I’ll be happy for you.”

Rowan stared at her for a few moments before his face melted in understanding. “Ah. I see. You think that the arrangement was the only thing keeping me here?”

“Was it not? Rowan, it’s just… I love you. I truly do. And I know that you love me. But this arrangement is nothing but a cage for you. I don’t know if I can live with myself if the foundation of this relationship is based on something that wasn’t either of our choices.”

Rowan was quiet for a few moments, and Aelin worried she had said something wrong. She had spoken from the heart. The start of their relationship had been so messy, and then they had been trapped into a marriage neither of them initially wanted. It wouldn’t sit right with her to know that they got married because of money and politics, even though they did love one another.

“So… you wish to end the engagement?” Rowan asked softly.

Aelin's breath caught in her throat, but she managed a nod, meek as it was. Did she want to end the engagement? Not truly, no. But, she wanted this fresh start, to know that everything they decided on in the future was done by their free will only. No more politics, no more deals. Just… them.

There was silence pressing in on her from every angle as Rowan looked at her. She hoped she hadn’t hurt him inadvertently, hoped he understood that she wanted what was best for them in the long run. He deserved his freedom.

Rowan dragged a hand down his mouth and dipped his chin. “Alright. We can end it, then.”

“This doesn’t change the way I feel about you for a second,” Aelin insisted, placing a soft hand on Rowan’s jaw. “I love you. So much. But I want everything from now on to be because we want it. Not Maeve, not Darrow, not the people or the press.”

“I understand, Fireheart. I do,” he assured her. He grabbed her hands and brought them to his lips. “It makes sense.”

“You’re not upset?”

“No. Never,” Rowan said firmly, squeezing her hands tightly. “In fact, it gives me the opportunity to do something I’ve been wanting to do. Close your eyes and turn around.”

Aelin blinked. “What?”

“Could you just listen to me once in your life?”

Aelin narrowed her eyes at him, but relented with a dramatic sigh. She shut her eyes and covered them for good measure, turning her back towards the prince. She didn’t know what on earth he was thinking, but something in his tone told her it would be useless to argue, even if ut was one of her favorite things to do. 

She was confused, and a bit nervous if she was being honest, as she stood there. Aelin didn’t like not knowing everything all the time. There wasn’t much for her to guess what would happen either. All she heard was a faint click, some kind of metal against metal, and then the soft whisper of shifting clothes.

“Alright,” Rowan said after a few heartbeats. “Turn around and open your eyes.”

Aelin did as requested, turning around and opening her eyes, only to find that she had to look down. Rowan had lowered himself to the floor, on one knee to be exact, holding out the ring he had slipped from around his neck, and smiling.

Aelin couldn’t stop the sharp gasp that escaped her lips, placing her hand over her heart. 

“Aelin Ashryver Galathynius,” Rowan began, something bright and hopeful shimmering in his pine green eyes. “Since we are not technically engaged anymore, it gives the chance to properly ask you. I love you with everything that I am.”

She felt her eyes begin to burn with tears.

“Let this be the first choice we make together,” the prince continued. “The beginning. The real beginning.”

Aelin beamed down at him as the tears began to leak down her cheeks. She gave a little laugh as she wiped them away with her sleeve. Her brows rose, as if to say, Well? Are you going to ask it?

Rowan shook his head softly, but the smile still stayed on his lips. Patience was never your virtue, was it?

Bastard. Stop making me wait.

Rowan held the ring a bit higher, the emerald and diamonds still as clear and bright as the first day she had worn it. 

“Aelin Galathynius… will you marry me?”

She choked out a short sob, lowering herself to her knees before Rowan. Aelin nodded, before she finally could manage to gasp out, “ Yes. Yes, of course I’ll marry you Rowan.”

Aelin hadn’t thought it possible, but Rowan smiled wider. He took her hand gently, sliding the ring back on her finger. She had missed feeling its weight there. 

