If I find anything about the ink before Tuesday, Ill give you a call, okay? Pine offered.
Many of them. Too many. Coming from behind, closing in.Nesryn grabbed the princes hand, tugging. Push, she panted. Push.
He grunted in pain, the veins in his neck bulging as he tried to squeeze through, his boots scraping on the loose rock—Nesryn dug her own feet in, gritting her teeth as she hauled him forward.Click, click, click—
Sartaq angled his head, shoving against the rock that held him.What a fine morsel, our guest, hissed a soft female voice. So large he cannot even fit through the passage. How we shall feast.
Nesryn heaved and heaved, her grip treacherously slippery with sweat and blood from both of them, but she clamped onto his wrist hard enough that she felt bones shift beneath—
Go, he whispered, straining to push through. You run.No weapons save for a beautiful rapier at his side, its ornate, twisting guards like a swirling wind bound in gold. The only overt sign of the wealth that rivaled the riches of kings and empresses. Aelin slid onto the bench across from him, too aware of the wood still warm from Chaol. Her own daggers pressed against her with every movement. Goldryn was a heavy weight at her side, the massive ruby in its hilt hidden by her dark cloak—the legendary blade utterly useless in such tight quarters. No doubt why hed picked the booth for this meeting. You look more or less the same, she said, leaning against the hard bench and tugging back her hood. Rifthold continues to treat you well. It was true. In his late thirties, Arobynn remained handsome, and as calm and collected as hed been at the Assassins Keep during the dark blur of days after Sam had died. There were many, many debts to be paid for what happened back then. Arobynn looked her up and down—a slow, deliberate examination. I think I preferred your natural hair color. Precautions, she said, crossing her legs and surveying him just as slowly. No indication that he was wearing the Amulet of Orynth, the royal heirloom hed stolen from her when he found her half-dead on the banks of the Florine. Hed allowed her to believe the amulet that secretly contained the third and final Wyrdkey had been lost to the river. For a thousand years, her ancestors had unwittingly worn the amulet, and it had made their kingdom—her kingdom—a powerhouse: prosperous and safe, the ideal to which all courts in all lands were held. Still, shed never seen Arobynn wear any sort of chain around his neck. He probably had it squirreled away somewhere at the Keep. I wouldnt want to wind up back in Endovier. Those silver eyes sparkled. It was an effort to keep from reaching for a dagger and throwing it hard. But too much was dependent on him to kill him right away. Shed had a long, long while to think this over—what she wanted to do, how she wanted to do it. Ending it here and now would be a waste. Especially when he and Chaol were somehow tangled up. Perhaps that was why hed lured her here—so she would spy Chaol with him … and hesitate. Indeed, Arobynn said, Id hate to see you back in Endovier, too. Though I will say these past two years have made you even more striking. Womanhood suits you. He cocked his head, and she knew it was coming before he amended, Or should I say queen-hood? It had been a decade since theyd spoken baldly of her heritage, or of the title he had helped her walk away from, had taught her to hate and fear. Sometimes hed mentioned it in veiled terms, usually as a threat to keep her bound to him. But he had never once said her true name—not even when hed found her on that icy riverbank and carried her into his house of killers. What makes you think I have any interest in that? she said casually. Arobynn shrugged his broad shoulders. One cant put much faith in gossip, but word arrived about a month ago from Wendlyn. It claimed that a certain lost queen put on a rather spectacular show for an invading legion from Adarlan. Actually, I believe the title our esteemed friends in the empire now like to use is fire-breathing bitch-queen. Honestly, she almost found it funny—flattering, even. Shed known word would spread about what she had done to General Narrok and the three other Valg princes squatting like toads inside human bodies. She just hadnt realized everyone would learn of it so quickly. People will believe anything they hear these days. True, Arobynn said. At the other end of the Vaults, a frenzied crowd roared at the fighters slugging it out in the pits. The King of the Assassins looked toward it, smiling faintly. It had been almost two years since shed stood in that crowd, watching Sam take on vastly inferior fighters, hustling to raise enough money to get them out of Rifthold and away from Arobynn. A few days later, shed wound up in a prison wagon bound for Endovier, but