Chapter no 59

Heir of Fire

It took a week for Celaena and Rowan to reach Doranelle. ey traveled over the rough, miserable mountains where Maeve’s wild wolves monitored them day and night, then down into the lush valley through forests and elds, the air heavy with spices and magic.

e temperature grew warmer the farther south they traveled, but breezes kept it from being too unpleasant. After a while, they began spotting pretty stone villages in the distance, but Rowan kept them away, hidden, until they crested a rocky hill and Doranelle spread before them.

It took her breath away. Even Orynth could not compare to this.

ey had called it the City of Rivers for a reason. e pale-stoned city was built on a massive island smack in the center of several of them, the waters raging as the tributaries from the surrounding hills and mountains blended. On the island’s north end, the rivers toppled over the mouth of a mighty waterfall, its basin so huge that the mist oated into the clear day, setting the domed buildings, pearlescent spires, and blue rooftops shining. ere were no boats moored to the city edges, though there were two elegant stone bridges spanning the river—heavily guarded. Fae moved across the bridges, and carts loaded with everything from vegetables to hay to wine. Somewhere, there had to be elds and farms and towns to supply them. ough she’d bet Maeve had a stronghold of goods stocked up.

“I assume you normally y right in and don’t deign to use the bridges,” she said to Rowan, who was frowning at the city, not looking very much like a warrior about to return home. He nodded distantly. He’d fallen silent in the past day—not rude, but quiet and vague, as if he were rebuilding the wall between them. is morning, she’d awoken in their hilltop camp to nd him staring at the sunrise, looking for all the world as if he’d been having a conversation with it. She hadn’t had the nerve to ask if he’d been praying to Mala Fire-Bringer, or what he would even ask of the Sun Goddess. But there had been a strangely familiar warmth wrapped around the camp, and she could have sworn that she felt her magic leap in joyous response. She didn’t let herself think about it.

Because for the past day, she, too, had been lost in herself, busy gathering her strength and clarity. She hadn’t been able to talk much, and even now, focusing on the present required an immense e ort. “Well,” she said, taking an exaggerated breath and patting Goldryn’s hilt, “let’s go see our beloved aunt. I’d hate to keep her waiting.”

It took them until nightfall to reach the bridge, and Celaena was glad: there were fewer Fae to witness their arrival, even though the winding, elegant streets were now full of musicians and dancing and vendors selling hot food and drinks. ere had been plenty of that in Adarlan, but here there was no empire weighing on them, no darkness or cold or despair. Maeve had not sent aid ten years ago—and while the Fae danced and drank mulled cider, Celaena’s people had been butchered and burned. She knew it wasn’t their fault, but as she headed across the city, toward the northern edge by the waterfall, she couldn’t bring herself to smile at the merriment.

She reminded herself that she had danced and drunk and done whatever she pleased while her own people had su ered for ten years, too. She was in no position to resent the Fae, or anyone except the queen who ruled over this city.

None of the guards stopped them, though she did note shadows trailing them from the rooftops

and alleys, a few birds of prey circling above. Rowan didn’t acknowledge them, though she caught his teeth glinting in the golden lamplight. Apparently, the escort wasn’t making the prince too happy, either. How many of them did he know personally? How many had he fought beside, or ventured with to unmapped lands?

ey saw no sign of his friends, and he made no comment about whether or not he expected to see them. Even though his gaze was straight ahead, she knew he was aware of every sentry watching them, every breath issued nearby.

She didn’t have the space left in her for doubt or fear. As they walked, she played with the ring tucked into her pocket, turning it over and over as she reminded herself of her plan and of what she needed to accomplish before she left this city. She was as much a queen as Maeve. She was the sovereign of a strong people and a mighty kingdom.

She was the heir of ash and re, and she would bow to no one.

ey were escorted through a shining palace of pale stone and sky-blue gossamer curtains, the oors a mosaic of delicate tiles depicting various scenes, from dancing maidens to pastorals to the night sky. roughout the building, the river itself ran in tiny streams, sometimes gathering in pools freckled with night-blooming lilies. Jasmine wove around the massive columns, and lights of colored glass hung from the arched ceilings. Enough of the palace was open to the elements to suggest that the weather here was always this mild. Music played from distant rooms, but it was faint and placid compared to the riot of sound and color in the city outside the mammoth marble palace walls.