Aelin launched herself at Rowan, wrapping her arms around his shoulders and kissing him soundly. He swept her up tight, rising to his feet and hauling her up with him. His fingers were tangled in her hair, other hand pressing her as close to his body as possible. 

In that moment, Aelin knew that her love for him was strong enough to make or destroy kingdoms. Yet… it was a relief to know it would never have to come to that.  There would be no more struggles, no more violence… just peace.

Aelin pulled back, not far, her nose still brushing against the tip of Rowan’s.

“I love you,” she whispered, just because it felt so wonderful to say aloud.

“I love you too,” Rowan said, tucking a strand of her hair behind her ear before kissing her again.

Their lips moved against one another’s slowly, languidly, as if they had all the time in the world. Perhaps they did. Aelin was in no mood to rush this moment. She wrapped her arms around the back of Rowan’s neck, leaning into him as he cradled her cheek. 

In that moment, time was meaningless. Minutes or hours could have passed by as they held one another, simply kissing. Eventually, Aelin’s hands began to wander, running over his broad shoulders, trailing over the corded muscle of his arms. Rowan was just as bad, stroking down her back, squeezing her hip. 

At some point, they made their way to the edge of the bed, the back of Aelin’s knees bumping against the soft mattress. The tips of Rowan’s fingers dipped under the hem of her sweater, running over the bare skin he discovered, making Aelin sigh into the kiss.

Her own fingers got to work undoing the buttons of Rowan’s shirt. Aelin pulled back as she finished, parting the two sides of the shirt and tracing the beautiful whorls and dips of his tattoo. Stunning. Nearly as stunning as the man before her. 

Aelin could hear Rowan breathing heavily as she pushed his shirt off his shoulders, leaving the expanse of his chest bare. Her eyes followed the peaks and valleys of his body, as if it were the first time she had seen it. Rowan was truly a work of art. And he was now hers.

Rowan slowly tugged off her sweater, discarding it somewhere on the ground below them. Aelin felt every place his eyes skipped, looking over her nearly-naked torso. It set every bit of her flesh aflame. 

Rowan reached out, tenderly laying her back on the bed. He kissed her once, twice, before his mouth started to move lower. His lips danced across her jaw, skimming down her throat. Once it reached the lacy edge her bra, his eyes flickered up in question. Aelin simply dipped her chin in response.

Rowan quickly and efficiently removed the garment. He kissed the tops of both breasts before moving down the center of her chest, across her abdomen, before he paused at the pucked piece of flesh. Her new scar. Rowan left a slow, lingering kiss there, eyes screwed shut tightly.

Aelin knew he still held guilt over what had happened, and that she had been hurt because of it. She had already told him time and time again that the blame wasn’t on him, nor would it ever be. Yet, she had a suspicion that it would be some time before Rowan could look at the scar and not blame himself. 

He removed her pants, her undergarments, leaving her completely bare below him. 

Rowan took his time with her, worshiping every inch of her body he could with his mouth. Aelin’s heart pounded in her ears, her blood burning beneath her skin. It wasn’t that her body was a stranger to Rowan’s, but she knew that this joining would be different than any others they had ever engaged in.

“You’re so beautiful,” Rowan muttered as he pressed a long line of open-mouthed kisses up the length of her neck.

“I know.”

He released a short laugh, breath brushing against her skin. One of his hands slid down her side, skimming over the top of her thighs, until it found its way between her legs. Aelin’s breath caught in her throat as his fingers brushed over her center, softly, teasingly. Aelin’s grip on his shoulders tightened as he slipped the first finger inside of her. 

Rowan’s hands worked slowly, taking his time bringing her pleasure. Aelin writhed on the sheets below him, fingers digging into his flesh as her breathing picked up. She gasped and moaned and whispered Rowan’s name through the euphoria, until she finally shattered on his fingers.