Sam … Shed never discovered where theyd buried Sam after Rourke Farran—second in command to Ioan Jayne, the Crime Lord of Rifthold—had tortured and killed him. Shed killed Jayne herself, with a dagger hurled into his meaty face. And Farran … Shed later learned that Farran had been murdered by Arobynns own bodyguard, Wesley, as retribution for what had been done to Sam. But that wasnt her concern, even if Arobynn had killed Wesley to mend the bond between the Assassins Guild and the new Crime Lord. Another debt. She could wait; she could be patient. She merely said, So youre doing business here now? What happened to the Keep? Some clients, Arobynn drawled, prefer public meetings. The Keep can make people edgy. Your client must be new to the game, if he didnt insist on a private room. He didnt trust me that much, either. He thought the main floor would be safer. He must not know the Vaults, then. No, Chaol had never been here, as far as she knew. Shed usually avoided telling him about the time shed spent in this festering place. Like shed avoided telling him a good many things. Why dont you just ask me about him? She kept her face neutral, disinterested. I dont particularly care about your clients. Tell me or dont. Arobynn shrugged again, a beautiful, casual gesture. A game, then. A bit of information to hold against her, to keep from her until it was useful. It didnt matter if it was valuable information or not; it was the withholding, the power of it, that he loved. Arobynn sighed. There is so much I want to ask you—to know. Im surprised youre admitting that you dont already know everything. He rested his head against the back of the booth, his red hair gleaming like fresh blood. As an investor in the Vaults, she supposed he didnt need to bother hiding his face here. No one—not even the King of Adarlan—would be stupid enough to go after him. Things have been wretched since you left, Arobynn said quietly. Left. As if shed willingly gone to Endovier; as if he hadnt been responsible for it; as if she had just been away on holiday. But she knew him too well. He was still feeling her out, despite having lured her here. Perfect. He glanced at the thick scar across her palm—proof of the vow shed made to Nehemia to free Eyllwe. Arobynn clicked his tongue. It hurts my heart to see so many new scars on you. I rather like them. It was the truth. Arobynn shifted in his seat—a deliberate movement, as all his movements were—and the light fell on a wicked scar stretching from his ear to his collarbone. I rather like that scar, too, she said with a midnight smile. That explained why hed left the tunic unbuttoned, then. Arobynn waved a hand with fluid grace. Courtesy of Wesley. A casual reminder of what he was capable of doing, what he could endure. Wesley had been one of the finest warriors shed ever encountered. If he hadnt survived the fight with Arobynn, few existed who would. First Sam, she said, then me, then Wesley—what a tyrant youve become. Is there anyone at all left in the Keep besides darling Tern, or have you put down every person who displeased you? She glanced at Tern, loitering at the bar, and then at the other two assassins seated at separate tables halfway across the room, trying to pretend they werent monitoring every movement she made. At least Harding and Mullin are alive, too. But theyve always been so good at kissing your ass that I have a hard time imagining you ever bringing yourself to kill them. A low laugh. And here I was, thinking my men were doing a good job of keeping hidden in the crowd. He sipped from his wine. Perhaps youll come home and teach them a few things. Home. Another test, another game. You know Im always happy to teach your sycophants a lesson—but I have other lodgings prepared while Im here. And how long will your visit be, exactly? As long as necessary. To destroy him and get what she needed. Well, Im glad to hear it, he said, drinking again. No doubt from a bottle brought in just for him, as there was no way in the dark gods burning realm that Arobynn would drink the watered-down rats blood they served at the bar. Youll have to be here for a few weeks at least, given what happened. Ice coated her veins. She gave Arobynn a lazy grin, even as she began praying to Mala, to Deanna, the sister-goddesses who had watched over her for so many years. You do know what happened, dont you? he said, swirling the wine in his glass. Bastard—bastard for making her confirm she didnt know. Does it explain why the royal guard has such spectacular new uniforms? Not Chaol or Dorian, not Chaol or Dorian, not Chaol or— Oh, no. Those men are merely a delightful new addition to our city. My acolytes have such fun tormenting them. He drained his glass. Though Id bet good money that the kings new guard was present the day it happened.
