Go, he whispered, straining to push through. You run.
Chaol, keep an eye on him, the queen barked. Then, holding Manons gaze, Aelin sheathed her mighty blade across her back, the giant ruby in the pommel catching in the midday light. Swords are boring, the queen said, and palmed two fighting knives. Manon sheathed Wind-Cleaver along her own back. She flicked her wrists, the iron nails shooting out. She cracked her jaw, and her fangs descended. Indeed. The queen looked at the nails, the teeth, and grinned. Honestly—it was a shame that Manon had to kill her. Manon Blackbeak lunged, as swift and deadly as an adder. Aelin darted back, dodging each swipe of those lethal iron nails. For her throat, for her face, for her guts. Back, and back, circling around the pillars. It was only a matter of minutes before the wyverns arrived. Aelin jabbed with her daggers, and the witch sidestepped her, only to slash with her nails, right at Aelins neck. Aelin spun aside, but the nails grazed her skin. Blood warmed her neck and shoulders. The witch was so damn fast. And one hell of a fighter. But Rowan and the others were across the second bridge. Now she just had to get there, too. Manon Blackbeak feinted left and slashed right. Aelin ducked and rolled aside. The pillar shuddered as those iron claws gouged four lines deep into the stone. Manon hissed. Aelin made to drive her dagger into her spine; the witch lashed out with a hand and wrapped it clean around the blade. Blue blood welled, but the witch bore down on the blade until it snapped into three pieces in her hand. Gods above. Aelin had the sense to go in low with her other dagger, but the witch was already there—and Aedions shout rang in her ears as Manons knee drove up into her gut. The air knocked from her in a whoosh, but Aelin kept her grip on the dagger, even as the witch threw her into another pillar. The stone column rocked against the blow, and Aelins head cracked, agony arcing through her, but— A slash, directly for her face. Aelin ducked. Again, the stone shuddered beneath the impact. Aelin squeezed air into her body. Move—she had to keep moving, smooth as a stream, smooth as the wind of her carranam, bleeding and hurt across the way. Pillar to pillar, she retreated, rolling and ducking and dodging. Manon swiped and slashed, slamming into every column, a force of nature in her own right. And then back around, again and again, pillar after pillar absorbing the blows that should have shredded her face, her neck. Aelin slowed her steps, let Manon think she was tiring, growing clumsy— Enough, coward, Manon hissed, making to tackle Aelin to the ground. But Aelin swung around a pillar and onto the thin lip of bare rock beyond the temple platform, the drop looming, just as Manon collided with the column. The pillar groaned, swayed—and toppled to the side, hitting the pillar beside it, sending them both cracking to the ground. Along with the domed roof. Manon didnt even have time to lunge out of the way as the marble crashed down on her. One of the few remaining witches on the other side of the ravine screamed. Aelin was already running, even as the rock island itself began trembling, as if whatever ancient force held this temple together had died the moment the roof crumbled. Shit. Aelin sprinted for the second bridge, dust and debris burning her eyes and lungs. The island jolted with a thunderous crack, so violent that Aelin stumbled. But there were the posts and the bridge beyond, Aedion waiting on the other side—an arm held out, beckoning. The island swayed again—wider and longer this time. It was going to collapse beneath them. There was a flicker of blue and white, a flash of red cloth, a glimmer of iron— A hand and a shoulder, grappling with a fallen column. Slowly, painfully, Manon heaved herself onto a slab of marble, her face coated in pale dust, blue blood leaking down her temple. Across the ravine, cut off entirely, the golden-haired witch was on her knees. Manon! I dont think youve ever groveled for anything in your life, Wing Leader, the king had said. But there was a Blackbeak witch on her knees, begging whatever gods they worshipped; and there was Manon Blackbeak, struggling to rise as the temple island crumbled away. Aelin took a step onto the bridge. Asterin—that was the golden-haired witchs name. She screamed for Manon again, a plea to rise, to survive. The island jolted. The remaining bridge—the bridge to her friends, to Rowan, to safety—still held. Aelin had felt it before: a thread in the world, a current running between her and someone else. Shed felt it one night, years ago, and had given a young healer the money to get the hell out of this continent. Shed felt the tug—and had decided to tug back. Here it was again, that tug—toward Manon, whose arms buckled as she collapsed to the stone. Her enemy—her new enemy, who would have killed her and Rowan if given the chance. A monster incarnate. But perhaps the monsters needed to look out for each other every now and then. Run! Aedion roared from across the ravine. So she did. Aelin ran for Manon, leaping over the fallen stones, her ankle wrenching on loose debris. The island rocked with her every step, and the sunlight was scalding, as if Mala were holding that island aloft with every last bit of strength the goddess could summon in this land. Then Aelin was upon Manon Blackbeak, and the witch lifted hate-filled eyes to her. Aelin hauled off stone after stone from her body, the island beneath them buckling. Youre too good a fighter to kill, Aelin breathed, hooking an arm under Manons shoulders and hauling her up. The rock swayed to the left—but held. Oh, gods. If I die because of you, Ill beat the shit out of you in hell. She could have sworn the witch let out a broken laugh as she got to her feet, nearly a dead weight in Aelins arms. You—should let me die, Manon rasped as they limped over the rubble. I know, I know, Aelin panted, her sliced arm aching with the weight of the witch it supported. They hurried over the second bridge, the temple rock swaying to the right—stretching the bridge behind them tightly over the drop and the shining river far, far below. Aelin tugged at the witch, gritting her teeth, and Manon stumbled into a staggering run. Aedion remained between the posts across the ravine, an arm still extended toward her—while his other lifted his sword high, ready for the Wing Leaders arrival. The rock behind them groaned. Halfway—nothing but a death-plunge waiting for them. Manon coughed blue blood onto the wooden slats. Aelin snapped, What the hell good are your beasts if they cant save you from this kind of thing? The island veered back in the other direction, and the bridge went taut—oh, shit—shit, it was going to snap. Faster they ran, until she could see Aedions straining fingers and the whites of his eyes. The rock cracked, so loudly it deafened her. Then came the tug and stretch of the bridge as the island began to crumble into dust, sliding to the side— Aelin lunged the last few steps, gripping Manons red cloak as the chains of the bridge snapped. The wooden slats dropped out from beneath them, but they were already leaping. Aelin let out a grunt as she slammed into Aedion. She whirled to see Chaol grabbing Manon and hauling her over the lip of the ravine, her cloak torn and covered in dust, fluttering in the wind. When Aelin looked past the witch, the temple was gone. Manon gasped for air, concentrating on her breathing, on the cloudless sky above her. The humans left her lying between the stone bridge posts. The queen hadnt even bothered to say good-bye. Shed just dashed for the injured Fae warrior, his name like a prayer on her lips. Rowan. Manon had looked up in time to see the queen fall to her knees before the injured warrior in the grass, demanding answers from the brown-haired man—Chaol—who pressed a hand to the arrow wound in Rowans shoulder to stanch the bleeding. The queens shoulders were shaking. Fireheart, the Fae warrior murmured. Manon would have watched—would have, had she not coughed blood onto the bright grass and blacked out. When she awoke, they were gone. Only minutes had passed—because then there were booming wings, and Abraxoss roar. And there were Asterin and Sorrel, rushing for her before their wyverns had fully landed. The Queen of Terrasen had saved her life. Manon didnt know what to make of it. For she now owed her enemy a life debt. And she had just learned how thoroughly her grandmother and the King of Adarlan intended to destroy them. 61 The trek back through Oakwald was the longest journey of Aelins miserable life. Nesryn had removed the arrow from Rowans shoulder, and Aedion had found some herbs to chew and shove into the open wound to stanch the bleeding. But Rowan still sagged against Chaol and Aedion as they hurried through the forest. Nowhere to go. She had nowhere to take an injured Fae male in the capital city, in this entire shit-hole kingdom. Lysandra was pale and shaking, but shed squared her shoulders and offered to help carry Rowan when one of them tired. None of them accepted. When Chaol at last asked Nesryn to take over, Aelin glimpsed the blood soaking his tunic and hands—Rowans blood—and nearly vomited.Slower—every step was slower as Rowans strength flagged. He needs to rest, Lysandra said gently. Aelin paused, the towering oaks pressing in around her. Rowans eyes were half-closed, his face drained of all color. He couldnt even lift his head. She should have let the witch die. We cant just camp out in the middle of the woods, Aelin said. He needs a healer. I know where we can take him, Chaol said. She dragged her eyes to the captain. She should have let the witch kill him, too. Chaol wisely averted his gaze and faced Nesryn. Your fathers country house—the man who runs it is married to a midwife. Nesryns mouth tightened. Shes not a healer, but—yes. She might have something. Do you understand, Aelin said very quietly to them, that if I suspect theyre going to betray us, they will die? It was true, and maybe it made her a monster to Chaol, but she didnt care. I know, Chaol said. Nesryn merely nodded, still calm, still solid. Then lead the way, Aelin said, her voice hollow. And pray they can keep their mouths shut. Joyous, frenzied barking greeted them, rousing Rowan from the half consciousness hed fallen into during the last few miles to the little