Once her breaths had evened out, Rowan kissed her again, deeply. Aelin’s legs wrapped around his waist, tugging him as close as she could get him. His chest pressed against hers, all warmth and hard muscle. 

“I love you,” Aelin rasped into his ear. She had said it plenty already today, but she was making up for all the time she had been too frightened to utter it aloud.

“I love you too, Fireheart. More than you can know.” 

He grabbed her thigh, hiking it up his hip and lining himself up with her entrance. Rowan kissed her as he pushed in slowly, filling her up. He stilled for a moment, lingering and savoring the feeling, before he began to move.

Rowan’s hips rolled into hers slowly and smoothly, holding her as close to his body as he could. 

They had had sex plenty of times before, but none of them had been like this. Before, it was just sex. Fucking. But this… they were making love.

The night air was filled with the sounds of their breathing and gasps, tiny moans and whispers of praise or adoration. For all Aelin knew, they could have been the only two people in the world. And she wouldn’t have cared one bit. 

Although it didn’t seem possible, Rowan managed to pull her closer as they grew closer to their peaks, bodies moving in harmony, two halves of one whole. As one, they reached their climaxes, lips crashing together once more as they rode out their highs. Eventually, they collapsed into a heap of limbs and sweat-glazed bodies. 

Rowan held her close, tugging her tight to his side as he drew the comforter up over them. Aelin clung to his warmth, burrowing deeper under the soft, warm blankets. They indulged in a few more slow, lazy kisses before Aelin’s eyes began to feel heavy. Her sleep hadn’t been exactly peaceful of late, and it was finally catching up with her. Rowan seemed to be in the same boat.

Aelin didn’t fight the drowsiness as it overtook her. She shut her eyes and breathed in the comforting scents of Rowan, of home. She was under before she knew it.

It was the best Aelin had slept in years.

Chapter Text

Rowan Whitethorn awoke slowly the next morning. It was a rare occasion where he submitted to drowsiness and lounged in bed, but today, it felt right. He was warm and well-rested and content. It was a perfect morning.

Rowan inhaled deeply, the scent of jasmine and rose and something purely Aelin. He managed to crack open his eyes, blinking rapidly a few times to clear his vision. The buttery morning sunlight filtered through Aelin’s gauzy curtains, filling her room with warm light.

The princess herself was curled up on his chest, eyes softly shut and lips parted as she slumbered. Rowan couldn’t stop himself from reaching out and running his hand over her wild golden hair, admiring how beautiful she was.

Everything about last night had been perfect. When she had stated she wanted to end the engagement, Rowan’s stomach had dropped. However, once she explained her reasoning, he had known what to do. In fact, it was welcome. Proposing to her properly… it was what Aelin deserved. She would never feel an ounce of doubt or guilt from now on. And neither would he. 

Aelin’s left hand rested by her face on his chest, the emerald glimmering, back where it belonged. He couldn’t stop the smile that curled on his lips at the sight.

As if feeling his gaze on her, Aelin’s eyes began to flutter before they opened. It wasn’t long before she pinned him with those dazzling irises of hers. 

“Good morning,” Aelin whispered, voice still hoarse from sleep.

“Good morning, Fireheart,” Rowan said back, thumb skimming tiny circles on the bare skin of her arm before leaning down and pressing a chaste kiss to her lips. “Did you sleep well?”

“Perfectly,” she assured him as she reached her arms over her head and stretched. “It’s nice to be back in a real bed. And back with you.”

She returned to her previous position, curled into his side, wrapping her arms around his torso. It seemed she wasn’t keen to let him out of bed any time soon.

“Do we have any obligations today?” she asked quietly.

“Not that I’m aware of, no.”

“Good.”

They laid there for a few moments in content silence, enjoying the slow, peaceful morning and each other’s company. It was perfect.

Eventually, Rowan took to fiddling with the ring perched on Aelin’s finger mindlessly. It was still hard to believe that after everything that had happened, every mistake made and tear shed, they were finally here. 