She kept her hands from shaking, despite the panic devouring every last shred of common sense. No one knows what, exactly, went on that day in the glass castle, Arobynn began. After all that she had endured, after what she had overcome in Wendlyn, to return to this … She wished Rowan were beside her, wished she could smell his pine-and-snow scent and know that no matter what news Arobynn bore, no matter how it shattered her, the Fae warrior would be there to help put the pieces back together. But Rowan was across an ocean—and she prayed hed never get within a hundred miles of Arobynn. Why dont you get to the point, she said. I want to have a few hours of sleep tonight. Not a lie. With every breath, exhaustion wrapped tighter around her bones. I would have thought, Arobynn said, given how close you two were, and your abilities, that youd somehow be able to sense it. Or at least hear of it, considering what he was accused of. The prick was enjoying every second of this. If Dorian was dead or hurt— Your cousin Aedion has been imprisoned for treason—for conspiring with the rebels here in Rifthold to depose the king and put you back on the throne. The world stopped. Stopped, and started, then stopped again. But, Arobynn went on, it seems you had no idea about that little plot of his, which makes me wonder whether the king was merely looking for an excuse to lure a certain fire-breathing bitch-queen back to these shores. Aedion is to be executed in three days at the princes birthday party as the main entertainment. Practically screams trap, doesnt it? Id be a little more subtle if Id planned it, but you cant blame the king for sending a loud message. Aedion. She mastered the swarm of thoughts that clouded her mind—batted it aside and focused on the assassin in front of her. He wouldnt tell her about Aedion without a damn good reason. Why warn me at all? she said. Aedion was captured by the king; Aedion was destined for the gallows—as a trap for her. Every plan she had was ruined. No—she could still see those plans through to the end, still do what she had to. But Aedion … Aedion had to come first. Even if he later hated her, even if he spat in her face and called her a traitor and a whore and a lying murderer. Even if he resented what she had done and become, she would save him. Consider the tip a favor, Arobynn said, rising from the bench. A token of good faith. Shed bet there was more—perhaps tied to a certain captain whose warmth lingered in the wooden bench beneath her. She stood as well, sliding out of the booth. She knew that more spies than Arobynns lackeys monitored them—had seen her arrive, wait at the bar, and then head to this banquette. She wondered if her old master knew, too. Arobynn only smiled at her, taller by a head. And when he reached out, she allowed him to brush his knuckles down her cheek. The calluses on his fingers said enough about how often he still practiced. I do not expect you to trust me; I do not expect you to love me. Only once, during those days of hell and heartbreak, had Arobynn ever said that he loved her in any capacity. Shed been about to leave with Sam, and he had come to her warehouse apartment, begging her to stay, claiming that he was angry with her for leaving and that everything hed done, every twisted scheme, had been enacted out of spite for her moving out of the Keep. Shed never known in what way hed meant those three words—I love you—but shed been inclined to consider them another lie in the days that followed, after Rourke Farran had drugged her and put his filthy hands all over her. After shed rotted away in that dungeon. Arobynns eyes softened. I missed you. She stepped out of his reach. Funny—I was in Rifthold this fall and winter, and you never tried to see me. How could I dare? I thought youd kill me on sight. But then I got word this evening that you had returned at last—and I hoped you might have changed your mind. Youll forgive me if my methods of getting you here were … roundabout. Another move and countermove, to admit to the how but not the real why. She said, I have better things to do than care about whether you live or die. Indeed. But you would care a great deal if your beloved Aedion died. Her heartbeat thundered through her, and she braced herself. Arobynn continued, My resources are yours. Aedion is in the royal dungeon, guarded day and night. Any help you need, any support—you know where to find me. At what cost? Arobynn looked her over once more, and something low in her abdomen twisted at the gaze that was anything but that of a brother or father. A favor—just one favor. Warning bells pealed in her head. Shed be better off making a bargain with one of the Valg princes. There are creatures lurking in my city, he said. Creatures who wear the bodies of men like clothing. I want to know what they are. Too many threads were now poised to tangle. She said carefully, What do you mean? The kings new guard has a few of them among its commanders. Theyre rounding up people suspected of being sympathetic to magic—or those who once possessed it. Executions every day, at sunrise and sunset. These things seem to thrive on them. Im surprised you didnt notice them lurking about the docks. Theyre all monsters to me. But Chaol hadnt looked or felt like them. A small mercy. He waited. So did she. She let herself break first. Is this my favor, then? Telling you what I know? There was little use in denying she was aware of the truth—or asking how hed become aware that she knew it. Part of it. She snorted. Two favors for the price of one? How typical. Two sides of the same coin. She stared flatly at him, and then said, Through years of stealing knowledge and some strange, archaic power, the king has been able to stifle magic, while also summoning ancient demons to infiltrate human bodies for his growing army. He uses rings or collars of black stone to allow the demons to invade their hosts, and hes been targeting former magic-wielders, as their gifts make it easier for the demons to latch on. Truth, truth, truth—but not the whole truth. Not about the Wyrdmarks or Wyrdkeys—never to Arobynn. When