stone farmhouse. Aelin had barely breathed the entire time. But despite herself, despite Rowans injuries, as Fleetfoot raced across the high grass toward them, Aelin smiled a little. The dog leaped upon her, licking and whining and wagging her feathery, golden tail. She hadnt realized how filthy and bloody her hands were until she put them on Fleetfoots shining coat. Aedion grunted as he took all of Rowans weight while Chaol and Nesryn jogged for the large, brightly lit stone house, dusk having fallen fully around them. Good. Fewer eyes to see as they exited Oakwald and crossed the freshly tilled fields. Lysandra tried to help Aedion, but he refused her again. She hissed at him and helped anyway. Fleetfoot danced around Aelin, then noticed Aedion, Lysandra, and Rowan, and that tail became a bit more tentative. Friends, she told her dog. Shed become huge since Aelin had last seen her. She wasnt sure why it surprised her, when everything else in her life had changed as well. Aelins assurance seemed good enough for Fleetfoot, who trotted ahead, escorting them to the wooden door that had opened to reveal a tall midwife with a no-nonsense face that took one look at Rowan and tightened. One word. One damn word that suggested she might turn them in, and she was dead. But the woman said, Whoever put that bloodmoss on the wound saved his life. Get him inside—we need to clean it before anything else can be done. It took a few hours for Marta, the housekeepers wife, to clean, disinfect, and patch up Rowans wounds. Lucky, she kept saying—so lucky it didnt hit anything vital. Chaol didnt know what to do with himself other than carry away the bowls of bloodied water. Aelin just sat on a stool beside the cot in the spare room of the elegant, comfortable house, and monitored every move Marta made. Chaol wondered if Aelin knew that she was a bloodied mess. That she looked even worse than Rowan. Her neck was brutalized, blood had dried on her face, her cheek was bruised, and the left sleeve of her tunic was torn open to reveal a vicious slice. And then there were the dust, dirt, and blue blood of the Wing Leader coating her. But Aelin perched on the stool, never moving, only drinking water, snarling if Marta so much as looked at Rowan funny. Marta, somehow, endured it. And when the midwife was done, she faced the queen. With no clue at all who sat in her house, Marta said, You have two choices: you can either go wash up in the spigot outside, or you can sit with the pigs all night. Youre dirty enough that one touch could infect his wounds. Aelin glanced over her shoulder at Aedion, who was leaning against the wall behind her. He nodded silently. Hed look after him. Aelin rose and stalked out. Ill inspect your other friend now, Marta said, and hurried to where Lysandra had fallen asleep in the adjoining room, curled up on a narrow bed cot. Upstairs, Nesryn was busy dealing with the staff—ensuring their silence. But hed seen the tentative joy on their faces when theyd arrived: Nesryn and the Faliq family had earned their loyalty long ago. Chaol gave Aelin two minutes, and then followed her outside. The stars were bright overhead, the full moon nearly blinding. The night wind whispered through the grass, barely audible over the clunk and sputter of the spigot. He found the queen crouched before it, her face in the stream of water. Im sorry, he said. She rubbed at her face and heaved the lever until more water poured over her. Chaol went on, I just wanted to end it for him. You were right—all this time, you were right. But I wanted to do it myself. I didnt know it would … Im sorry. She released the lever and pivoted to look up at him. I saved my enemys life today, she said flatly. She uncoiled to her feet, wiping the water from her face. And though he stood taller than her, he felt smaller as Aelin stared at him. No, not just Aelin. Queen Aelin Ashryver Galathynius, he realized, was staring at him. They tried to shoot my … Rowan through the heart. And I saved her anyway. I know, he said. Her scream when that arrow had gone through Rowan … Im sorry, he said again. She gazed up at the stars—toward the North. Her face was so cold. Would you truly have killed him if youd had the chance? Yes, Chaol breathed. I was ready for that. She slowly turned to him. Well do it—together. Well free magic, then you and I will go in there and end it together. Youre not going to insist I stay back? How can I deny you that last gift to him? Aelin— Her shoulders sagged slightly. I dont blame you. If it had been Rowan with that collar around his neck, I would have done the same thing. The words hit him in the gut as she walked away. A monster, hed called her weeks ago. He had believed it, and allowed it to be a shield against the bitter tang of disappointment and sorrow. He was a fool. They moved Rowan before dawn. By whatever immortal grace lingering in his veins, hed healed enough to walk on his own, and so they slipped out of the lovely country house before any of the staff awoke. Aelin said good-bye only to Fleetfoot, who had slept curled by her side during the long night that shed watched over Rowan. Then they were off, Aelin and Aedion flanking Rowan, his arms slung over their shoulders as they hurried across the foothills. The early-morning mist cloaked them as they made their way into Rifthold one last time. 62 Manon didnt bother looking pleasant as she sent Abraxos slamming into the ground in front of the kings party. The horses whinnied and bucked while the Thirteen circled above the clearing in which theyd spotted the party. Wing Leader, the king said from astride his warhorse, not at all perturbed. Beside him, his son—Dorian—cringed. Cringed the way that blond thing in Morath had when it attacked them. Was there something you wanted? the king asked coolly. Or a reason you look halfway to Hellass realm? Manon dismounted Abraxos and walked toward the king and his son. The prince focused on his saddle, careful not to meet her eyes. There are rebels in your woods, she said. They took your little prisoner out of the wagon, and then tried to attack me and my Thirteen. I slaughtered them all. I hope you dont mind. They left three of your men dead in the wagon—though it seems their loss wasnt noticed. The king merely said, You came all this way to tell me that? I came all this way to tell you that when I face your rebels, your enemies, I shall have no interest in prisoners. And the Thirteen are not a caravan to transport them as you will. She stepped closer to the princes horse. Dorian, she said. A command and a challenge. Sapphire eyes snapped to hers. No trace of otherworldly darkness. Just a man trapped inside. She faced the king. You should send your son to Morath. Itd be his sort of place. Before the king could reply, Manon walked back to Abraxos. Shed planned on telling the king about Aelin. About the rebels who called themselves Aedion and Rowan and Chaol. But … they were human and could not travel swiftly—not if they were injured. She owed her enemy a life debt. Manon climbed into Abraxoss saddle. My grandmother might be High Witch, she said to the king, but I ride at the head of the armies. The king chuckled. Ruthless. I think I rather like you, Wing Leader. That weapon my grandmother made—the mirrors. You truly plan to use shadowfire with it? The kings ruddy face tightened with warning. The replica inside the wagon had been a fraction of the size of what was depicted in the plans nailed to the wall: giant, transportable battle towers, a hundred feet high, their insides lined with the sacred mirrors of the Ancients. Mirrors that were once used to build and break and mend. Now they would be amplifiers, reflecting and multiplying any power the king chose to unleash, until it became a weapon that could be aimed at any target. If the power were Kaltains shadowfire …
Better to be overprepared than surprised. We have full control of the towers. Manon tapped an iron nail on the glass table. This is a base of information, Wing Leader. Continue to prove yourself, and you will receive more. Prove herself? She hadnt done anything lately to prove herself, except—except shred one of his demon princes and butcher that mountain tribe for no good reason. A shiver of rage went through her. Unleashing the prince in the barracks hadnt been a message, then, but a test. To see if she could hold up against his worst, and still obey. Have you picked a coven for me? Manon forced herself to give a dismissive shrug. I was waiting to see who behaved themselves the best while I was away. Itll be their reward. You have until tomorrow. Manon stared him down. The moment I leave this room, Im going to bathe and sleep for a day. If you or your little demon cronies bother me before then, youll learn just how much I enjoy playing executioner. The day after that, Ill make my decision. You wouldnt be avoiding it, would you, Wing Leader? Why should I bother handing out favors to covens that dont deserve them? Manon didnt give herself one heartbeat to contemplate what the Matron was letting these men do as she gathered up the files, shoved them into Sorrels arms, and strode out. She had just reached the stairs to her tower when she spotted Asterin leaning against the archway, picking at her iron nails. Sorrel and Vesta sucked in their breath. What is it? Manon demanded, flicking out her own nails. Asterins face was a mask of immortal boredom. We need to talk. She and Asterin flew into the mountains, and she let her cousin lead—let Abraxos follow Asterins sky-blue female until they were far from Morath. They alighted on a little plateau covered in purple and orange wildflowers, its grasses hissing in the wind. Abraxos was practically grunting with joy, and Manon, her exhaustion as heavy as the red cloak she wore, didnt bother to reprimand him. They left their wyverns in the field. The mountain wind was surprisingly warm, the day clear and the sky full of fat, puffy clouds. Shed ordered Sorrel and Vesta to remain behind, despite their protests. If things had gotten to the point where Asterin could not be trusted to be alone with her … Manon did not want to consider it. Perhaps that was why she had agreed to come. Perhaps it was because of the scream Asterin had issued from the other side of the ravine. It had been so like the scream of the Blueblood heir, Petrah, when her wyvern had been