The kitchen walls and ceiling crushed her, the air too thin, too hot. Rowan’s face swam as she panted, panted, faster and faster—
He murmured her name too softly for the others to hear.
And the sound of it, that name that had once been a promise to the world, the name she had spat on and defiled, the name she did not deserve . . .
She tore off his grip, and then she was walking out the kitchen door, across the courtyard, through the ward-stones, and along the invisible barrier—until she found a spot just out of sight of the fortress.
The world was full of screaming and wailing, so loud she drowned in it.
Celaena did not utter a sound as she unleashed her magic on the barrier, a blast that shook the trees and set the earth rumbling. She fed her power into the invisible wall, begging the ancient stones to take it, to use it. The wards, as if sensing her intent, devoured her power whole, absorbing every last ember until it flickered, hungry for more.
So she burned and burned and burned.
For weeks now, Chaol hadn’t had any contact with any of his friends—allies, whatever they had been. So, one last time, Chaol slipped into the rhythm of his old duties. Though it was more difficult than ever to oversee the king’s luncheons, though making his reports was an effort of will, he did it. He had heard nothing from Aedion or Ren, and still hadn’t yet asked Dorian to use his magic to test out their theories about the spell. He was starting to wonder if he was done playing his part in Aelin’s growing rebellion.
He’d gathered enough information, crossed enough lines. Perhaps it was time to learn what could be done from Anielle. He would be closer to Morath, and maybe he could uncover what the king was brewing down there. The king had accepted his plans to take up his mantle as heir to Anielle with hardly any objections. Soon, he was to present options for a replacement.
Chaol was currently standing guard at a state luncheon in the great hall, which Aedion and Dorian were both attending. The doors had been thrown open to welcome in the spring air, and Chaol’s men were standing at each one, weapons at the ready.
Everything was normal, everything was going smoothly, until the king stood, his black ring seeming to gobble up the midday sun streaming in through the towering windows. He lifted a goblet, and the room fell silent. Not in the way it did when Aedion spoke. Chaol hadn’t been able to stop thinking about what the general had said to him about choosing a side, or what Dorian had said about his refusal to accept Celaena and the prince for what they really were. Over and over again, he’d contemplated it.
But nothing could prepare Chaol, or anyone in that silent hall, as the king smiled to the tables below his dais and said, “Good news arrived this morning from Eyllwe and the north. The Calaculla slave rebellion has been dealt with.”
They’d heard nothing of it, and Chaol wished he could cover his ears as the king said, “We’ll have to work to replenish the mines, there and in Endovier, but the rebel taint has been purged.”
Chaol was glad he was leaning against a pillar. It was Dorian who spoke, his face bone-white. “What are you talking about?”
His father smiled at him. “Forgive me. It seems the slaves in Calaculla got it into their heads to start an uprising after Princess Nehemia’s unfortunate death. We got it into our heads not to allow it. Or any other potential uprisings. And as we didn’t have the resources to devote to interrogating each and every slave to weed out the traitors . . .”
Chaol understood what strength it took for Dorian not to shake his head in horror as he did the calculations and understood just how many people had been slaughtered.
“General Ashryver,” the king said. Aedion sat motionless. “You and your Bane will be pleased to know that since the purge in Endovier, many of the rebels in your territory have ceased their . . . antics. It seems they did not want a fate similar to that of their friends in the mines.”
Chaol didn’t know how Aedion found the courage and will, but the general smiled and bowed his head. “Thank you, Majesty.”
Dorian burst into Sorscha’s workroom. She jumped from her spot at the table, a hand on her chest. “Did you hear?” he asked, shutting the door behind him.
Her eyes were red enough to suggest that she had. He took her face in his hands, pressing his brow against hers, needing that cool strength. He didn’t know how he’d kept from weeping or vomiting or killing his father on the spot. But looking at her, breathing in her rosemary-and-mint scent, he knew why.
“I want you out of this castle,” he said. “I’ll give you the funds, but I want you away from here as soon as you can find a way to go without raising suspicion.”
She yanked out of his grasp. “Are you mad?”
No, he’d never seen anything more clearly. “If you stay, if we are caught . . . I will give you whatever money you need—”
“No money you could offer could convince me to leave.”
“I’ll tie you to a horse if I have to. I’m getting you out—”
“And who will look after you? Who will make your tonics? You’re not even talking to the captain anymore. How could I leave now?”
He gripped her shoulders. She had to understand—he had to make her understand. Her loyalty was one of the things he loved, but now . . . it would only get her killed. “He murdered thousands of people in one sweep. Imagine what he’ll do if he finds you’ve been helping me. There are worse things than death, Sorscha. Please—please, just go.”
Her fingers found his, entwining tight. “Come with me.”
“I can’t. It will get worse if I leave, if my brother is made heir. And I think . . . I know of some people who might be trying to stop him. If I am here, perhaps I can help them in some way.”
Oh, Chaol. He understood completely now why he had sent Celaena to Wendlyn—understood that his return to Anielle . . . Chaol had sold himself to get Celaena to safety.