Sentries were everywhere. ey lurked just out of sight, but in her Fae body she could smell them, the steel and the crisp scent of whatever soap they must use in the barracks. Not too di erent from the glass castle. But Maeve’s stronghold had been built from stone—so much stone, everywhere, all of it pale and carved and polished and gleaming. She knew Rowan had private quarters in this palace, and that the Whitethorn family had various residences in Doranelle, but they saw nothing of his kin. He’d told her on their journey that there were several other princes in his family, with his father’s brother ruling over them. Fortunately for Rowan, his uncle had three sons, keeping him free of responsibility, though they certainly tried to use Rowan’s position with Maeve to their advantage. As scheming and sycophantic as any royal family in Adarlan, she supposed.

After an eternity of walking in silence, Rowan led her onto a wide veranda overhanging the river. He was tense enough to suggest he was scenting and hearing things she couldn’t, but he o ered no warning. e waterfall beyond the palace roared, though not loud enough to drown out conversation.

Across the veranda sat Maeve on her throne of stone.

Sprawled on either side of the throne were the twin wolves, one black and one white, monitoring their approach with cunning golden eyes. ere was no one else—no smell of Rowan’s other friends lurking nearby as they crossed the tiled oor. She wished Rowan had let her freshen up in his suite, but . . . she supposed that wasn’t what this meeting was about, anyway.

Rowan kept pace with her as she stalked to the small dais before the carved railing, and when they stopped, he dropped to his knees and bowed his head. “Majesty,” he murmured.

Her aunt did not even glance at Rowan or bid him to rise. She left her nephew kneeling as she turned her violet, starry eyes to Celaena and gave her that spider’s smile.

“It would seem that you have accomplished your task, Aelin Galathynius.” Another test—using her name to elicit a reaction.

She smiled right back at Maeve. “Indeed.”

Rowan kept his head down, eyes on the oor. Maeve could make him kneel there for a hundred years if she wished. e wolves beside the throne didn’t move an inch.

Maeve deigned a glance at Rowan and then gave Celaena that little smile again. “I will admit that I am surprised that you managed to gain his approval so swiftly. So,” Maeve said, lounging in her throne, “show me, then. A demonstration of what you have learned these months.”

Celaena clenched the ring in her pocket, not lowering her chin one millimeter. “I would prefer to

rst retrieve the knowledge you’re keeping to yourself.”

A feminine click of the tongue. “You don’t trust my word?”

“You can’t believe I’d give you everything you want with no proof you can deliver your side of the bargain.”

Rowan’s shoulders tensed, but his head remained down. Maeve’s eyes narrowed slightly. “ e Wyrdkeys.”

“How they can be destroyed, where they are, and what else you know of them.” “ ey cannot be destroyed. ey can only be put back in the gate.”

Celaena’s stomach twisted. She’d known that already, but hearing the con rmation was hard, somehow. “How can they be put back in the gate?”

“Don’t you think they would already have been restored to their home if anyone knew?” “You said you knew about them.”

An adder’s smile. “I do know about them. I know they can be used to create, to destroy, to open portals. But I do not know how to put them back. I never learned how, and then they were taken by Brannon across the sea and I never saw them again.”

“What did they look like? What did they feel like?”

Maeve cupped her palm and looked at it, as if she could see the keys lying there. “Black and glittering, no more than slivers of stone. But they were not stone—they were like nothing on this earth, in any realm. It was like holding the living esh of a god, like containing the breath of every being in every realm all at once. It was madness and joy and terror and despair and eternity.”

e thought of Maeve possessing all three of the keys, even for brief moment, was horrifying enough that Celaena didn’t let herself fully contemplate it. She just said, “And what else can you tell me about them?”

“ at’s all I can recall, I’m afraid.” Maeve settled back in her throne.

No—no, there had to be some way. She couldn’t have spent all these months in a fool’s bargain,-couldn’t have been tricked that badly. But if Maeve did not know, then there were other bits of information to extract; she would not walk out of here empty-handed.

“ e Valg princes—what can you tell me of them?”