ripped to shreds. Like the scream of Petrahs mother when Petrah and her wyvern, Keelie, had tumbled into thin air. Asterin walked to the edge of the plateau, the wildflowers swaying about her calves, her riding leathers shining in the bright sun. She unbraided her hair, shaking out the golden waves, then unbuckled her sword and daggers and let them thud to the ground. I need you to listen, and not talk, she said as Manon came to stand beside her. A high demand to make of her heir, but there was no challenge, no threat in it. And Asterin had never spoken to her like that. So Manon nodded. Asterin stared out across the mountains—so vibrant here, now that they were far from the darkness of Morath. A balmy breeze flitted between them, ruffling Asterins curls until they looked like sunshine given form. When I was twenty-eight, I was off hunting Crochans in a valley just west of the Fangs. I had a hundred miles to go before the next village, and when a storm rolled in, I didnt feel like landing. So I tried to outrace the storm on my broom, tried to fly over it. But the storm went on and on, up and up. I dont know if it was the lightning or the wind, but suddenly I was falling. I managed to get control of my broom long enough to land, but the impact was brutal. Before I blacked out, I knew my arm was broken in two different places, my ankle twisted beyond use, and my broom shattered. Over eighty years ago—this had been over eighty years ago, and Manon had never heard of it. Shed been off on her own mission—where, she couldnt remember now. All those years shed spent hunting Crochans had blurred together. When I awoke, I was in a human cabin, my broom in pieces beside the bed. The man who had found me said hed been riding home through the storm and saw me fall from the sky. He was a young hunter—mostly of exotic game, which was why he had a cabin out in the deep wild. I think I would have killed him if Id had any strength, if only because I wanted his resources. But I faded in and out of consciousness for a few days while my bones knitted together, and when I awoke again … he fed me enough that he stopped looking like food. Or a threat. A long silence. I stayed there for five months. I didnt hunt a single Crochan. I helped him stalk game, found ironwood and began carving a new broom, and … And we both knew what I was, what he was. That I was long-lived and he was human. But we were the same age at that moment, and we didnt care. So I stayed with him until my orders bade me report back to Blackbeak Keep. And I told him … I said Id come back when I could. Manon could hardly think, hardly breathe over the silence in her head. Shed never heard of this. Not a whisper. For Asterin to have ignored her sacred duties … For her to have taken up with this human man … I was a month pregnant when I arrived back at Blackbeak Keep. Manons knees wobbled. You were already gone—off on your next mission. I told no one, not until I knew that the pregnancy would actually survive those first few months. Not unexpected, as most witches lost their offspring during that time. For the witchling to grow past that threshold was a miracle in itself. But I made it to three months, then four. And when I couldnt hide it anymore, I told your grandmother. She was pleased, and ordered me on bed rest in the Keep, so nothing disturbed me or the witchling in my womb. I told her I wanted to go back out, but she refused. I knew better than to tell her I wanted to return to that cabin in the forest. I knew shed kill him. So I remained in the tower for months, a pampered prisoner. You even visited, twice, and she didnt tell you I was there. Not until the witchling was born, she said. A long, uneven breath. It wasnt uncommon for witches to be overprotective of those carrying witchlings. And Asterin, bearing the Matrons bloodline, would have been a valued commodity. I made a plan. The moment I recovered from the birth, the moment they looked away, Id take the witchling to her father and present her to him. I thought maybe a life in the forest, quiet and peaceful, would be better for my witchling than the bloodshed we had. I thought maybe it would be better … for me. Asterins voice broke on the last two words. Manon couldnt bring herself to look at her cousin. I gave birth. The witchling almost ripped me in two coming out. I thought it was because she was a fighter, because she was a true Blackbeak. And I was proud. Even as I was screaming, even as I was bleeding, I was so proud of her. Asterin fell silent, and Manon looked at her at last. Tears were rolling down her cousins face, gleaming in the sunshine. Asterin closed her eyes and whispered into the wind. She was stillborn. I waited to hear that cry of triumph, but there was only silence. Silence, and then your grandmother … She opened her eyes. Your grandmother struck me. She beat me. Again and again. All I wanted was to see my witchling, and she ordered them to have her burned instead. She refused to let me see her. I was a disgrace to every witch who had come before me; I was to blame for a defective witchling; I had dishonored the Blackbeaks; I had disappointed her. She screamed it at me again and again, and when I sobbed, she … she … Manon didnt know where to stare, what to do with her arms. A stillborn was a witchs greatest sorrow—and shame. But for her grandmother … Asterin unbuttoned her jacket and shrugged it off into the flowers. She removed her shirt, and the one beneath, until her golden skin glowed in the sunlight, her breasts full and heavy. Asterin turned, and Manon fell to her knees in the grass. There, branded on Asterins abdomen in vicious, crude letters was one word: UNCLEAN She branded me. Had them heat up the iron in the same flame where my witchling burned and stamped each letter herself. She said I had no business ever trying to conceive a Blackbeak again. That most men would take one look at the word and run. Eighty years. For eighty years she had hidden this. But Manon had seen her naked, had— No. No, she hadnt. Not for decades and decades. When they were witchlings, yes, but … In my shame, I told no one. Sorrel and Vesta … Sorrel knew because she was in that room. Sorrel fought for me. Begged your grandmother. Your grandmother snapped her arm and sent her out. But after the Matron chucked me into the snow and told me to crawl somewhere and die, Sorrel found me. She got Vesta, and they brought me to Vestas aerie deep in the mountains, and they secretly took care of me for the months that I … that I couldnt get out of bed. Then one day, I just woke up and decided to fight.I trained. I healed my body. I grew strong—stronger than Id been before. And I stopped thinking about it. A month later I went hunting for Crochans, and walked back into the Keep with three of their hearts in a box. If your grandmother was surprised I hadnt died, she didnt show it. You were there that night I came back. You toasted in my honor, and said you were proud to have such a fine Second. Still on her knees, the damp earth soaking into her pants, Manon stared at that hideous brand. I never went back to the hunter. I didnt know how to explain the brand. How to explain your grandmother, or apologize. I was afraid hed treat me as your grandmother had. So I never went back. Her mouth wobbled. Id fly overhead every few years, just … just to see. She wiped at her face. He never married. And even when he was an old man, Id sometimes see him sitting on that front porch. As if he were waiting for someone. Something … something was cracking and aching in Manons chest, caving in on itself. Asterin sat among the flowers and began pulling on her clothes. She was weeping silently, but Manon didnt know if she should reach out. She didnt know how to comfort, how to soothe. I stopped caring, Asterin said at last. About anything and everything. After that, it was all a joke, and a thrill, and nothing scared me. That wildness, that untamed fierceness … They werent born of a free heart, but of one that had known despair so complete that living brightly, living violently, was the only way to outrun it. But I told myself—Asterin finished buttoning her jacket—I would dedicate my life wholly to being your Second. To serving you. Not your grandmother. Because I knew your grandmother had hidden me from you for a reason. I think she knew you would have fought for me. And whatever your grandmother saw in you that made her afraid … It was worth waiting for. Worth serving. So I have. That day Abraxos had made the Crossing, when her Thirteen had looked ready to fight their way out should her grandmother give the order to kill her … Asterin met her stare. Sorrel, Vesta, and I have known for a very long time what your grandmother is capable of. We never said anything because we feared that if you knew, it could jeopardize you. The day you saved Petrah instead of letting her fall … You werent the only one who understood why your grandmother made you slaughter that Crochan. Asterin shook her head. I am begging you, Manon. Do not let your grandmother and these men take our witches and use them like this. Do not let them turn our witchlings into monsters. What theyve already done … I am begging you to help me undo it. Manon swallowed hard, her throat achingly tight. If we defy them, they will come after us, and they will kill us. I know. We all know. Thats what we wanted to tell you the other night. Manon looked at her cousins shirt, as if she could see through to the brand beneath. That is why youve been behaving this way. I am not foolish enough to pretend that I dont have a weak spot where witchlings are concerned. This was why her grandmother had pushed for decades to have Asterin demoted. I dont think its a weak spot, Manon admitted, and glanced over her shoulder to where Abraxos was sniffing at the wildflowers. Youre to be reinstated as Second. Asterin bowed her head. I am sorry, Manon. You have nothing to be sorry for. She dared add, Are there others whom my grandmother treated this way? Not in the Thirteen. But in other covens. Most let themselves die when your grandmother cast them out. And Manon had never been told. She had been lied to. Manon gazed westward across the mountains. Hope, Elide had said—hope for a better future. For a home. Not obedience, brutality, discipline. But hope. We need to proceed carefully. Asterin blinked, the gold flecks in her black eyes glittering. What are you planning? Something very stupid, I think. 