The sentries forced him to his knees in an empty room that smelled of old hay. Chaol found Aedion and a familiar-looking old man staring down at him. The one who had begged Celaena to stop that night in the warehouse. There was nothing remarkable about the old man; his worn clothes were ordinary, his body lean but not yet withered. Beside him stood a young man Chaol knew by his soft, vicious laugh: the guard who had taunted him when he’d been held prisoner. Shoulder-length dark hair hung loose around a face that was more cruel than handsome, especially with the wicked scar slashing through his eyebrow and down his cheek. He dismissed the sentries with a jerk of his chin.
“Well, well,” Aedion said, circling Chaol. His sword was out, gleaming in the dim light. “Captain of the Guard, heir of Anielle, and spy? Or has your lover been giving you some tricks of the trade?”
“When you throw parties and convince my men to leave their posts, when you’re not at those parties because you’re sneaking through the streets, it’s my duty to know why, Aedion.”
The scarred young man with the twin swords stepped closer, circling with Aedion now. Two predators, sizing up their prey. They’d probably fight over his carcass.
“Too bad your Champion isn’t here to save you this time,” the scarred one said quietly.
“Too bad you weren’t there to save Archer Finn,” Chaol said.
A flare of nostrils, a flash of fury in cunning brown eyes, but the young man fell silent as the old man held out a hand. “Did the king send you?”
“I came because of him.” Chaol jerked his chin at Aedion. “But I’ve been looking for you two—and your little group—as well. Both of you are in danger. Whatever you think Aedion wants, whatever he offers you, the king keeps him on a tight leash.” Perhaps that bit of honesty would buy him what he needed: trust and information.
But Aedion barked out a laugh. “What?” His companions turned to him, brows raised. Chaol glanced at the ring on the general’s finger. He hadn’t been mistaken. It was identical to the ones the king, Perrington, and others had worn.
Aedion caught Chaol’s look and stopped his circling.
For a moment, the general stared at him, a glimmer of surprise and amusement darting across his tan face. Then Aedion purred, “You’ve turned out to be a far more interesting man than I thought, Captain.”
“Explain, Aedion,” the old man said softly, but not weakly.
Aedion smiled broadly as he yanked the black ring off his finger. “The day the king presented me with the Sword of Orynth, he also offered me a ring. Thanks to my heritage, my senses are . . . sharper. I thought the ring smelled strange—and knew only a fool would accept that kind of gift from him. So I had a replica made. The real one I chucked into the sea. But I always wondered what it did,” he mused, tossing the ring with one hand and catching it. “It seems the captain knows. And disapproves.”
The man with the twin swords ceased his circling, and the grin he gave Chaol was nothing short of feral. “You’re right, Aedion,” he said without taking his eyes off Chaol. “He is more interesting than he seems.”
Aedion pocketed the ring as if it were—as if it were indeed a fake. And Chaol realized that he’d revealed far more than he’d ever intended.
Aedion began circling again, the scarred young man echoing the graceful movements. “A magical leash—when there is no magic left,” the general mused. “And yet you still followed me, believing I was under the king’s spell. Thinking you could use me to win the rebels’ favor? Fascinating.”
Chaol kept his mouth shut. He’d already said enough to damn himself.
Aedion went on, “These two said your assassin friend was a rebel sympathizer. That she handed over information to Archer Finn without thinking twice—that she allowed rebels to sneak out of the city when she was commanded to put them down. Was she the one who told you about the king’s rings, or did you discover that tidbit all on your own? What, exactly, is going on in that glass palace when the king isn’t looking?”
Chaol clamped down on his retort. When it became clear he wouldn’t speak, Aedion shook his head.
“You know how this has to end,” Aedion said, and there wasn’t anything mocking in it. Just cold calculation. The true face of the Northern Wolf. “The way I see it, you signed your own death warrant when you decided to trail me, and now that you know so much . . . You have two options, Captain: we can torture it out of you and then we’ll kill you, or you can tell us what you know and we’ll make it quick for you. As painless as possible, on my honor.”
They stopped circling.
Chaol had faced death a few times in the past months. Had faced and seen and dealt it. But this death, where Celaena and Dorian and his mother would never know what happened to him . . . It disgusted him, somehow. Enraged him.
Aedion stepped closer to where Chaol knelt.
He could take out the scarred one, then hope he could stand against Aedion—or at least flee. He would fight, because that was the only way he could embrace this sort of death.
Aedion’s sword was at the ready—the sword that belonged to Celaena by blood and right. Chaol had assumed he was a two-faced butcher. Aedion was a traitor. But not to Terrasen. Aedion had been playing a very dangerous game since arriving here—since his kingdom fell ten years ago. And tricking the king into thinking that he’d been wearing his ring all this time—that was indeed information Aedion would be willing to kill to keep safe. Yet there was other information Chaol could use, perhaps, to get out of this alive.
Regardless of how shattered she’d been when she left, Celaena was safe now. She was away from Adarlan. But Dorian, with his magic, with the threat he secretly posed, was not. Aedion took a readying breath to kill him. Keeping Dorian protected was all he had left, all that had ever really mattered. If these rebels did indeed know something—anything—about magic that might help to free it, if he could use Aedion to get that information . . .