“If you stay, I stay,” Sorscha said. “You cannot convince me otherwise.”
“Please,” he said, because he didn’t have it in him to yell, not with the deaths of those people hanging over him. “Please . . .”
But she brushed her thumb across his cheek. “Together. We’ll face this together.”
And it was selfish and horrible of him, but he put up no further argument.
Chaol went to the tomb for privacy, to mourn, to scream. But he was not alone.
Aedion was sitting on the steps of the spiral stairwell, his forearms braced on his knees. He didn’t turn as Chaol set down his candle and sat beside him.
“What do you suppose,” Aedion breathed, staring into the darkness, “the people on other continents, across all those seas, think of us? Do you think they hate us or pity us for what we do to each other? Perhaps it’s just as bad there. Perhaps it’s worse. But to do what I have to do, to get through it . . . I have to believe it’s better. Somewhere, it’s better than this.”
Chaol had no answer.
“I have . . .” Aedion’s teeth gleamed in the light. “I have been forced to do many, many things. Depraved, despicable things. Yet nothing made me feel as filthy as I did today, thanking that man for murdering my people.”
There was nothing he could say to console him, nothing he could promise. So Chaol left Aedion staring into the darkness.
There was not one empty seat in the Royal Theater that night. Every box and tier was crammed with nobility, merchants, whoever could afford the ticket. Jewels and silk gleamed in the light of the glass chandeliers, the riches of a conquering empire.
The news about the slave massacres had struck that afternoon, spreading through the city on a wave of murmuring, leaving only silence behind. The upper tiers of the theater were unusually still, as if the audience had come to be soothed, to let the music sweep away the stain of the news.
Only the boxes were full of chatter. About what this meant for the fortunes of those seated in the plush crimson velvet chairs, debates over where the new slaves would come from to ensure there was no pause in labor, and about how they should treat their own slaves afterward. Despite the chiming bells and the raising and dimming of the chandeliers, it took the boxes far longer to quiet than usual.
They were still talking when the red curtains pulled back to reveal the seated orchestra, and it was a miracle they bothered to applaud for the conductor as he hobbled across the stage.
That was when they noticed that every musician on the stage was wearing mourning black. That was when they shut up. And when the conductor raised his arms, it was not a symphony that filled the cavernous space.
It was the Song of Eyllwe.
Then the Song of Fenharrow. And Melisande. And Terrasen. Each nation that had people in those labor camps.
And finally, not for pomp or triumph, but to mourn what they had become, they played the Song of Adarlan.
When the final note finished, the conductor turned to the crowd, the musicians standing with him. As one, they looked to the boxes, to all those jewels bought with the blood of a continent. And without a word, without a bow or another gesture, they walked off the stage.
The next morning, by royal decree, the theater was shut down.
No one saw those musicians or their conductor again.
A cooling breeze kissed down Celaena’s neck. The forest had gone silent, as if the birds and insects had been quieted by her assault on the invisible wall. The barrier had gobbled down every spark of magic she’d launched at it, and now seemed to hum with fresh power.
The scent of pine and snow wrapped around her, and she turned to find Rowan standing against a nearby tree. He’d been there for some time now, giving her space to work herself into exhaustion.
But she was not tired. And she was not done. There was still wildfire in her mind, writhing, endless, damning. She let it dim to embers, let the grief and horror die down, too.
Rowan said, “Word just arrived from Wendlyn. Reinforcements aren’t coming.”
“They didn’t come ten years ago,” she said, her throat raw though she had not spoken in hours. Cold, glittering calm was now flowing in her veins. “Why should they bother helping now?”
His eyes flickered. “Aelin.” When she only gazed into the darkening forest, he suddenly said, “You do not have to stay—we can go to Doranelle tonight, and you can retrieve your knowledge from Maeve. You have my blessing.”
“Do not insult me by asking me to leave. I am fighting. Nehemia would have stayed. My parents would have stayed.”
“They also had the luxury of knowing that their bloodline did not end with them.”
She gritted her teeth. “You have experience—you are needed here. You are the only person who can give the demi-Fae a chance of surviving; you are trusted and respected. So I am staying. Because you are needed, and because I will follow you to whatever end.” And if the creatures devoured her body and soul, then she would not mind. She had earned that fate.
For a long moment, he said nothing. But his brows narrowed slightly. “To whatever end?”
She nodded. He had not needed to mention the massacres, had not needed to try to console her. He knew—he understood without her having to say a word—what it was like.
Her magic thrummed in her blood, wanting out, wanting more. But it would wait—it had to wait until it was time. Until she had Narrok and his creatures in her sight.
She realized that Rowan saw each of those thoughts and more as he reached into his tunic and pulled out a dagger. Her dagger. He extended it to her, its long blade gleaming as if he’d been secretly polishing and caring for it these months.
And when she grasped the dagger, its weight lighter than she remembered, Rowan looked into her eyes, into the very core of her, and said, “Fireheart.”