64 Rowan barely remembered anything of the agonizing trip back to Rifthold. By the time they had snuck across the city walls and through the alleys to reach the warehouse, he was so exhausted that hed hardly hit the mattress before unconsciousness dragged him under. He awoke that night—or was it the next?—with Aelin and Aedion sitting on the side of the bed, talking. Solstice is in six days; we need to have everything lined up by then, she was saying to her cousin. So youre going to ask Ress and Brullo to just leave a back door open so you can sneak in? Dont be so simpleminded. Im going to walk in through the front door. Of course she was. Rowan let out a groan, his tongue dry and heavy in his mouth. She whirled to him, half lunging across the bed. How are you feeling? She brushed a hand over his forehead, testing for fever. You seem all right. Fine, he grunted. His arm and shoulder ached. But hed endured worse. The blood loss had been what knocked his feet out from under him—more blood than hed ever lost at once, at least so quickly, thanks to his magic being stifled. He ran an eye over Aelin. Her face was drawn and pale, a bruise kissed her cheekbone, and four scratches marred her neck. He was going to slaughter that witch. He said as much, and Aelin smiled. If youre in the mood for violence, then I suppose youre just fine. But the words were thick, and her eyes gleamed. He reached out with his good arm to grip one of her hands and squeezed tightly. Please dont ever do that again, she breathed. Next time, Ill ask them not to fire arrows at you—or me. Her mouth tightened and wobbled, and she rested her brow on his good arm. He lifted the other arm, sending burning pain shooting through him as he stroked her hair. It was still matted in a few spots with blood and dirt. She must not have even bothered with a full bath. Aedion cleared his throat. Weve been thinking up a plan for freeing magic—and taking out the king and Dorian. Just—tell me tomorrow, Rowan said, a headache already blooming. The mere thought of explaining to them again that every time hed seen hellfire used it had been more destructive than anyone could anticipate made him want to go back to sleep. Gods, without his magic … Humans were remarkable. To be able to survive without leaning on magic … He had to give them credit. Aedion yawned—the lousiest attempt at one Rowan had ever seen—and excused himself. Aedion, Rowan said, and the general paused in the doorway. Thank you. Anytime, brother. He walked out. Aelin was looking between them, her lips pursed again. What? he said. She shook her head. Youre too nice when youre wounded. Its unsettling. Seeing the tears shine in her eyes just now had nearly unsettled him. If magic had already been freed, those witches would have been ashes the moment that arrow hit him. Go take a bath, he growled. Im not sleeping next to you while youre covered in that witchs blood. She examined her nails, still slightly lined with dirt and blue blood. Ugh. Ive washed them ten times already. She rose from her seat on the side of the bed. Why, he asked. Why did you save her? She dragged a hand through her hair. A white bandage around her upper arm peeked through her shirt with the movement. He hadnt even been conscious for that wound. He stifled the urge to demand to see it, assess the injury himself—and tug her close against him. Because that golden-haired witch, Asterin … , Aelin said. She screamed Manons name the way I screamed yours. Rowan stilled. His queen gazed at the floor, as if recalling the moment. How can I take away somebody who means the world to someone else? Even if shes my enemy. A little shrug. I thought you were dying. It seemed like bad luck to let her die out of spite. And … she snorted. Falling into a ravine seemed like a pretty shitty way to die for someone who fights that spectacularly. Rowan smiled, drinking in the sight of her: the pale, grave face; the dirty clothes; the injuries. Yet her shoulders were back, chin high. You make me proud to serve you. A jaunty slant to her lips, but silver lined her eyes. I know. You look like shit, Lysandra said to Aelin. Then she remembered Evangeline, who stared at her wide-eyed, and winced. Sorry. Evangeline refolded her napkin in her lap, every inch the dainty little queen. You said Im not to use such language—and yet you do. I can curse, Lysandra said as Aelin suppressed a smile, because Im older, and I know when its most effective. And right now, our friend looks like absolute shit. Evangeline lifted her eyes to Aelin, her red-gold hair bright in the morning sun through the kitchen window. You look even worse in the morning, Lysandra.Aelin choked out a laugh. Careful, Lysandra. Youve got a hellion on your hands. Lysandra gave her young ward a long look. If youve finished eating the tarts clean off our plates, Evangeline, go onto the roof and raise hell for Aedion and Rowan. Take care with Rowan, Aelin added. Hes still on the mend. But pretend that he isnt. Men get pissy if you fuss. A wicked gleam in her eye, Evangeline bounded for the front door. Aelin listened to make sure the girl did indeed go upstairs, and then turned to her friend. Shes going to be a handful when shes older. Lysandra groaned. You think I dont know that? Eleven years old, and shes already a tyrant. Its an endless stream of Why? and I would prefer not to and why, why, why and no, I should not like to listen to your good advice, Lysandra. She rubbed her temples. A tyrant, but a brave one, Aelin said. I dont think there are many eleven-year-olds who would do what she did to save you. The swelling had gone down, but bruises still marred Lysandras face, and the small, scabbed cut near her lip remained an angry red. And I dont think there are many nineteen-year-olds who would fight tooth and nail to save a child. Lysandra stared down at the table. Im sorry, Aelin said. Even though Arobynn orchestrated it—Im sorry. You came for me, Lysandra said so quietly that it was hardly a breath. All of you—you came for me. She had told Nesryn and Chaol in detail of her overnight stay in a hidden dungeon beneath the city streets; already, the rebels were combing the sewers for it. She remembered little of the rest, having been blindfolded and gagged. Wondering if they would put a Wyrdstone ring on her finger had been the worst of it, she said. That dread would haunt her for a while. You thought we wouldnt come for you? Ive never had friends who cared what happened to me, other than Sam and Wesley. Most people would have let me be taken—dismissed me as just another whore. Ive been thinking about that. Oh? Aelin reached into her pocket and pushed a folded piece of paper across the table. Its for you. And her. We dont need— Lysandras eyes fell upon the wax seal. A snake in midnight ink: Clarisses sigil. What is this? Open it. Glancing between her and the paper, Lysandra cracked the seal and read the text. I, Clarisse DuVency, hereby declare that any debts owed to me by— The paper began shaking. Any debts owed to me by Lysandra and Evangeline are now paid in full. At their earliest convenience, they may receive the Mark of their freedom. The paper fluttered to the table as Lysandras hands slackened. She raised her head to look at Aelin. Och, Aelin said, even as her own eyes filled. I hate you for being so beautiful, even when you cry. Do you know how much money— Did you think Id leave you enslaved to her? I dont … I dont know what to say to you. I dont know how to thank you— You dont need to. Lysandra put her face in her hands and sobbed. Im sorry if you wanted to do the proud and noble thing and stick it out for another decade, Aelin began. Lysandra only wept harder. But you have to understand that there was no rutting way I was going to leave without— Shut up, Aelin, Lysandra said through her hands. Just—shut up. She lowered her hands, her face now puffy and splotchy. Aelin sighed. Oh, thank the gods. You can look hideous when you cry. Lysandra burst out laughing. Manon and Asterin stayed in the mountains all day and night after her Second revealed her invisible wound. They caught mountain goats for themselves and their wyverns and roasted them over a fire that night as they carefully considered what they might do. When Manon eventually dozed off, curled against Abraxos with a blanket of stars overhead, her head felt clearer than it had in months. And yet something nagged at her, even in sleep. She knew what it was when she awoke. A loose thread in the loom of the Three-Faced Goddess. You ready? Asterin said, mounting her pale-blue wyvern and smiling—a real smile. Manon had never seen that smile. She wondered how many people had. Wondered if she herself had ever smiled that way. Manon gazed northward. Theres something I need to do. When she explained it to her Second, Asterin didnt hesitate to declare that she would go with her. So they stopped by Morath long enough to get supplies. They let Sorrel and Vesta know the bare details, and instructed them to tell the duke shed been called away. They were airborne within an hour, flying hard and fast above the clouds to keep hidden. Mile after mile they flew. Manon couldnt tell why that thread kept yanking, why it felt so urgent, but she pushed them hard, all the way to Rifthold. Four days. Elide had been in this freezing, festering dungeon for four days. It was so cold that she could hardly sleep, and the food they chucked in was barely edible. Fear kept her alert, prompting her to test the door, to watch the guards whenever they opened it, to study the halls behind them. She learned nothing useful. Four days—and Manon had not come for her. None of the Blackbeaks had. She didnt know why she expected it. Manon had forced her to spy on that chamber, after all. She tried not to think about what might await her now. Tried, and failed. She wondered if anyone would even remember her name when she was dead. If it would ever be carved anywhere. She knew the answer. And knew there was no one coming for her. 65 Rowan was more tired than hed admit to Aelin or Aedion, and in the flurry of planning, he hardly had a moment alone with the queen. It had taken him two days of rest and sleeping like the dead before he was back on his feet and able to go through his training exercises without being