“Do you want to go down for breakfast or do you want me to ask for it to be brought up?” Rowan asked her. 

“Whatever you want.”

“Well, I don’t know about you, but I would be perfectly happy laying here all day.”

Aelin looked up to him with a wide smile. “I love you so much.”

“I know. I love you too.”

A pensive look came over Aelin’s face. Rowan tilted his head to the side, wondering what was going through that mind of hers. 

“What are you thinking?”

She hesitated only a heartbeat before saying, “Let’s get married.”

Rowan laughed, taking her hand with the ring and holding it up for her to see. “In case you forgot, I already beat you to the proposal.”

Aelin rolled her eyes and swatted his chest playfully. “That’s not what I meant. I mean… let’s get married . Today. This afternoon.”

Rowan blinked once in surprise. He held her hand tighter. “Seriously?”

“If you want. I was ready to marry you then, and I’m still ready to marry you now.” Aelin sat up straighter. “So. Let’s get married. No press, no strangers, no posturing. Just us and our friends and family. Today.”

Rowan pushed himself into a sitting position, looking towards the woman beside him. Her eyes were wide and hopeful, face painted with a beautiful sort of joy. He didn’t think it possible, but he felt himself fall even more in love with her in that moment.

“Let’s do it. Let’s get married today.”

Aelin beamed and released a happy laugh, lunging forward and kissing him deeply. Rowan drew her into his arms, unbelievably happy in this moment. He held no doubt about this choice. He was more than ready to start the rest of their lives.

The whole process took just over an hour. A stark difference from the months of planning they’d had to suffer through to prepare for their first, failed, wedding.

It didn’t take long for Aelin to tell her family what they wanted to do. None of them were opposed to the spur-of-the-moment decision. In fact, they all seemed happy for them. Aedion went to find a priestess while Aelin prepared.

There would be no decorations or drinks, no sitting arrangements to make nor color pallets to choose. 

The thing that took the longest was getting Aelin ready. Lysandra insisted that, although the wedding would be lowkey, that didn’t mean Aelin couldn’t look beautiful for it. The princess was inclined to agree, and allowed her friend to pamper her a bit. A light makeup look, sweeping the front pieces of her hair back in glittering barrets, putting a gloss over her nails. Nothing too extravagant.

Aelin’s original dress couldn’t be used, of course. It was torn and dirty and covered in blood and had most likely already been burned. But, she didn’t care. It wasn’t about the dress.

Still, Aelin thought she could manage some semblance of tradition and at least wear something white. In the back of her closet was an older, silk slip dress of a gleaming pearl white. Simple yet elegant. It would work just perfectly for what she needed it for today. Lysandra paired it with a pair of diamond studs, a simple necklace, and silver pointed-toe heels. 

It wasn't long after that Aelin was in the temple.

The scars from the attack were still visible. Chunks were missing from ancient, marble beams, some of the statues of their gods defaced by bullets. They were in the process of restoring it to its former glory, but Aedion had given all of the workers the rest of the day off.

It was a stark difference from their first attempt at a ceremony. The pews were empty, there were no decorations save for some tarps and tape from the reconstruction. There was no band, no flowers, no reporters. Just their friends and family.

Aedion, Lysandra, Elide, Orlon, and Darrow were there for Aelin. Lorcan and Fenrys for Rowan. The prince had already muttered something about Arlene and Isolde missing out of the wedding and how much they would complain. Still, there was no stopping the ceremony this time. 

Aelin beamed as she stood before Rowan at the altar, an older priestess beside them. Their guests all stood in the front row of the pews. She could feel their happy gazes on her, but Aelin only had eyes for Rowan. 

He had changed into a casual white button-down and brown trousers. Nothing extravagant, but nice. Especially for the prince that despised finery. He looked mighty handsome standing there in the early afternoon light that filtered through the stained-glass windows. 