I was in the castle, I encountered some of the men hed corrupted, men who fed off that power and became stronger. And when I was in Wendlyn, I faced one of his generals, who had been seized by a demon prince of unimaginable power. Narrok, Arobynn mused. If he was horrified, if he was shocked, his face revealed none of it. She nodded. They devour life. A prince like that can suck the soul right out of you, feed on you. She swallowed, and real fear coated her tongue. Do the men youve seen—these commanders—have collars or rings? Chaols hands had been bare. Just rings, Arobynn said. Is there a difference? I think only a collar can hold a prince; the rings are for lesser demons. How do you kill them? Fire, she said. I killed the princes with fire. Ah. Not the usual sort, I take it. She nodded. And if they wear a ring? Ive seen one of them killed with a sword through the heart. Chaol had killed Cain that easily. A small relief, but … Beheading might work for the ones with collars. And the people who used to own those bodies—theyre gone? Narroks pleading, relieved face flashed before her. It would seem so. I want you to capture one and bring it to the Keep. She started. Absolutely not. And why? Perhaps it will be able to tell me something useful. Go capture it yourself, she snapped. Find me another favor to fulfill. Youre the only one who has faced these things and lived. There was nothing merciful in his gaze. Capture one for me at your earliest convenience—and Ill assist you with your cousin. To face one of the Valg, even a lesser Valg … Aedion comes first, she said. We rescue Aedion, and then Ill risk my neck getting one of the demons for you. Gods help them all if Arobynn ever realized that he might control that demon with the amulet he had hidden away. Of course, he said. She knew it was foolish, but she couldnt help the next question. To what end? This is my city, he purred. And I dont particularly care for the direction in which its headed. Its bad for my investments, and Im sick of hearing the crows feasting day and night. Well, at least they agreed on something. A businessman through and through, arent you? Arobynn continued to pin her with that lovers gaze. Nothing is without a price. He brushed a kiss against her cheekbone, his lips soft and warm. She fought the shudder that trembled through her, and made herself lean into him as he brought his mouth against her ear and whispered, Tell me what I must do to atone; tell me to crawl over hot coals, to sleep on a bed of nails, to carve up my flesh. Say the word, and it is done. But let me care for you as I once did, before … before that madness poisoned my heart. Punish me, torture me, wreck me, but let me help you. Do this small thing for me—and let me lay the world at your feet.Her throat went dry, and she pulled back far enough to look into that handsome, aristocratic face, the eyes shining with a grief and a predatory intent she could almost taste. If Arobynn knew about her history with Chaol, and had summoned the captain here … Had it been for information, to test her, or some grotesque way to assure himself of his dominance? There is nothing— No—not yet, he said, stepping away. Dont say it yet. Sleep on it. Though, before you do—perhaps pay a visit to the southeastern section of the tunnels tonight. You might find the person youre looking for. She kept her face still—bored, even—as she tucked away the information. Arobynn moved toward the crowded room, where his three assassins were alert and ready, and then looked back at her. If you are allowed to change so greatly in two years, may I not be permitted to have changed as well? With that, he sauntered off between the tables. Tern, Harding, and Mullin fell into step behind him—and Tern glanced in her direction just once, to give her the exact same obscene gesture shed given him earlier. But Aelin stared only at the King of the Assassins, at his elegant, powerful steps, at the warriors body disguised in noblemans clothes. Liar. Trained, cunning liar. There were too many eyes in the Vaults for her to scrub at her cheek, where the phantom imprint of Arobynns lips still whispered, or at her ear, where his warm breath lingered. Bastard. She glanced at the fighting pits across the hall, at the prostitutes clawing out a living, at the men who ran this place, who had profited for too long from so much blood and sorrow and pain. She could almost see Sam there—almost picture him fighting, young and strong and glorious. She tugged on her gloves. There were many, many debts to be paid before she left Rifthold and took back her throne. Starting now. Fortunate that she was in a killing sort of mood. It was only a matter of time before either Arobynn showed his hand or the King of Adarlans men found the trail shed carefully laid from the docks. Someone would be coming for her—within moments, actually, if the shouts followed by utter silence behind the metal door atop the stairs were any indication. At least that much of her plan remained on course. Shed deal with Chaol later. With a gloved hand, she plucked up one of the coppers Arobynn had left on the table. She stuck out her tongue at the brutish, unforgiving profile of the king stamped on one side—then at the roaring wyvern gracing the other. Heads, Arobynn had betrayed her again. Tails, the kings men. The iron door at the top of the stairs groaned open, cool night air pouring in. With a half smile, she flipped the coin with her thumb. The coin was still rotating when four men in black uniforms appeared atop the stone stairs, an assortment of vicious weapons strapped to their bodies. By the time the copper thudded on the table, the wyvern glinting in the dim light, Aelin Galathynius was ready for bloodshed. 