winded. After finishing his evening routine, he was so exhausted by the time he staggered into bed that he was asleep before Aelin had finished washing up. No, he hadnt given humans nearly enough credit all these years. It would be such a damn relief to have his magic back—if their plan worked. Considering the fact that they were using hellfire, things could go very, very wrong. Chaol hadnt been able to meet with Ress or Brullo yet, but tried every day to get messages to them. The real difficulty, it seemed, was that over half the rebels had fled as more Valg soldiers poured in. Three executions a day was the new rule: sunrise, noon, and sunset. Former magic-wielders, rebels, suspected rebel sympathizers—Chaol and Nesryn managed to save some, but not all. The cawing of crows could now be heard on every street. A male scent in the room snapped Rowan from sleep. He slid his knife out from under his pillow and sat up slowly. Aelin slumbered beside him, her breathing deep and even, yet again wearing one of his shirts. Some primal part of him snarled in satisfaction at the sight, at knowing she was covered in his scent. Rowan rolled to his feet, his steps silent as he scanned the room, knife at the ready. But the scent wasnt inside. It was drifting in from beyond. Rowan edged to the window and peered out. No one on the street below; no one on the neighboring rooftops. Which meant Lorcan had to be on the roof. His old commander was waiting, arms crossed over his broad chest. He surveyed Rowan with a frown, noting the bandages and his bare torso. Should I thank you for putting on pants? Lorcan said, his voice barely more than a midnight wind. I didnt want you to feel inadequate, Rowan replied, leaning against the roof door. Lorcan huffed a laugh. Did your queen claw you up, or are the wounds from one of those beasts she sent after me? I was wondering who would ultimately win—you or the Wyrdhounds. A flash of teeth. I slaughtered them all. Whyd you come here, Lorcan? You think I dont know that the heir of Mala Fire-Bringer is planning something for the summer solstice in two days? Have you fools considered my offer? A carefully worded question, to bait him into revealing what Lorcan had only guessed at. Aside from drinking the first of the summer wine and being a pain in my ass, I dont think shes planning anything at all. So thats why the captain is trying to set up a meeting with guards at the palace? How am I supposed to keep up with what he does? The boy used to serve the king. Assassins, whores, traitors—what fine company you keep these days, Rowan. Better than being a dog leashed by a psychotic master. Is that what you thought of us? All those years that we worked together, killed men and bedded females together? I never heard you complain. I didnt realize there was anything to complain about. I was as blind as you. And then a fiery princess flounced into your life, and you decided to change for her, right? A cruel smile. Did you tell her about Sollemere?
She knows everything. Does she now. I suppose her own history makes her even more understanding of the horrors you committed on our queens behalf. Your queens behalf. What is it, exactly, about Aelin that gets under your skin, Lorcan? Is it that shes not afraid of you, or is it that I walked away from you for her? Lorcan snorted. Whatever youre planning, it wont work. Youll all die in the process. That was highly likely, but Rowan said, I dont know what youre talking about. You owe me more than that horseshit. Careful, Lorcan, or youll sound like you care about someone other than yourself. As a discarded bastard child growing up on the back streets of Doranelle, Lorcan had lost that ability centuries before Rowan had even been born. Hed never pitied him for it, though. Not when Lorcan had been blessed in every other regard by Hellas himself. Lorcan spat on the roof. I was going to offer to bring your body back to your beloved mountain to be buried alongside Lyria once I finish with the keys. Now Ill just let you rot here. Alongside your pretty little princess. He tried to ignore the blow, the thought of that grave atop his mountain. Is that a threat? Why would I bother? If youre truly planning something, I wont need to kill her—she can do that all on her own. Maybe the king will put her in one of those collars. Just like his son. A chord of horror struck so deep in Rowan that his stomach turned. Mind what you say, Lorcan. I bet Maeve would offer good coin for her. And if she gets her hands on that Wyrdkey … You can imagine just as well as I what sort of power Maeve would wield then. Worse—so much worse than he could imagine if Maeve wanted Aelin not dead but enslaved. A weapon without limit in one hand, and the heir of Mala Fire-Bringer in her other. There would be no stopping her. Lorcan read the hesitation, the doubt. Gold gleamed in his hand. You know me, Prince. You know Im the only one qualified to hunt down and destroy those keys. Let your queen take on the army gathering in the south—leave this task to me. The ring seemed to glow in the moonlight as Lorcan extended it. Whatever shes planning, shell need this. Or else you can say good-bye. Lorcans eyes were chips of black ice. We all know how well you handled saying it to Lyria. Rowan leashed his rage. Swear it. Lorcan smiled, knowing hed won. Swear that this ring grants immunity to the Valg, and Ill give it to you, Rowan said, and he pulled the Amulet of Orynth from his pocket. Lorcans focus snapped to the amulet, to the otherworldly strangeness it radiated, and swore. A blade flashed, and then the scent of Lorcans blood filled the air. He clenched his fist, lifting it. I swear on my blood and honor that I have not deceived you in any of this. The rings power is genuine. Rowan watched the blood drip onto the roof. One drop; two; three. Lorcan might have been a prick, but Rowan had never seen him break an oath before. His word was his bond; it had always been the one currency he valued. They both moved at once, chucking the amulet and the ring into the space between them. Rowan caught the ring and swiftly pocketed it, but Lorcan just stared at the amulet in his hands, his eyes shadowed. Rowan avoided the urge to hold his breath and stayed silent. Lorcan slid the chain around his neck and tucked the amulet into his shirt. Youre all going to die. Carrying out this plan, or in the war that follows. You destroy those keys, Rowan said, and there might not be a war. A fools hope. There will be a war. Its too late to stop it now. Too bad that ring wont keep any of you from being spiked on the castle walls. The image flashed through his head—made all the worse, perhaps, because of the times hed seen it himself, done it himself. What happened to you, Lorcan? What happened in your miserable existence to make you this way? Hed never asked for the full story, had never cared to. It hadnt bothered him until now. Before, he would have stood beside Lorcan and taunted the poor fool who dared defy their queen. Youre a better male than this. Am I? I still serve my queen, even if she cannot see it. Who was the one who abandoned her the first time a pretty human thing opened her legs— That is enough. But Lorcan was gone. Rowan waited a few minutes before going back downstairs, turning the ring over and over in his pocket. Aelin was awake in the bed when he entered, the windows shut and curtained, the hearth dark. Well? she said, the word barely audible above the rustling of the blankets as he climbed in beside her. His night-keen eyes allowed him to see the scarred palm she held out as he dropped the ring into it. She slid it onto her thumb, wriggled her fingers, and frowned when nothing particularly exciting happened. A laugh caught in his throat. How mad is Lorcan going to be, Aelin murmured as they lay down face-to-face, when he eventually opens up that amulet, finds the Valg commanders ring inside, and realizes we gave him a fake? The demon ripped down the remaining barriers between their souls as though they were paper, until only one remained, a tiny shell of self. He did not remember waking, or sleeping, or eating. Indeed, there were very few moments when he was even there, looking out through his eyes. Only when the demon prince fed on the prisoners in the dungeons—when he allowed him to feed, to drink alongside him—that was the only time he now surfaced. Whatever control hed had that day— What day? He could not remember a time when the demon had not been there inside of him. And yet— Manon. A name. Do not think of that one—do not think of her. The demon hated that name. Manon. Enough. We do not speak of them, the descendants of our kings. Speak of whom? Good. Youre ready for tomorrow? Aelin said to Chaol as they stood on the roof of her apartment, gazing toward the glass castle. In the setting sun, it was awash in gold and orange and ruby—as if it were already aflame. Chaol prayed it wouldnt come to that, but … As ready as I can be. Hed tried not to look too hesitant, too wary, when hed arrived minutes ago to run through tomorrows plan one last time and Aelin had instead asked him to join her up here. Alone. She was wearing a loose white shirt tucked into tight brown pants, her hair unbound, and hadnt even bothered to put on shoes. He wondered what her people would think of a barefoot queen. Aelin braced her forearms on the roof rail, hooking one ankle over the other as she said, You know that I wont unnecessarily endanger any lives. I know. I trust you. She blinked, and shame washed through him at the shock on her face. Do you regret, she said, sacrificing your freedom to get me to Wendlyn? No, he said, surprising himself to find it true. Regardless of what happened between us, I was a fool to serve the king. I like to think I would have left someday. He needed to say that to her—had needed to say it from the moment shed returned. With me, she said, her voice hoarse. You would have left with me—when I was just Celaena. But you were never just Celaena, and I think you knew that, deep down, even before everything happened. I understand now. She studied him with eyes that were far older than nineteen. Youre still the same person, Chaol, that you were before you broke the oath to your father. He wasnt sure whether or not that was an insult. He supposed he deserved it, after all hed said and done. Maybe I dont want to be that person