It was a gamble—the biggest gamble he’d ever made. Aedion raised his sword.
With a silent prayer for forgiveness, Chaol looked straight at Aedion. “Aelin is alive.”
Aedion Ashryver had been called Wolf, general, prince, traitor, and murderer. And he was all of those things, and more. Liar, deceiver, and trickster were his particular favorites—the titles only those closest to him knew.
Adarlan’s Whore, that’s what the ones who didn’t know him called him. It was true—in so many ways, it was true, and he had never minded it, not really. It had allowed him to maintain control in the North, to keep the bloodshed down to a minimum and a lie. Half the Bane were rebels, and the other half sympathizers, so many of their “battles” in the North had been staged, the body count a deceit and an exaggeration—at least, once the corpses got up from the killing field under cover of darkness and went home to their families. Adarlan’s Whore. He had not minded. Until now.
Cousin—that had been his most beloved title. Cousin, kin, protector. Those were the secret names he harbored deep within, the names he whispered to himself when the northern wind was shrieking through the Staghorns. Sometimes that wind sounded like the screams of his people being led to the butchering blocks. And sometimes it sounded like Aelin—Aelin, whom he had loved, who should have been his queen, and to whom he would have one day sworn the blood oath.
Aedion stood on the decaying planks of an empty dock in the slums, staring at the Avery. The captain was beside him, spitting blood into the water thanks to the beating given to him by Ren Allsbrook, Aedion’s newest conspirator and yet another dead man risen from the grave.
Ren, heir and Lord of Allsbrook, had trained with Aedion as a child—and had once been his rival. Ten years ago, Ren and his grandfather, Murtagh, had escaped the butchering blocks thanks to a diversion started by Ren’s parents that cost them their lives and gave Ren the nasty scar down his face. But Aedion hadn’t known—he’d thought them dead, and had been stunned to learn that they were the secret rebel group he’d hunted down upon arriving in Rifthold. He’d heard the claims that Aelin was alive and raising an army and had dragged himself down from the north to get to the bottom of it and destroy the liars, preferably cutting them up piece by piece.
The king’s summons had been a convenient excuse. Ren and Murtagh had instantly admitted that the rumors had been spread by a former member of their rebel group. They had never had or heard of any contact with their dead queen. But seeing Ren and Murtagh, he’d since wondered who else might have survived. He had never allowed himself to hope that Aelin . . .
Aedion set his sword on the wooden rail and ran his scarred fingers down it, taking in the nicks and lines, each mark a tale of legendary battles fought, of great kings long dead. The sword was the last shred of proof that a mighty kingdom had once existed in the North.
It wasn’t his sword, not really. In those initial days of blood and conquest, the King of Adarlan had snatched the blade from Rhoe Galathynius’s cooling body and brought it to Rifthold. And there it had stayed, the sword that should have been Aelin’s.
So Aedion had fought for years in those war camps and battlefields, fought to prove his invaluable worth to the king, and had taken everything that was done to him, again and again. When he and the Bane won that first battle and the king had proclaimed him the Northern Wolf and offered him a boon, Aedion had asked for the sword.
The king attributed the request to an eighteen-year-old’s romanticism, and Aedion had swaggered about his own glory until everyone believed that he was a traitorous, butchering bastard who made a mockery of the sword just by touching it. But winning back the sword didn’t erase his failure.
Even though he’d been thirteen, and even though he’d been forty miles away in Orynth when Aelin had been killed on the country estate, he should have stopped it. He’d been sent to her land upon his mother’s death to become Aelin’s sword and shield, to serve in the court she was supposed to have ruled, that child of kings. So he should have ridden out when the castle erupted with news that Orlon Galathynius had been assassinated. By the time anyone did, Rhoe, Evalin, and Aelin were dead.
It was that reminder he’d carried with him on his back, the reminder of who the sword belonged to, and to whom, when he took his last breath and went to the Otherworld, he’d finally give it.
But now the sword, that weight he’d embraced for years, felt . . . lighter and sharper, far more fragile. Infinitely precious. The world had slipped from beneath his feet.
No one had spoken for a moment after the Captain of the Guard made his claim. Aelin is alive. Then the captain had said he’d only speak with Aedion about it.
Just to show they weren’t bluffing about torturing him, Ren had bloodied him up with a cool precision that Aedion grudgingly admired, but the captain had taken the blows. And whenever Ren paused, Murtaugh looking on disapprovingly, the captain said the same thing. After it became clear that the captain would either tell only Aedion or die, he’d called off Ren. The heir of Allsbrook bristled, but Aedion had dealt with plenty of young men like him in the war camps. It never took much to get them to fall in line. Aedion gave him a long, hard stare, and Ren backed down.
Which was how they wound up here, Chaol cleaning off his face with a scrap of his shirt. For the past few minutes, Aedion had listened to the most unlikely story he’d ever heard. The story of Celaena Sardothien, the infamous assassin, being trained by Arobynn Hamel, the story of her downfall and year in Endovier, and how she’d wound up in the ridiculous competition to become the King’s Champion. The story of Aelin, his Queen, in a death camp, and then serving in her enemy’s house.