4 Aedion Ashryver knew he was going to die—and soon. He didnt bother trying to bargain with the gods. Theyd never answered his pleas, anyway. In the years hed been a warrior and a general, hed always known that he would die some way or another—preferably on a battlefield, in a way that would be worthy of a song or a tale around a fire. This would not be that sort of death. He would either be executed at whatever grand event the king had planned to make the most of his demise¸ or he would die down here in this rotting, damp cell, from the infection that was slowly and surely destroying his body. It had started off as a small wound in his side, courtesy of the fight hed put up three weeks ago when that butchering monster had murdered Sorscha. Hed hidden the slice along his ribs from the guards who looked him over, hoping that hed either bleed out or that itd fester and kill him before the king could use him against Aelin. Aelin. His execution was to be a trap for her, a way to lure her into risking an attempt to save him. Hed die before he would allow it. He just hadnt expected it to hurt so damn much. He concealed the fever from the sneering guards who fed and watered him twice a day, pretending to slowly fall into sullen silence, feigning that the prowling, cursing animal had broken. The cowards wouldnt get close enough for him to reach, and they hadnt noticed that hed given up trying to snap the chains that allowed him to stand and walk a few paces, but not much else. They hadnt noticed that he was no longer standing very much at all, except to see to his bodys needs. The degradation of that was nothing new. At least he hadnt been forced into one of those collars, though hed seen one beside the kings throne that night everything went to shit. He would bet good money that the Wyrdstone collar was for the kings own son—and he prayed that the prince had died before hed allowed his father to leash him like a dog. Aedion shifted on his pallet of moldy hay and bit back his bark of agony at the pain exploding along his ribs. Worse—worse by the day. His diluted Fae blood was the only thing that had kept him alive this long, trying desperately to heal him, but soon even the immortal grace in his veins would bow to the infection. It would be such a relief—such a blessed relief to know he couldnt be used against her, and that he would soon see those he had secretly harbored in his shredded heart all these years. So he bore down on every spike of fever, every roiling fit of nausea and pain. Soon—soon Death would come to greet him. Aedion just hoped Death arrived before Aelin did. 5 The night might very well end in her blood being shed, Aelin realized as she hurtled down the crooked streets of the slums, sheathing her bloodied fighting knives to keep from dripping a trail behind her. Thanks to months of running through the Cambrian Mountains with Rowan, her breathing remained steady, her head clear. She supposed that after facing skinwalkers, after escaping ancient creatures the size of small cottages, and after incinerating four demon princes, twenty men in pursuit wasnt all that horrific. But still a giant, raging pain in her ass. And one that would not likely end pleasantly for her. No sign of Chaol—no whisper of his name on the lips of the men who had surged into the Vaults. She hadnt recognized any of them, but shed felt the offness that marked most of those who had been in contact with Wyrdstone, or been corrupted by it. They wore no collars or rings, but something inside these men had rotted nonetheless. At least Arobynn hadnt betrayed her—though how convenient that hed left only minutes before the kings new guards had finally found the winding trail shed left from the docks. Perhaps it was a test, to see whether her abilities remained up to Arobynns standards, should she accept their little bargain. As shed hacked her way through body after body, she wondered if hed even realized that this entire evening had been a test for him as well, and that shed brought those men right to the Vaults. She wondered how furious he would be when he discovered what was left of the pleasure hall that had brought him so much money. It had also filled the coffers of the people who had slaughtered Sam—and who had enjoyed every moment of it. What a shame that the current owner of the Vaults, a former underling of Rourke Farran and a dealer of flesh and opiates, had accidentally run into her knives. Repeatedly. Shed left the Vaults in bloody splinters, which she supposed was merciful. If shed had her magic, she probably would have burned it to ash. But she didnt have magic, and her mortal body, despite months of hard training, was starting to feel heavy and cumbersome as she continued her sprint down the alley. The broad street at its other end was too bright, too open. She veered toward a stack of broken crates and rubbish heaped against the wall of a brick building, high enough that if she timed it right, she could jump for the windowsill a few feet above. Behind her, closer now, rushing footsteps and shouts sounded. They had to be fast as hell to have kept up with her all this way. Well, damn. She leaped onto the crates, the pile shaking and swaying as she scaled it, each movement concise, swift, balanced. One wrong step and she would go shooting through the rotten wood, or topple the whole thing to the ground. The crates groaned, but she kept moving up and up and up, until she reached the pinnacle and jumped for the overhanging windowsill. Her fingers barked in pain, digging into the brick so hard that her nails broke inside her gloves. She gritted her teeth and pulled, hauling herself onto the ledge and then through the open window. She allowed herself two heartbeats to take in the cramped kitchen: dark and clean, a candle burning from the narrow hall beyond. Palming her knives, the shouting coming closer from the alley below, she raced for the hall. Someones home—this was someones home, and she was leading those men through it. She charged down the hall, the wooden floors shuddering under her boots, scanning. There were two bedrooms, both occupied. Shit. Shit. Three adults were sprawled on dirty mattresses in the first room. And two more adults slept in the other bedroom, one of them shooting upright as she thundered past. Stay down, she hissed, the only warning she could give before reaching the remaining door in the hall, barricaded with a chair wedged beneath the knob. It was about as much protection as they could find in the slums.