anymore, he said. That person—that stupidly loyal, useless person—had lost everything. His friend, the woman he loved, his position, his honor. Lost everything, with only himself to blame. Im sorry, he said. About Nehemia—about everything. It wasnt enough. It never would be. But she gave him a grim smile, eyes darting to the faint scar on his cheek. Im sorry I mauled your face, then tried to kill you. She turned to the glass castle again. Its still hard for me, to think about what happened this winter. But in the end Im grateful you sent me to Wendlyn, and made that bargain with your father. She closed her eyes and took a shallow breath. When she opened her eyes, the setting sun filled them with liquid gold. Chaol braced himself. It meant something to me. What you and I had. More than that, your friendship meant something to me. I never told you the truth about who I was because I couldnt face that truth. Im sorry if what I said to you on the docks that day—that Id pick you—made you think Id come back, and it would all be fixed. Things changed. I changed. Hed waited for this conversation for weeks now, months now—and hed expected himself to yell, or pace, or just shut her out entirely. But there was nothing but calm in his veins, a steady, peaceful calm. You deserve to be happy, he said. And meant it. She deserved the joy he so often glimpsed on her face when Rowan was near—deserved the wicked laughter she shared with Aedion, the comfort and teasing with Lysandra. She deserved happiness, perhaps more than anyone.She flicked her gaze over his shoulder—to where Nesryns slim silhouette filled the doorway onto the roof, where shed been waiting for the past few minutes. So do you, Chaol. You know she and I havent— I know. But you should. Faliq—Nesryn is a good woman. You deserve each other. This is assuming she has any interest in me. A knowing gleam in those eyes. She does. Chaol again glanced toward Nesryn, who gazed at the river. He smiled a bit. But then Aelin said, I promise Ill make it quick and painless. For Dorian. His breathing locked up. Thank you. But—if I ask … He couldnt say it. Then the blow is yours. Just say the word. She ran her fingers over the Eye of Elena, its blue stone gleaming in the sunset. We do not look back, Chaol. It helps no one and nothing to look back. We can only go on. There she was, that queen looking out at him, a hint of the ruler she was becoming. And it knocked the breath out of him, because it made him feel so strangely young—when she now seemed so old. What if we go on, he said, only to more pain and despair? What if we go on, only to find a horrible end waiting for us? Aelin looked northward, as if she could see all the way to Terrasen. Then it is not the end. Only twenty of them left. I hope to hell theyre ready tomorrow, Chaol said under his breath as he and Nesryn left a covert gathering of rebels at a run-down inn beside the fishing docks. Even inside the inn, the cheap ale hadnt been able to cover the reek of fish coming from both the guts still splattered on the wooden planks outside and the hands of the fishmongers who shared the tavern room. Better than only two—and they will be, Nesryn said, her steps light on the dock as they strode down the riverfront. Lanterns on the boats docked alongside the walkway bobbed and swayed with the current; from far across the Avery, the faint sound of music trickled from one of the pretty country estates on its banks. A party on the eve of the summer solstice. Once, a lifetime ago, he and Dorian had gone to those parties, dropping by several in one night. Hed never enjoyed it, had only gone to keep Dorian safe, but … He should have enjoyed it. He should have savored every second with his friend. Hed never realized how precious the calm moments were. But—but he wouldnt think about it, what he had to do tomorrow. What hed say good-bye to. They walked in silence, until Nesryn turned down a side street and walked up to a small stone temple wedged between two market warehouses. The gray rock was worn, the columns flanking the entrance imbedded with various shells and bits of coral. Golden light spilled from the inside, revealing a round, open space with a simple fountain in its center. Nesryn climbed the few steps and dropped a coin into the sealed bin beside a pillar. Come with me. And maybe it was because he didnt want to sit alone in his apartment and brood over what was to come tomorrow; maybe it was because visiting a temple, however useless, couldnt hurt. Chaol followed her inside. At this hour, the Sea Gods temple was empty. A small door at the back of the space was padlocked. Even the priest and priestess had gone to sleep for a few hours before they had to awake ahead of the dawn, when the sailors and fishermen would make their offerings, reflect, or ask for blessings before setting off with the sun. Two lanterns, crafted from sun-bleached coral, hung from the domed ceiling, setting the mother-of-pearl tiles above them glimmering like the surface of the sea. Nesryn took a seat on one of four benches set along the curved walls—a bench for each direction a sailor might journey in. She picked south. For the Southern Continent? Chaol asked, sitting beside her on the smooth wood. Nesryn stared at the little fountain, the bubbling water the only sound. We went to the Southern Continent a few times. Twice when I was a child, to visit family; once to bury my mother. Her whole life, Id always catch her gazing south. As if she could see it. I thought only your father came from there. Yes. But she fell in love with it, and said it felt more like home than this place. My father never agreed with her, no matter how many times she begged him to move back. Do you wish he had? Her night-dark eyes shifted toward him. Ive never felt as though I had a home. Either here, or in the Milas Agia. The … god-city, he said, recalling the history and geography lessons that had been drilled into him. It was more frequently called by its other name—Antica—and was the largest city on the Southern Continent, home to a mighty empire in its own right, which claimed it had been built by the hands of gods. Also home to the Torre Cesme, the best mortal healers in the world. Hed never known Nesryns family had been from the city itself. Where do you think home might be? he asked. Nesryn braced her forearms on her knees. I dont know, she admitted, twisting her head to look back at him. Any ideas? You deserve to be happy, Aelin had said earlier that night. An apology and a shove out the door, he supposed. He didnt want to waste the calm moments. So he reached for her hand, sliding closer as he interlaced their fingers. Nesryn stared at their hands for a heartbeat, then sat up. Maybe once all this … once everything is over, Chaol said hoarsely, we could figure that out. Together. Promise me, she breathed, her mouth shaking. Indeed, that was silver lining her eyes, which she closed long enough to master herself. Nesryn Faliq, moved to tears. Promise me, she repeated, looking at their hands again, that you will walk out of that castle tomorrow. Hed wondered why shed brought him in here. The Sea God—and the God of Oaths. He squeezed her hand. She squeezed back. Gold light rippled on the surface of the Sea Gods fountain, and Chaol offered up a silent prayer. I promise. Rowan was in bed, casually testing his left shoulder with careful rotations. Hed pushed himself hard today while training, and soreness now throbbed in his muscles. Aelin was in her closet, preparing for bed—quiet, as shed been all day and evening. With two urns of hellfire now hidden a block away in an abandoned building, everyone should be tiptoeing around. One small accident, and they would be incinerated so thoroughly that no ash would remain. But hed made sure that wasnt her concern. Tomorrow, he and Aedion would be the ones bearing the urns through the network of sewer tunnels and into the castle itself. Aelin had tracked the Wyrdhounds to their secret entrance—the one that fed right to the clock tower—and now that shed tricked Lorcan into killing them all for her, the way would be clear for him and Aedion to plant the vats, set the fuses, and use their Fae swiftness to get the hell out before the tower exploded. Then Aelin … Aelin and the captain would play their part, the most dangerous of all. Especially since they hadnt been able to get a message in to the palace beforehand. And Rowan wouldnt be there to help her. Hed gone over the plan with her again and again. Things could go wrong so easily, and yet she hadnt looked nervous as she downed her dinner. But he knew her well enough to see the storm brewing beneath the surface, to feel its charge even from across the room. Rowan rotated his shoulder again, and soft footsteps sounded on the carpet. Ive been thinking, Rowan started, and then forgot everything he was going to say as he bolted upright in bed. Aelin leaned against the closet doorway, clad in a nightgown of gold. Metallic gold—as hed requested. It could have been painted on her for how closely it hugged every curve and dip, for all that it concealed. A living flame, thats what she looked like. He didnt know where to look, where he wanted to touch first. If I recall correctly, she drawled, someone said to remind him to prove me wrong about my hesitations. I think I had two options: words, or tongue and teeth. A low growl rumbled in his chest. Did I now. She took a step, and the full scent of her desire hit him like a brick to the face. He was going to rip that nightgown to shreds. He didnt care how spectacular it looked; he wanted bare skin. Dont even think about it, she said, taking another step, as fluid as molten metal. Lysandra lent it to me. His heartbeat thundered in his ears. If he moved an inch, hed be on her, would take her in his arms and begin learning just what made the Heir of Fire really burn. But he got out of bed, risking all of one step, drinking down the sight of the long, bare legs; the curve of her breasts, peaked despite the balmy summer night; the bob of her throat as she swallowed. You said that things had changed—that wed deal with it. Her turn to dare another step. Another. Im not going to ask you for anything youre not ready or willing to give. He froze as she stopped directly before him, tipping back her head to study his face as her scent twined around him, awakening him.
