Aelin Galathynius had spent a year in that labor camp. A queen of their continent had been a slave, and would bear the scars of it forever. Perhaps that entitled her, and Aedion, and even Chaol who loved her, to conspire to deceive and betray his father.

“Dorian, please,” Chaol said. “I’m doing this for you—­I swear it.”

“I don’t care,” Dorian said, staring them down as he walked out. “I will carry your secrets to the grave—­but I want no part of them.”

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He ripped his cold magic from the air and turned it inward, wrapping it around his heart.

Aedion took the secret subterranean exit out of the castle. He’d told Chaol it was to avoid any suspicion, to lose anyone ­else trailing them as they went back to their rooms. One look from the captain told him he knew precisely where Aedion was headed.

Aedion contemplated what the captain had told him—­and though any other man would be horrified, though Aedion should be horrified . . . he ­wasn’t surprised. He’d suspected the king was wielding some sort of deadly power from the moment he’d given him that ring all those years ago, and it seemed in line with information his spies had long been gathering.

The Yellowlegs Matron had been ­here for a reason. Aedion was willing to bet good money that what­ever monstrosities or weapons the king was creating, they would see them soon enough, perhaps with the witches in tow. Men didn’t build more armies and forge more weapons without having plans to use them. And they certainly didn’t hand out bits of mind-­controlling jewelry unless they wanted absolute do­min­ion. But he would face what was coming just as he had every other trial in his life: precisely, unyieldingly, and with lethal efficiency.

He spotted the two figures waiting in the shadows of a ramshackle building by the docks, the fog off the Avery making them little more than wisps of darkness.

“Well?” Ren demanded as Aedion leaned against a damp brick wall. Ren’s twin swords ­were out. Good Adarlanian steel, nicked and scratched enough to show they’d been used, and well-­oiled enough to show Ren knew how to care for them. They seemed to be the only things Ren cared about—­his hair was shaggy, and his clothes looked a bit worse for wear.

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“I already told you: we can trust the captain.” Aedion looked at Murtaugh. “Hello, old man.”

He ­couldn’t see Murtaugh’s face beneath the shadows of his hood, but his voice was too soft as he said, “I hope the information is worth the risks you are taking.”

Aedion snarled. He ­wouldn’t tell them the truth about Aelin, not until she was back at his side and could tell them herself.

Ren took a step closer. He moved with the self-­assurance of someone who was used to fighting. And winning. Still, Aedion had at least three inches and twenty pounds of muscle on him. Should Ren attack, he’d find himself on his ass in a heartbeat. “I don’t know what game you’re playing, Aedion,” Ren said, “but if you don’t tell us where she is, how can we can trust you? And how does the captain know? Does the king have her?”

“No,” Aedion said. It ­wasn’t a lie, but it felt like one. As Celaena, she’d signed her soul to him. “The way I see it, Ren, you and your grandfather have little to offer me—­or Aelin. You don’t have a war band, you don’t have lands, and the captain told me all about your affi­liation with that piece of shit Archer Finn. Do I need to remind you what happened to Nehemia Ytger on your watch? So I’m not going to tell you; you’ll receive information on a need-­to-­know basis.”

Ren started. Murtaugh put an arm between them. “It’s better we don’t know, just in case.”

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Ren ­wouldn’t back down, and Aedion’s blood raced at the challenge. “What are we going to tell the court, then?” Ren demanded. “That she’s not some imposter as we ­were led to believe, but actually alive—­yet you won’t tell us where?”

“Yes,” Aedion breathed, wondering just how badly he could bloody up Ren without hurting Murtaugh in the pro­cess. “That’s exactly what you’ll tell them. If you can even find the court.”

Silence. Murtaugh said, “We know Ravi and Sol are still alive and in Suria.”

Aedion knew the story. Their family’s trade business had been too important to the king to warrant executing both their parents. So their father had chosen the execution block, and their mother had been left to keep Suria running as a vital trade port. The two Surian boys would be twenty and twenty-­two by now, and since his mother’s death, Sol had become Lord of Suria. In his years leading the Bane, Aedion had never set foot in the coastal city. He didn’t want to know if they’d damn him. Adarlan’s Whore.

“Will they fight,” Aedion said, “or will they decide they like their gold too much?”

Murtaugh sighed. “I’ve heard Ravi is the wilder one—­he might be the one to convince.”

“I don’t want anyone that we have to convince to join us,” Aedion said.

“You’ll want people who aren’t afraid of Aelin—­or you,” Murtaugh snapped. “You’ll want levelheaded people who won’t hesitate to ask the hard questions. Loyalty is earned, not given.”

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“She ­doesn’t have to do a damn thing to earn our loyalty.”

Murtaugh shook his head, his cowl swaying. “For some of us, yes. But others might not be so easily convinced. She has ten years to account for—­and a kingdom in ruin.”

“She was a child.”

“She is a woman now, and has been for a few years. Perhaps she will offer an explanation. But until then, Aedion, you must understand that others might not share your fervor. And others might take a good amount of convincing about you as well—­about where your true loyalties lie and how you have demonstrated them over the years.”

He wanted to bash Murtaugh’s teeth down his throat, if only because he was right. “Who ­else of Orlon’s inner circle is still alive?”