The priestess looked back and forth from Aelin to the prince, a small smile on her serene face. “Are you ready, Your Highnesses?”

“Yes,” Aelin said without hesitation.

“Absolutely,” Rowan agreed.

The priestess’ smile grew wider, crossing her hands in front of her. “Wonderful. Let’s begin then.” She turned towards Rowan first. “Do you, Prince Rowan Whitethorn of Doranelle, vow to protect and cherish, love and support, this woman through whatever darkness and toil the world may bring, until the darkness claims you?”

Rowan smiled, looking at Aelin with such love that it nearly brought tears to her eyes. “I do.”

The priestess then looked towards Aelin. “Do you, Princess Aelin Ashryver Galathynius, vow to protect and cherish, love and support, this man through whatever darkness and toil the world may bring, until the darkness claims you?”

There wasn’t an ounce of doubt in her heart as Aelin uttered, “I do.”

Aedion then stepped forward, holding out two silver rings in his palm. Rowan took the smaller one, slipping it onto Aelin’s finger. It was made to fit perfectly with her engagement ring. Two halves of the same whole. Aelin then grabbed the other ring and slid it onto Rowan’s finger. It looked perfect there.

“Now, I’m pleased to announce,” the priestess continued once Aedion had slipped back to his spot, “that under the eyes of the gods and of Terrasen, this man and woman are now wed.”

Their small crowd cheered. Rowan wasted no time before reaching out, cupping Aelin’s face in his hands, and kissing her soundly. The rest of the world faded away as she wrapped her arms around the back of his neck, relishing in kissing her husband for the first time. 

“I love you,” Aelin said the moment they pulled back for air.

“I love you too, Fireheart.”

Their friends and family swept up to them, embracing, congratulating, shedding a few tears. Orlon told her how happy he was for her, welcoming Rowan into the family officially. It warmed Aelin’s heart to see everyone she loved together. Safe, happy, content.

As Fenrys hugged Rowan tight, Aelin allowed her eyes to wander around the temple. Under a beam of light, as if she were meant to see it, was the statue of Mala. For the most part, her likeness was unaffected by the attack, save for a tiny crater in her skirts. Although Aelin knew it was impossible for the stone to emote, the way the light shone upon her made her seem happy. Congratulatory. 

Aelin inclined her head slightly towards the statue. A thank you to Mala and whatever god was listening. Although they had put her through hell, they had ensured that Rowan was waiting on the other side. For that, she would be forever thankful.

Thankful for her love. Her friends. Her family. Her health.

Thankful for this wonderful life.

Although they hadn’t originally been planning on it, Aelin and Rowan did end up going on a honeymoon.

They had traveled down to the Southern Continent on the coast, getting a tiny little house on the beach. It was completely isolated, no prying eyes or busy streets. The air was warm, the sands white, the water a striking turquoise. The exact opposite of the winter landscape they had left behind in Terrasen.

Aelin, though she had been happy to be home, did enjoy the trip. Terrasen’s media was still buzzing about everything that had happened, the trials playing on the news stations, papers asking for interviews with Aelin. It was all just a bit too much. Here on this beach, she had left behind her title, her responsibilities, if only for a week.

It was perfectly peaceful. Nothing but the cries of the gulls and the sound of the waves to keep them company. 

Aelin was happy to have Rowan to herself for a week, to hold him as they slept, to convince him to stay in bed later than he normally did. They made use of the privacy the secluded beach house offered, making slow, lazy love with the windows wide open, allowing in the warm glow of the rising sun. Aelin delighted in teasing Rowan by stripping off her bikini and wading into the clear waters. It took no convincing to get her husband to follow suit. 

Aelin checked her phone sporadically, mostly answering messages from her family and friends. She checked the news here and there. Darrow had announced that Aelin had been officially wed to Rowan, and plenty of articles had been written about the small, private ceremony that had been held. Although the reporters had no photos, Aelin had a precious few saved to her phone. Fenrys, it seemed, was actually a terrific cameraman, and had snapped a few shots during the ceremony on his phone. There was one of Aelin and Rowan standing before one another, their silhouettes contoured by the hazy light from the windows. They were looking at each other like they were the only people in the world.