For a few heartbeats, Maeve remained silent, as if contemplating the merits of answering more than she’d originally promised. Celaena wasn’t entirely sure that she wanted to know why Maeve decided in her favor as the queen said, “Ah—yes. My men informed me of their presence.” Maeve paused again, no doubt dredging up the information from some ancient corner of her memory. “ ere are many di erent races of Valg—creatures that even your darkest nightmares would ee from. ey are ruled by the princes, who themselves are made of shadow and despair and hatred and have no bodies to occupy save those that they in ltrate. ere aren’t many princes—but I once witnessed an entire legion of Fae warriors devoured by six of them within hours.”

A chill went down her spine, and even the wolves’ hackles rose. “But I killed them with my re and light—”

“How do you think Brannon won himself such glory and a kingdom? He was a discarded son of nobody, unclaimed by either parent. But Mala loved him ercely, so his ames were sometimes all that held the Valg princes at bay until we could summon a force to push them back.”

She opened to her mouth to ask the next question, but paused. Maeve wasn’t the sort to toss out random bits of information. So Celaena slowly asked, “Brannon wasn’t royal-born?”

Maeve cocked her head. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you what the mark on your brow means?” “I was told it was a sacred mark.”

Maeve’s eyes danced with amusement. “Sacred only because of the bearer who established your kingdom. But before that, it was nothing. Brannon was born with the bastard’s mark—the mark every unclaimed, unwanted child possessed, marking them as nameless, nobody. Each of Brannon’s heirs, despite their noble lineage, has since been graced with it—the nameless mark.”

And it had burned that day she’d dueled with Cain. Burned in front of the King of Adarlan. A shudder went down her spine. “Why did it glow when I dueled Cain, and when I faced the Valg princes?” She knew Maeve was well informed about the shadow-creature that had lived inside Cain. Perhaps not a Valg prince, but something small enough to be contained by the Wyrdstone ring he’d worn instead of a collar. It had recognized Elena—and it had said to both of them, You were brought here—all of you were. All the players in the un nished game.

“Perhaps your blood merely recognized the presence of the Valg and was trying to tell you something. Perhaps it meant nothing.”

She didn’t think so. Especially when the reek of the Valg had been in her parents’ bedroom the morning after they’d been murdered. Either the assassin had been possessed, or he’d known how to use their power to keep her parents unconscious while he slaughtered them. All bits of information-to be pieced together later, when she was away from Maeve. If Maeve let her walk out of here.

“Are re and light the only way to kill the Valg princes?”

“ ey are hard to kill, but not invincible,” Maeve admitted. “With the way the Adarlanian king compels them, cutting o their heads to sever the collar might do the trick. If you are to return to Adarlan, that will be the only way, I suspect.”

Because in Adarlan, magic was still locked up by the king. If she faced one of the Valg princes again, she’d have to kill it by blade and wits. “If the king is indeed summoning the Valg to his armies, what can be done to stop them?”

“ e King of Adarlan, it seems, is doing what I never had the nerve to do while the keys were brie y in my possession. Without all three keys, he is limited. He can only open the portal between our worlds for short periods, long enough to let in perhaps one prince to in ltrate a body he has prepared. But with all three keys, he could open the portal at will—he could summon all the Valg armies, to be led by the princes in their mortal bodies, and . . .” Maeve looked more intrigued than horri ed. “And with all three keys, he might not need to rely on magically gifted hosts for the Valg.

ere are countless lesser spirits amongst the Valg, hungry for entrance to this world.” “He’d have to make countless collars for them, then.”

“He would not need to, not with all three keys. His control would be absolute. And he would not need living hosts—only bodies.”

Celaena’s heart stumbled a beat, and Rowan tensed from his spot on the ground. “He could have

an army of the dead, inhabited by the Valg.”

“An army that does not need to eat or sleep or breathe—an army that will sweep like a plague across your continent, and others. Maybe other worlds, too.”

But he would need all three keys for it. Her chest tightened, and though they were in the open air, the palace, the river, the stars seemed to push in on her. ere would be no army that she could raise to stop them, and without magic . . . they were doomed. She was doomed. She was—

A calming warmth wrapped around her, as if someone had pulled her into an embrace. Feminine, joyous, in nitely powerful. is doom has not yet come to pass, it seemed to whisper in her ear. ere is still time. Do not succumb to fear yet.

Maeve was watching her with a feline interest, and Celaena wondered what it was that the dark queen beheld—if she, too, could sense that ancient, nurturing presence. But Celaena was warm again, the panic gone, and though the feeling of being held disappeared, she still could have sworn the presence lingered nearby. ere was time—the king still did not have the third key.