She hurled the chair aside, sending it clattering against the walls of the narrow hallway, where it would slow her pursuers for a few seconds at least. She yanked the apartment door open, the feeble lock splintering with a snap. Half a movement had her hurling a silver coin behind her to pay for the damage—and a better lock. A communal stairwell lay beyond, the wooden steps stained and rotted. Completely dark. Male voices echoed too close behind, and banging began at the bottom of the stairwell. Aelin raced for the ascending stairs. Around and around, her breath now shards of glass in her lungs, until she passed the third level—until the stairs narrowed, and— Aelin didnt bother being quiet as she slammed into the roof door. The men already knew where she was. Balmy night air smothered her, and she gulped it down as she scanned the roof and the streets below. The alley behind was too wide; the broad street to her left wasnt an option, but—there. Down the alley. That sewer grate. Perhaps pay a visit to the southeastern section of the tunnels tonight. You might find the person youre looking for. She knew who he meant. Another little present of his, then—a piece in their game. With feline ease, she shimmied down the drainpipe anchored to the side of the building. Far above, the shouts grew. Theyd reached the roof. She dropped into a puddle of what smelled undoubtedly like piss, and was running before the impact had fully shuddered through her bones. She hurtled toward the grate, dropping onto her knees and sliding the last few feet until her fingers latched onto the lid, and she hauled it open. Silent, swift, efficient. The sewers below were mercifully empty. She bit back a gag against the reek already rising up to meet her. By the time the guards peered over the roof edge, she was gone. Aelin loathed the sewers. Not because they were filthy, reeking, and full of vermin. They were actually a convenient way to get around Rifthold unseen and undisturbed, if you knew the way. Shed hated them ever since shed been bound up and left to die, courtesy of a bodyguard who hadnt taken so well to her plans to kill his master. The sewers had flooded, and after freeing herself from her bonds, she had swum—actually swum—through the festering water. But the exit had been sealed. Sam, by pure luck, had saved her, but not before shed nearly drowned, swallowing half the sewer along the way. It had taken her days and countless baths to feel clean. And endless vomiting. So climbing into that sewer, then sealing the grate above her … For the first time that night, her hands shook. But she forced herself past the echo of fear and began creeping through the dim, moonlit tunnels. Listening. Heading southeast, she took a large, ancient tunnel, one of the main arteries of the system. It had probably been here from the moment Gavin Havilliard decided to establish his capital along the Avery. She paused every so often to listen, but there were no signs of her pursuers behind her. An intersection of four different tunnels loomed ahead, and she slowed her steps, palming her fighting knives. The first two were clear; the third—the one that would take her right into the path of the captain if he was headed to the castle—darker, but wide. And the fourth … Southeast. She didnt need her Fae senses to know that the darkness leaking from the southeastern tunnel wasnt of the usual sort. The moonlight from the grates above didnt pierce it. No noise issued, not even the scampering of rats. Another trick of Arobynns—or a gift? The faint sounds shed been following had come from this direction. But any trail died here. She paced with feline quiet in front of the line where the murky light faded into impenetrable blackness. Silently, she plucked up a bit of fallen stone and chucked it into the gloom ahead. There was no answering sound when it should have landed. I wouldnt do that if I were you. Aelin turned toward the cool female voice, casually angling her knives. The hooded guard from the Vaults was leaning against the tunnel wall not twenty paces behind her. Well, at least one of them was here. As for Chaol … Aelin held up a knife as she stalked toward the guard, gobbling down every detail. Sneaking up on strangers in the sewers is also something Id advise against. When Aelin got within a few feet, the woman lifted her hands—delicate but scarred, her skin tan even in the pale glow from the streetlights in the avenue above. If shed managed to sneak up this close, she had to be trained—in combat or stealth or both. Of course she was skilled, if Chaol had her watching his back at the Vaults. But where had he gone now? Disreputable pleasure halls and sewers, Aelin said, keeping her knives out. You certainly live the good life, dont you? The young woman pushed off the wall, her curtain of inky hair swaying in the shadows of her hood. Not all of us are blessed enough to be on the kings payroll, Champion. She recognized her, then. The real question was whether shed told Chaol—and where he now was. Dare I ask why I shouldnt throw stones down that tunnel? The guard pointed toward the tunnel closest behind her—bright, open air. Come with me. Aelin chuckled. Youll have to do better than that. The slender woman stepped nearer, the moonlight illuminating her hooded face. Pretty, if grave, and perhaps two or three years older. The stranger said a bit flatly, Youve got twenty guards on your ass, and theyre cunning enough to start looking down here very soon. Id suggest you come along. Aelin was half tempted to suggest she go to hell, but smiled instead. Howd you find me? She didnt care; she just needed to feel her out a bit more. Luck. Im on scouting duty, and popped onto the street to discover that youd made new friends. Usually, we have a strike-first, ask-questions-later policy about people wandering the sewers. And who is this we? Aelin