Aelin was quick to make that beautiful photo her lockscreen. Lysandra had informed her that she had printed and framed it and a few of the others for when they returned.

It was their last night in paradise. 

They were laying back on a lounge chair on the beach, watching as the fiery sun dipped below the ocean. Aelin was pressed against Rowan’s side, head resting against his shoulder while her husband wrapped an arm tight around her. She was fiddling mindlessly with the silver ring on his finger, the color of which had only grown more striking as his skin darkened in the bright, southern sun. 

“I don’t know if I ever want to go back,” Aelin murmured.

Rowan’s low laugh rumbled in his chest. “Yes you do. You’d miss your family too much.”

He was right, she supposed. Not that she would ever tell him that. 

Aelin shut her eyes for a few moments, allowing the soothing sound of the crashing waves to wash over her. She would be happy to see her family again, but this week would be a memory she would cherish for the rest of her life. 

“Rowan?”

“Hm?”

“I’m so happy I met you.”

She opened her eyes and looked up to find Rowan gazing at her fondly. He ran a hand through her hair before holding her jaw and kissing her softly. 

“I can’t imagine my life without you in it, Aelin. I love you.”

Although she knew that they loved one another, that they were married, it was all still so new. Everytime Rowan kissed her, praised her, and reminded her how he felt about it, it was like gold. Aelin knew she would never tire of it. Of him. Of this relationship. 

Aelin smiled happily and held him tighter, burrowing closer into his side and shutting her eyes, listening to the steady thump of Rowan’s heart.

“I love you too.”

Chapter Text

In the three years since his marriage to Aelin Ashryver Whitethorn Galathynius, Rowan had gotten used to court life.

He was still in the public eye, but he had grown more comfortable with it. He could now tolerate small talk and dressing nicely, if only because Aelin was always at his side when it came to it. His wife could command a room like no one else he had ever met. 

He fell more in love with her with every passing day.

Terrasen had been reborn since the death of Arobynn Hamel. His assets had proven to be the savior of the kingdom, helping get its people back on their feet. It didn’t happen overnight, and there were still lingering scars from the destitution the kingdom had been in, but Terrasen was back on the path to reclaim its former glory. 

Rowan saw how happy it made Aelin to see her kingdom healing. 

The files and information found in Arobynn Hamel’s warehouse led to the arrests of plenty of others who had been working with him. Terrasen’s investigative team had worked quickly and efficiently, dismantling the web of people who had sought to bring chaos to their kingdom.

There was peace.

It had been a bit hectic in the first few months following Aelin’s return home. She was constantly asked for interviews, questioned by Terrasen’s investigative teams multiple times, often woke up beside Rowan shaking from nightmares. The healing process hadn’t been easy, nor was it completely over, but she was doing better. Much better.

About three months after they had been married, Aelin had pulled him aside, something on her face that told Rowan what she was about to utter was serious. She had explained to him that she wanted to be open with her people about her struggles following the deaths of her parents and Sam. She had been worried whether or not it was the right choice, and spent lengthy periods of time speaking to her uncle and Darrow about it. 

But, eventually, she did it. Aelin shared her story with her people. The few voices that spoke out and scorned her were drowned out by the thousands of others that rushed to her support. The princess hadn’t stopped with just telling her story, creating new charities and programs to help others who had struggled like she had. 

Rowan couldn’t have been more proud of her, of the life they had built.

There were a few other changes within those first few months.

Fenrys and Lorcan both decided to move permanently to Terrasen. Aelin gave them both jobs in the palace, happy to have them there. Rowan was glad to have his companions as well. 