Brannon—he had possessed all three, yet had chosen to hide them, rather than put them back. And somehow, suddenly, that became the greatest question of all: why?

“As for the locations of the three keys,” Maeve said, “I do not know where they are. ey were brought across the sea, and I have not heard of them again until these past ten years. It would seem that the king has at least one, probably two. e third, however . . .” She looked her up and down, but Celaena refused to inch. “You have some inkling of its whereabouts, don’t you?”

She opened her mouth, but Maeve’s ngers clenched the arm of her throne—just enough to make Celaena glance at the stone. So much stone here—in this palace and in the city. And that word Maeve had used earlier, taken . . .

“Don’t you?” Maeve pressed.

Stone—and not a sign of wood, save for plants and furniture . . . “No, I don’t,” said Celaena.

Maeve cocked her head. “Rowan, rise and tell me the truth.”

His hands clenched, but he stood, his eyes on his queen as he swallowed. Twice. “She found a riddle, and she knows the King of Adarlan has at least the rst key, but doesn’t know where he keeps it. She also learned what Brannon did with the third—and where it is. She refused to tell me.” ere was a glimmer of horror in his eyes, and his sts were trembling, as if some invisible force had compelled him to say it. e wolves only watched.

Maeve tutted. “Keeping secrets, Aelin? From your aunt?” “Not for all the world would I tell you where the third key is.”

“Oh, I know,” Maeve purred. She snapped her ngers, and the wolves rose to their feet, shifting in

ashes of light into the most beautiful men she’d ever beheld. Warriors from the size of them, from the lethal grace with which they moved; one light and one dark, but stunning—perfect.

Celaena went for Goldryn, but the twins went for Rowan, who did nothing, didn’t even struggle as they gripped his arms, forcing him again to his knees. Two others emerged from the shadows behind them. Gavriel, his tawny eyes carefully empty, and Lorcan, face stone-cold. And in their hands . . .

At the sight of the iron-tipped whip each bore, Celaena forgot to breathe. Lorcan didn’t hesitate as he ripped Rowan’s jacket and tunic and shirt from him.

“Until she answers me,” Maeve said, as if she had just ordered a cup of tea.

Lorcan unfurled the whip, the iron tip clinking against the stones, and drew back his arm. ere

was nothing merciful on his rugged face, no glimmer of feeling for the friend on his knees.

“Please,” Celaena whispered. ere was a crack, and the world fragmented as Rowan bowed when the whip sliced into his back. He gritted his teeth, hissing, but did not cry out.

Please,” Celaena said. Gavriel sent his whip ying so fast Rowan had only a breath to recover.

ere was no remorse on Gavriel’s lovely face, no sign of the male she’d thanked weeks ago. Across the veranda, Maeve said, “How long this lasts depends entirely on you, niece.”

Celaena did not dare drag her gaze away from Rowan, who took the whipping as if he had done this before—as if he knew how to pace himself and how much pain to expect. His friends’ eyes were dead, as if they, too, had given and received this manner of punishment.

Maeve had harmed Rowan before. How many of his scars had she given him? “Stop it,” Celaena growled.

“Not for all the world, Aelin? But what about for Prince Rowan?”

Another strike, and blood was on the stones. And the sound—that sound of the whip . . . the sound that echoed in her nightmares, the sound that made her blood run cold . . .

“Tell me where the third Wyrdkey is, Aelin.”

Crack. Rowan jerked against the twins’ iron grip. Was this why he had been praying to Mala that morning? Because he knew what to expect from Maeve?

She opened her mouth, but Rowan lifted his head, teeth bared, his face savage with pain and rage. He knew she could read the word in his eyes, but he still said, “Don’t.”

It was that word of de ance that broke the hold she’d kept on herself for the past day, the damper she’d put on her power as she secretly spiraled down to the core of her magic, pulling up as much as she could gather.

e heat spread from her, warming the stones so swiftly that Rowan’s blood turned to red steam. His companions swore and near-invisible shields rippled around them and their sovereign.

She knew the gold in her eyes had shifted to ame, because when she looked to Maeve, the queen’s face had gone bone-white.

And then Celaena set the world on re.

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