Gods, that scent. From the moment hed bitten her neck in Wendlyn, the moment hed tasted her blood and loathed the beckoning wildfire that crackled in it, hed been unable to get it out of his system. Aelin, you deserve better than this—than me. Hed wanted to say it for a while now. She didnt so much as flinch. Dont tell me what I do and dont deserve. Dont tell me about tomorrow, or the future, or any of it. He took her hand; her fingers were cold—shaking slightly. What do you want me to tell you, Fireheart? She studied their joined hands, and the gold ring encircling her thumb. He squeezed her fingers gently. When she lifted her head, her eyes were blazing bright. Tell me that well get through tomorrow. Tell me that well survive the war. Tell me— She swallowed hard. Tell me that even if I lead us all to ruin, well burn in hell together. Were not going to hell, Aelin, he said. But wherever we go, well go together. Her mouth wobbled slightly, and she released his hand only to brace her own on his chest. Just once, she said. I want to kiss you just once. Every thought went out of his head. That sounds like youre expecting not to do it again. The flicker of fear in her eyes told him enough—told him that her behavior at dinner might have been mostly bravado to keep Aedion calm. I know the odds. You and I have always relished damning the odds. She tried and failed to smile. He leaned in, sliding a hand around her waist, the lace and silk smooth against his fingers, her body warm and firm beneath it, and whispered in her ear, Even when were apart tomorrow, Ill be with you every step of the way. And every step after—wherever that may be. She sucked in a shuddering breath, and he pulled back far enough for them to share breath. Her fingers shook as she brushed them against his mouth, and his control nearly shredded apart right there. What are you waiting for? he said, the words near guttural. Bastard, she murmured, and kissed him. Her mouth was soft and warm, and he bit back a groan. His body went still—his entire world went still—at that whisper of a kiss, the answer to a question hed asked for centuries. He realized he was staring only when she withdrew slightly. His fingers tightened at her waist. Again, he breathed. She slid out of his grip. If we live through tomorrow, youll get the rest. He didnt know whether to laugh or roar. Are you trying to bribe me into surviving? She smiled at last. And damn if it didnt kill him, the quiet joy in her face. They had walked out of darkness and pain and despair together. They were still walking out of it. So that smile … It struck him stupid every time he saw it and realized it was for him. Rowan remained rooted to the center of the room as Aelin climbed into bed and blew out the candles. He stared at her through the darkness. She said softly, You make me want to live, Rowan. Not survive; not exist. Live. He didnt have the words. Not when what she said hit him harder and deeper than any kiss. So he climbed into bed and held her tightly all through the night. 66 Aelin ventured out at dawn to snag breakfast from the vendors in the main market of the slums. The sun was already warming the quiet streets, and her cloak and hood quickly turned stuffy. At least it was a clear day; at least that bit had gone right. Despite the crows cackling over the corpses in the execution squares. The sword at her side was a dead weight. Too soon shed be swinging it. Too soon shed face the man who had murdered her family and enslaved her kingdom. Too soon she would put an end to her friends life. Maybe she wouldnt even walk out of the castle alive. Or perhaps she would walk out wearing a black collar of her own, if Lorcan had betrayed them. Everything was prepared; every possible pitfall had been considered; every weapon had been sharpened. Lysandra had taken Evangeline to have their tattoos formally stamped off yesterday, and then collected her belongings from the brothel. Now they were staying in an upscale inn across the city, paid for with the small savings Lysandra had squirreled away for years. The courtesan had offered her help again and again, but Aelin ordered her to get the hell out of the city and to head for Nesryns country home. The courtesan warned her to be careful, kissed both her cheeks, and set off with her ward—both of them beaming, both of them free. Hopefully they were on their way out now. Aelin bought a bag of pastries and some meat pies, barely listening to the market around her, already abuzz with early revelers out to celebrate the solstice. They were more subdued than most years, but given the executions, she didnt blame them. Miss? She stiffened, going for her sword—and realized that the pie vendor was still waiting for his coppers. He flinched and retreated a few steps behind his wooden cart. Sorry, she mumbled, dumping the coins into his outstretched hand. The man gave her a wary smile. Everyones a bit jumpy this morning, it seems. She half turned. More executions? The vendor jerked his round chin toward a street leading off the market. You didnt see the message on your way in? She gave a sharp shake of the head. He pointed. Shed thought the crowd by the corner was watching some street performer. Oddest thing. No one can make any sense of it. They say its written in what looks like blood, but its darker— Aelin was already heading toward the street the man had indicated, following the throng of people pressing to see it. She trailed the crowd, weaving around curious revelers and vendors and common market guards until they all flowed around a corner into a brightly lit dead-end alley. The crowd had gathered at the pale stone wall at its end, murmuring and milling about. What does it mean? Who wrote it? Sounds like bad news, especially on the solstice. There are more, all saying the same thing, right near every major market in the city. Aelin pushed through the crowd, an eye on her weapons and purse lest a pickpocket get any bad ideas, and then— The message had been written in giant black letters, the reek coming off them sure enough that of Valg blood, as if someone with very, very sharp nails had ripped open one of the guards and used him as a paint bucket. Aelin turned on her heel and ran. She hurtled through the bustling city streets and the slums, alley after alley, until she reached Chaols decrepit house and flung open the door, shouting for him. The message on the wall had only been one sentence. Payment for a life debt. One sentence just for Aelin Galathynius; one sentence that changed everything: WITCH KILLER— THE HUMAN IS STILL INSIDE HIM 67 Aelin and Chaol helped Rowan and Aedion carry the two urns of hellfire into the sewers, all of them barely breathing, none of them talking. Now they stood in the cool, reeking dark, not daring a flame with the two vats sitting next to them on the stone walkway. Aedion and Rowan, with their Fae eyesight, wouldnt need a torch, anyway. Rowan shook Chaols hand, wishing him luck. When the Fae Prince turned to Aelin, she focused instead on a torn corner of his cloak—as if it had snagged on some long-ago obstacle and been ripped off. She kept staring at that ripped-off bit of cloak as she embraced him—quickly, tightly, breathing in his scent perhaps for the last time. His hands lingered on her as if hed hold her a moment longer, but she turned to Aedion. Ashryver eyes met her own, and she touched the face that was the other side of her fair coin. For Terrasen, she said to him. For our family. For Marion. For us. Slowly, Aedion drew his blade and knelt, his head bowed as he lifted the Sword of Orynth. Ten years of shadows, but no longer. Light up the darkness, Majesty. She did not have room in her heart for tears, would not allow or yield to them. Aelin took her fathers sword from him, its weight a steady, solid reassurance. Aedion rose, returning to his place beside Rowan. She looked at them, at the three males who meant everything—more than everything. Then she smiled with every last shred of courage, of desperation, of hope for the glimmer of that glorious future. Lets go rattle the stars. 68 Lysandras carriage meandered through the packed city streets. Every block took thrice as long as usual, thanks to the streaming crowds headed to the markets and squares to celebrate the solstice. None of them were aware of what was to occur, or who was making her way across the city. Lysandras palms turned sweaty within her silk gloves. Evangeline, drowsy with the morning heat, dozed lightly, her head resting on Lysandras shoulder. They should have left last night, but … But shed had to say good-bye. Brightly dressed revelers pushed past the carriage, and the driver shouted to clear out of the street. Everyone ignored him. Gods, if Aelin wanted an audience, shed picked the perfect day for it.