Murtaugh named four. Ren quickly added, “We heard they ­were in hiding for years—­always moving around, like us. They might not be easy to find.”

Four. Aedion’s stomach dropped. “That’s it?” He’d been in Terrasen, but he’d never looked for an exact body count, never wanted to know who made it through the bloodshed and slaughter, or who had sacrificed everything to get a child, a friend, a family member out. Of course he’d known deep down, but there had always been some fool’s hope that most were still alive, still waiting to return.

“I’m sorry, Aedion,” Murtaugh said softly. “Some minor lords escaped, and even managed to hold onto their lands and keep them thriving.” Aedion knew and hated most of them—self-serving pigs. Murtaugh went on. “Vernon Lochan survived, but only because he was already the king’s puppet, and after Cal was executed, Vernon seized his brother’s mantle as Lord of Perranth. You know what happened to Lady Marion. But we never learned what happened to Elide.” Elide—­Lord Cal and Lady Marion’s daughter and heir, almost a year younger than Aelin. If she ­were alive, she would be at least seventeen by now. “Lots of children vanished in the initial weeks,” Murtaugh finished. Aedion didn’t want to think about those too-­small graves.

He had to look away for a moment, and even Ren stayed quiet. At last, Aedion said, “Send out feelers to Ravi and Sol, but hold off on the others. Ignore the minor lords for now. Small steps.”

To his surprise, Ren said, “Agreed.” For a heartbeat, their eyes met, and he knew that Ren felt what he often did—­what he tried to keep buried. They had survived, when so many had not. And no one ­else could understand what it was like to bear it, unless they had lost as much.

Ren had escaped at the cost of his parents’ lives—­and had lost his home, his title, his friends, and his kingdom. He had hidden and trained and never lost sight of his cause.

They ­were not friends now; they never really had been. Ren’s father hadn’t particularly liked that Aedion, not Ren, was favored to take the blood oath to Aelin. The oath of pure submission—­the oath that would have sealed Aedion as her lifelong protector, the one person in whom she could have absolute trust. Everything he possessed, everything he was, should have belonged to her.

Yet the prize now was not just a blood oath but a kingdom—­a shot at vengeance and rebuilding their world. Aedion made to walk away, but looked back. Just two cloaked figures, one hunched, the other tall and armed. The first shred of Aelin’s court. The court he’d raise for her to shatter Adarlan’s chains. He could keep playing the game—­for a little longer.

“When she returns,” Aedion said quietly, “what she will do to the King of Adarlan will make the slaughtering ten years ago look merciful.” And in his heart, Aedion hoped he spoke true.

25

A week passed without any further attempts to skin Celaena alive, so even though she made absolutely no progress with Rowan, she considered it to be a success. Rowan lived up to his word about her pulling double duty in the kitchens—­the only upside of which was that she was so exhausted when she tumbled into bed that she did not remember dreaming. Another benefit, she supposed, was that while she was scrubbing the eve­ning dishes, she could listen to Emrys’s stories—­which Luca begged for every night, regardless of rain.

Despite what had happened with the skinwalkers, Celaena was no closer to mastering her shift. Even though Rowan had offered his cloak that night beside the river, the next morning had brought them back to their usual vitriolic dislike. Hatred felt like a strong word, as she ­couldn’t quite hate someone who had saved her, but dislike fit pretty damn well. She didn’t particularly care what side of the hatred-­dislike line Rowan was on. But gaining his approval to enter Doranelle was undoubtedly a long, long way off.

Every day, he brought her to the temple ruins—­far enough away that if she did manage to shift and lost control of her magic in the pro­cess, she ­wouldn’t incinerate anyone. Everything—everything—depended on that command: shift. But the memory of what the magic had felt like as it seared out of her, when it threatened to swallow her and the ­whole world, plagued her, waking and asleep. It was almost as bad as the endless sitting.

Now, after two miserable hours of it, she groaned and stood, stalking around the ruins. It was unusually sunny that day, making the pale stones seem to glow. In fact, she could have sworn that the whispered prayers of long-­gone worshippers still resonated. Her magic had been flickering oddly in response—­strange, in her human form, where it was normally so bolted down.

As she studied the ruins, she braced her hands on her hips: anything to keep from ripping out her hair. “What was this place, anyway?” Only slabs of broken stone remained to show where the temple had stood. A few oblong stones—­pillars—were tossed about as if a hand had scattered them, and several stones grouped together indicated what had once been a road.

Rowan dogged her steps, a thundercloud closing in around her as she examined a cluster of white stones. “The Sun Goddess’s temple.”

Mala, Lady of Light, Learning, and Fire. “You’ve been bringing me ­here because you think it might help with mastering my powers—­my shifting?”

A vague nod. She put a hand on one of the massive stones. If she felt like admitting it, she could almost sense the echoes of the power that had dwelled ­here long ago, a delicious heat kissing its way up her neck, down her spine, as if some piece of that goddess were still curled up in the corner. It explained why today, in the sun, the temple felt different. Why her magic was jumpy. Mala, Sun Goddess and Light-­Bringer, was sister and eternal rival to Deanna, Keeper of the Moon.

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