said sweetly. The woman just began walking down the bright tunnel, completely unconcerned with the knives Aelin still held. Arrogant and stupid, then. You can come with me, Champion, and learn some things you probably want to know, or you can stay here and wait to see what answers that rock you threw. Aelin weighed the words—and what shed heard and seen so far that night. Despite the shiver down her spine, she fell into step beside the guard, sheathing her knives at her thighs. With each block they trudged through the sewer muck, Aelin used the quiet to gather her strength. The woman strode swiftly but smoothly down another tunnel, and then another. Aelin marked each turn, each unique feature, each grate, forming a mental map as they moved. How did you recognize me? Aelin said at last. Ive seen you around the city—months ago. The red hair was why I didnt immediately identify you at the Vaults. Aelin watched her from the corner of her eye. The stranger might not know who Chaol really was. He could have used a different name, despite what the woman claimed to know about whatever it was she thought Aelin was seeking. The woman said in that cool, calm voice, Are the guards chasing you because they recognized you, or because you picked the fight you were so desperate to have at the Vaults? Point for the stranger. Why dont you tell me? Do the guards work for Captain Westfall? The woman laughed under her breath. No—those guards dont answer to him. Aelin bit back her sigh of relief, even as a thousand more questions rattled in her skull. Her boots squished something too soft for comfort, and she repressed a shudder as the woman stopped before the entrance to another long tunnel, the first half illuminated by moonlight streaming in through the scattered grates. Unnatural darkness drifted out from the far end. A predatory stillness crept over Aelin as she peered into the gloom. Silence. Utter silence. Here, the stranger said, approaching an elevated stone walkway built into the side of the tunnel. Fool—fool for exposing her back like that. She didnt even see Aelin slide free a knife. Theyd gone far enough. The woman stepped onto the small, slick staircase leading to the walkway, her movements long-limbed and graceful. Aelin calculated the distance to the nearest exits, the depth of the little stream of filth running through the tunnels center. Deep enough to dump a body, if need be. Aelin angled her knife and slipped up behind the woman, as close as a lover, and pressed the blade against her throat. 6 You get one sentence, Aelin breathed in the womans ear as she pressed the dagger harder against her neck. One sentence to convince me not to spill your throat on the ground. The woman stepped off the stairs and, to her credit, wasnt stupid enough to go for the concealed weapons at her side. With her back against Aelins chest, her weapons were beyond reach, anyway. She swallowed, her throat bobbing against the dagger Aelin held along her smooth skin. Im taking you to the captain. Aelin dug the knife in a bit more. Not all that compelling to someone with a blade at your throat. Three weeks ago, he abandoned his position at the castle and fled. To join our cause. The rebel cause.Aelins knees threatened to buckle. She supposed she should have included three parties in her plans: the king, Arobynn, and the rebels—who might very well have a score to settle with her after shed gutted Archer Finn last winter. Even if Chaol was working with them. She shut the thought down before its full impact hit her. And the prince? Alive, but still at the castle, the rebel hissed. Is that enough for you to put the knife down? Yes. No. If Chaol was now working with the rebels … Aelin lowered her knife and stepped back into a pool of moonlight trickling in from an overhead grate. The rebel whirled and reached for one of her knives. Aelin clicked her tongue. The womans fingers paused on the well-polished hilt. I decide to spare you, and thats how you repay me? Aelin said, tugging back her hood. I dont particularly know why Im surprised. The rebel let go of her knife and pulled off her own hood, revealing her pretty, tanned face—solemn and wholly unafraid. Her dark eyes fixed on Aelin, scanning. Ally or enemy? Tell me why you came here, the rebel said quietly. The captain says youre on our side. Yet you hid from him at the Vaults tonight. Aelin crossed her arms and leaned against the damp stone wall behind her. Lets start with you telling me your name. My name is not your concern. Aelin lifted a brow. You demand answers but refuse to give me any in return. No wonder the captain had you sit out the meeting. Hard to play the game when you dont know the rules. I heard what happened this winter. That you went to the warehouse and killed so many of us. You slaughtered rebels—my friends. That cool, calm mask didnt so much as flinch. And yet Im now supposed to believe you were on our side all along. Forgive me if Im not forthright with you. Should I not kill the people who kidnap and beat my friends? Aelin said softly. Am I not supposed to react with violence when I receive notes threatening to kill my friends? Am I not supposed to gut the self-serving prick who had my beloved friend assassinated? She pushed off the wall, stalking toward the woman. Would you like me to apologize? Should I grovel on my knees for any of that? The rebels face showed nothing—either from training or genuine iciness. Aelin snorted. I thought so. So why dont you take me to the captain and save the self-righteous bullshit for later? The woman glanced toward the darkness again and shook her head slightly. If you hadnt put a blade to my throat, I would have told you that wed arrived. She pointed to the tunnel ahead. Youre welcome. Aelin debated slamming the woman into the filthy, wet wall just to remind her who, exactly, the Kings Champion was, but then ragged breathing scraped past her ears, coming from that darkness. Human breathing—and whispers. Boots sliding and thumping against stone, more whispers—hushed demands from voices she didnt recognize to hurry, and quiet now, and— Aelins muscles locked up as one male voice hissed, Weve got twenty minutes until that ship leaves. Move. She knew that voice. But she still couldnt brace herself for the full impact of Chaol Westfall staggering out of the darkness at the end of the tunnel, holding a limp, too-thin man between himself and a companion, another armed man guarding their backs. Even from the distance, the captains eyes locked onto Aelins. He didnt smile. 