Lysandra and Aedion had been married the year prior. Aelin had been ecstatic to officially call Lysandra her sister of sorts. Elide and Lorcan were next. Rowan remembered how nervous his friend had been about proposing, an emotion Rowan had never seen in Lorcan. He had worried he would fuck it up somehow. Yet, Elide had been thrilled once he proposed. Their wedding was scheduled to be in three months. 

Rowan still had a hard time wrapping his head around the fact that Lorcan Salvaterre would be a married man. 

Today was an important day. Hence why Rowan bothered to dress nicely and actually care about his appearance. He stood in the room he now shared with Aelin, looking at himself in the mirror, ensuring that his hair wasn’t sticking out in any odd directions. Once he deemed that nothing was out of place, he straightened his tie once more, and turned.

His eye caught on the photo propped up on their dresser, one of his favorites. It was one of the precious few photographs they had from their impromptu wedding, depicting the first kiss they shared as husband and wife. No matter how many times he saw it, it filled his heart with joy and love.

Rowan could hear his wife in the conjoining room, humming and singing softly. A soft smile curled onto his lips at the sound. 

Rowan stepped into the room which had been converted in the past few weeks. They painted the walls a soothing shade of yellow, found a comfortable rocking chair, stuffed animals, and, most importantly, the crib, which Aelin was currently standing beside, swaying and humming.

She was already dressed in a lovely pale-blue sundress, golden hair tumbling freely down her back. Once she heard Rowan approach, she turned, a bundle of white cloth and blankets in her arms.

Their daughter.

Rowan’s heart swelled at the sight of the two of them together, the most important people in his life. 

Aelin’s humming faded away, grinning at him as he came to their side, still bouncing the baby in her arms. They had brought their daughter, Eliora, home a week ago. She was a beautiful girl. A tiny little button nose she got from her mother, those striking Ashryver eyes, and a tiny tuft of silvery-blonde hair upon her head. Perfect.

Aelin had dressed their daughter in a lacy white smock, something that would get dirty rather quickly, but they just needed it to last until after photos. Today, they would make their first appearance as a family, show the people of Terrasen the future of the kingdom.

“How is she?” Rowan asked, planting a kiss upon Aelin’s hand and looking down at their daughter. Her eyes were wide, looking at everything around them, tiny fists reaching out and grabbing the ends of Aelin’s hair.

“She’s very happy today, which is good for all of us,” his wife reported, running a finger over the slope of Eliora’s nose. “I think the cameras are going to love her.”

Rowan released a low chuckle, stroking the thin hair on his daughter’s head. Good gods, she was so small. “If she’s anything like you, she’ll love them right back.”

Eliora cooed, turning her attention towards Rowan, reaching out in his direction.

“Oh, you want to go to daddy, huh?” Aelin whispered. “Traitor.” 

Regardless, Aelin kissed the baby’s cheek and handed her carefully to Rowan. He took her in his arms, cradling her close to his chest. Aelin pressed herself to his side, embracing him gently, looking down at their daughter.

“She’s perfect, isn’t she?” Aelin asked quietly.

“More than perfect.”

The lapsed into silence, nothing but Eliora’s gurgles and babbles to fill the air. She truly was a happy child, a little drop of sunshine. Rowan couldn’t believe that the gods had blessed him so.

“Are you ready for today?” Aelin questioned.

“I am.” Rowan looked towards his wife, finding that she wore that look on her face that she got when she was lost in thought. He raised a brow. “What are you thinking about, Fireheart?”

Aelin loosed a long breath, slowly dragging her eyes away from her daughter. As always, Rowan was struck stupid by her bright and shining beauty. He loved her with every ounce of his being. 

She held him a bit tighter, resting her head against his shoulder. “I just can’t help but feel as if… this is the first day of our lives.”

Rowan grinned and captured her lips in a quick kiss. She was right. It did feel as though this was the first day of their lives.

And Rowan couldn’t have been more thrilled to spend every single day with the two people who he loved the most.