Lysandra peered out the window as they halted in an intersection. The street offered a clear view of the glass palace, blinding in the midmorning sun, its upper spires like lances piercing the cloudless sky. Are we there yet? Evangeline mumbled. Lysandra stroked her arm. A while yet, pet. And she began praying—praying to Mala Fire-Bringer, whose holiday had dawned so bright and clear, and to Temis, who never forgot the caged things of this world. But she was no longer in a cage. For Evangeline, she could stay in this carriage, and she could leave this city. Even if it meant leaving her friends behind. Aedion gritted his teeth against the weight he held so delicately between his hands. It was going to be a damn long trek to the castle. Especially when they had to ease across waterways and over crumbling bits of stone that made even their Fae balance unsteady. But this was the way the Wyrdhounds had come. Even if Aelin and Nesryn hadnt provided a detailed path, the lingering stench would have led the way. Careful, Rowan said over his shoulder as he hoisted the vat he carried higher and edged around a loose bit of rock. Aedion bit back his retort at the obvious order. But he couldnt blame the prince. One tumble, and theyd risk the various substances mixing inside. A few days ago, not trusting Shadow Market quality, Chaol and Aedion had found an abandoned barn outside the city to test an urn barely a tenth the size of the ones they carried. It had worked too well. As theyd hurried back to Rifthold before curious eyes could see them, the smoke could be seen for miles. Aedion shuddered to think about what a vat this size—let alone two of them—might do if they werent careful. But by the time they rigged up the triggering mechanisms and ignited the wicks they would trail a long, long distance away … Well, Aedion just prayed he and Rowan were swift enough. They entered a sewer tunnel so dark that it took even his eyes a moment to adjust. Rowan just continued ahead. They were damn lucky that Lorcan had killed those Wyrdhounds and cleared the way. Damn lucky that Aelin had been ruthless and clever enough to trick Lorcan into doing it for them. He didnt stop to consider what might happen if that ruthlessness and cleverness failed her today. They turned down another pathway, the reek now smothering. Rowans sharp sniff was the only sign of his mutual disgust. The gateway. The iron gates were in shambles, but Aedion could still make out the markings etched in them. Wyrdmarks. Ancient, too. Perhaps this had once been a path Gavin had used to visit the Sin-Eaters temple unseen. The otherworldly stench of the creatures pushed and pulled at Aedions senses, and he paused, scanning the darkness of the looming tunnel. Here the water ended. Past the gates, a broken, rocky path that looked more ancient than any theyd yet seen sloped up into the impenetrable gloom. Watch where you step, Rowan said, scanning the tunnel. Its all loose stone and debris. I can see just as well as you, Aedion said, unable to stop the retort this time. He rotated his shoulder, the cuff of his tunic slipping up to reveal the Wyrdmarks Aelin had instructed them to paint in their own blood all over their torsos, arms, and legs. Lets go, was Rowans only reply as he hauled his vat along as if it weighed nothing. Aedion debated snapping a response, but … perhaps that was why the warrior-prince kept giving him stupid warnings. To piss him off enough to distract him—and maybe Rowan himself—from what was happening above them. What they carried between them. The Old Ways—to look out for their queen and their kingdom—but also for each other. Damn, it was almost enough to make him want to embrace the bastard. So Aedion followed Rowan through the iron gates. And into the castle catacombs. Chaols chains clanked, the manacles already rubbing his skin raw as Aelin tugged him down the crowded street, a dagger poised to sink into his side. One block remained until they reached the iron fence that surrounded the sloping hill on which the castle perched. Crowds streamed past, not noticing the chained man in their midst or the black-cloaked woman who hauled him closer and closer to the glass castle. You remember the plan? Aelin murmured, keeping her head down and her dagger pressed against his side. Yes, he breathed. It was the only word he could manage. Dorian was still in there—still holding on. It changed everything. And nothing. The crowds quieted near the fence, as if wary of the black-uniformed guards that surely monitored the entrance. The first obstacle theyd encounter. Aelin stiffened almost imperceptibly and paused so suddenly that Chaol almost slammed into her. Chaol— The crowd shifted, and he beheld the castle fence. There were corpses hanging from the towering wrought-iron bars. Corpses in red and gold uniforms. Chaol— He was already moving, and she swore and walked with him, pretending to lead him by the chains, keeping the dagger tight to his ribs. He didnt know how he hadnt heard the crows jabbering as they picked at the dead flesh tied along each iron post. With the crowd, he hadnt thought to notice. Or maybe hed just gotten used to the cawing in every corner of the city. His men. Sixteen of them. His closest companions, his most loyal guards. The first one had the collar of his uniform unbuttoned, revealing a chest crisscrossed with welts and cuts and brands. Ress. How long had they tortured him—tortured all the men? Since Aedions rescue? He racked his mind to think of the last time theyd had contact. Hed assumed the difficulty was because they were lying low. Not because—because they were being— Chaol noticed the man strung up beside Ress. Brullos eyes were gone, either from torture or the crows. His hands were swollen and twisted—part of his ear was missing. Chaol had no sounds in his head, no feeling in his body. It was a message, but not to Aelin Galathynius or Aedion Ashryver. His fault. His. He and Aelin didnt speak as they neared the iron gates, the death of those men lingering over them. Every step was an effort. Every step was too fast. His fault. Im sorry, Aelin murmured, nudging him closer to the gates, where black-uniformed guards were indeed monitoring every face that passed on the street. Im so sorry— The plan, he said, his voice shaking. We change it. Now. Chaol— He told her what he needed to do. When he finished, she wiped away her tears as she gripped his hand and said, Ill make it count. The tears were gone by the time they broke from the crowd, nothing between them and those familiar gates but open cobblestones. Home—this had once been his home. He did not recognize the guards standing watch at the gates he had once protected so proudly, the gates he had ridden through not even a year ago with an assassin newly freed from Endovier, her chains tied to his saddle. Now she led him in chains through those gates, an assassin one last time. Her walk became a swagger, and she moved with fluid ease toward the guards who drew their swords, their black rings gobbling up the sunlight. Celaena Sardothien halted a healthy distance away and lifted her chin. Tell His Majesty that his Champion has returned—and shes brought him one hell of a prize. 69 Aelins black cloak flowed behind her as she led the fallen Captain of the Guard through the shining halls of the palace. Hidden at her back was her fathers sword, its pommel wrapped in black cloth. None of their ten-guard escort bothered to take her weapons. Why would they, when Celaena Sardothien was weeks early for her expected return, and still loyal to king and crown? The halls were so quiet. Even the queens court was sealed and silent. Rumor had it the queen had been cloistered in the mountains since Aedions rescue and had taken half her court with her. The rest had vanished as well, to escape either the rising summer heat—or the horrors that had come to rule their kingdom. Chaol said nothing, though he put on a good show of looking furious, like a pursued man desperate to find a way back to freedom. No sign of the devastation that had been on his face upon finding his men hanging from the gates. He jerked against the chains, and she leaned in close. I dont think so, Captain, she purred. Chaol didnt deign a response. The guards glanced at her. Wyrdmarks written in Chaols blood covered her beneath her clothes, its human scent hopefully masking any hints of her heritage that the Valg might otherwise pick up. There were only two demons in this group—a small mercy. So they went, up and up, into the glass castle itself. The halls seemed too bright to contain such evil. The few servants they passed averted their eyes and scurried along. Had everyone fled since Aedions rescue? It was an effort to not look too long at Chaol as they neared the massive red-and-gold glass doors, already open to reveal the crimson-marbled floor of the kings council room. Already open to reveal the king, seated on his glass throne. And Dorian standing beside him.Liv stepped closer to her. You think you can stop me?
I think you need to get yourself under control, or I wont need to stop you, Gemma clarified. Penn will take care of you the same way she took care of Lexi.Please. Liv scoffed. She hates you, not me. And I can get rid of you without lifting a finger. She smiled, then commanded, Aiden, get rid of her.
Aiden grabbed Gemmas arm, but she instantly got free and glared at him.Get your hands off me, Aiden, she snapped. I am doing this for your own good, but if you touch me again, I will break your arm.