7 There were two injured people in total, one held between Chaol and his companion, the other sagging between two men she didnt recognize. Three others—two men and another woman—guarded the rear. The rebel they dismissed with a glance. A friend. Aelin held each of their gazes as they hurried toward her, their weapons out. Blood was splattered on them all—red blood and black blood that she knew too well. And the two nearly unconscious people … She also knew that emaciated, dried-out look. The hollowness on their faces. Shed been too late with the ones in Wendlyn. But somehow Chaol and his allies had gotten these two out. Her stomach flipped. Scouting—the young woman beside her had been scouting the path ahead, to make sure it was safe for this rescue. The guards in this city werent corrupted just by ordinary Valg, as Arobynn had suggested. No, there was at least one Valg prince here. In these tunnels, if the darkness was any indicator. Shit. And Chaol had been— Chaol paused long enough for a companion to step in to help carry the injured man away. Then he was striding ahead. Twenty feet away now. Fifteen. Ten. Blood leaked from the corner of his mouth, and his bottom lip was split open. Theyd fought their way out— Explain, she breathed to the woman at her side. Its not my place, was the womans response. She didnt bother to push it. Not with Chaol now in front of her, his bronze eyes wide as he took in the blood on Aelin herself. Are you hurt? His voice was hoarse. Aelin silently shook her head. Gods. Gods. Without that hood, now that she could see his features … He was exactly as she remembered—that ruggedly handsome, tan face perhaps a bit more gaunt and stubbly, but still Chaol. Still the man shed come to love, before … before everything had changed. There were so many things she had thought shed say, or do, or feel. A slender white scar slashed down his cheek. Shed given him that. The night Nehemia had died, shed given him that, and tried to kill him. Would have killed him. If Dorian hadnt stopped her. Even then, shed understood that what Chaol had done, whom he had chosen, had forever cleaved what was between them. It was the one thing she could not forget, could not forgive. Her silent answer seemed enough for the captain. He looked to the woman beside Aelin—to his scout. His scout—who reported to him. As though he were leading them all. The path ahead is clear. Stick to the eastern tunnels, she said. Chaol nodded. Keep moving, he said to the others, who had now reached his side. Ill catch up in a moment. No hesitation—and no softness, either. As if hed done this a hundred times. They wordlessly continued on through the tunnels, casting glances Aelins way as they swept past. Only the young woman lingered. Watching. Nesryn, Chaol said, the name an order in itself. Nesryn stared at Aelin—analyzing, calculating. Aelin gave her a lazy grin. Faliq, Chaol growled, and the woman slid her midnight eyes toward him. If Nesryns family name didnt give away her heritage, it was those eyes, slightly uptilted at the corners and lightly lined with kohl, that revealed at least one of her parents was from the Southern Continent. Interesting that the woman didnt try to hide it, that she chose to wear the kohl even while on a mission, despite Riftholds less-than-pleasant policies toward immigrants. Chaol jerked his chin toward their vanishing companions. Get to the docks. Its safer to have one of us remain here. Again that cool voice—steady. Help them get to the docks, then get the hell back to the craftsman district. Your garrison commander will notice if youre late. Nesryn looked Aelin up and down, those grave features never shifting. How do we know she didnt come here on his orders? Aelin knew very well who she meant. She winked at the young woman. If Id come here on the kings orders, Nesryn Faliq, youd have been dead minutes ago. No flicker of amusement, no hint of fear. The woman could give Rowan a run for his money for sheer iciness. Sunset tomorrow, Chaol said sharply to Nesryn. The young woman stared him down, her shoulders tight, before she headed into the tunnel. She moved like water, Aelin thought. Go, Aelin said to Chaol, her voice a thin rasp. You should go—help them. Or whatever he was doing. Chaols bloodied mouth formed a thin line. I will. In a moment. No invitation for her to join. Maybe she should have offered. You came back, he said. His hair was longer, shaggier than itd been months ago. It—Aedion—its a trap— I know about Aedion. Gods, what could she even say? Chaol nodded distantly, blinking. You … You look different. She fingered her red hair. Obviously. No, he said, taking one step closer, but only one. Your face. The way you stand. You … He shook his head, glancing toward the darkness theyd just fled. Walk with me. She did. Well, it was more like walking-as-fast-as-they-could-without-running. Ahead, she could just make out the sounds of his companions hurrying through the tunnels. All the words shed wanted to say rushed around in her head, fighting to get out, but she pushed back against them for a moment longer. I love you—thats what hed said to her the day she left. She hadnt given him an answer other than Im sorry.