Their gold and crimson flags, however, flapped in the crisp wind, the golden poles shining as brightly as the armor of their bearers, who trotted at the head of the party. She watched them approach from one of the balconies off the throne room, Aedion at her side running a constant commentary about the state of their ­horses, armor, weapons—­about the King of Adarlan himself, who rode near the front on a great black warhorse. There was a pony beside him, bearing a smaller figure. “His sniveling son,” Aedion told her.

The ­whole castle was miserably quiet. Everyone was dashing around, but silently, tensely. Her father had been on edge at breakfast, her mother distracted, the ­whole court snarly and wearing far more weapons than usual. Only her uncle seemed the same—­only Orlon had smiled at her today, said she looked very pretty in her blue dress and golden crown, and tugged one of her freshly pressed curls. No one had told her anything about this visit, but she knew it was important, because even Aedion was wearing clean clothes, a crown, and a new dagger, which he’d taken to tossing in the air.

“Aedion, Aelin,” someone hissed from inside the throne room—­Lady Marion, her mother’s dearest friend and handmaiden. “On the dais, now.” Behind the lovely lady peeked a night-­black head of hair and onyx eyes—­Elide, her daughter. The girl was too quiet and breakable for her to bother with usually. And Lady Marion, her nursemaid, coddled her own daughter endlessly.

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“Rat’s balls,” Aedion cursed, and Marion went red with anger, but did not reprimand. Proof enough that today was different—­dangerous, even.

Her stomach shifted. But she followed Lady Marion inside, Aedion at her heels as always, and preched on her little throne set beside her father’s. Aedion took up his place flanking her, shoulders back and head high, already her protector and warrior.

The ­whole of Orynth was silent as the King of Adarlan entered their mountain home.

She hated the King of Adarlan.

He did not smile—­not when he stalked into the throne room to greet her uncle and parents, not when he introduced his eldest son, Crown Prince Dorian Havilliard, and not when they came to the great hall for the largest feast she’d ever seen. He’d only looked at her twice so far: once during that initial meeting, when he’d stared at her long and hard enough that her father had demanded to know what he found so interesting about his daughter, and their ­whole court had tensed. But she hadn’t broken his dark stare. She hated his scarred, brutish face and furs. Hated the way he ignored his dark-­haired son, who stood like a pretty doll beside him, his manners so elegant and graceful, his pale hands like little birds as they moved.

The second time the king had looked at her had been at this table, where she now sat a few seats down, flanked by Lady Marion on the side closest to the king and Aedion on the other. There ­were daggers on Lady Marion’s legs beneath her dress—­she knew because she kept bumping into them. Lord Cal, Marion’s husband, sat beside his wife, the steel on him gleaming.

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Elide, along with all the other children, had been sent upstairs. Only she and Aedion—­and Prince Dorian—­were allowed ­here. Aedion puffed with pride and barely restrained temper when the King of Adarlan viewed her a second time, as if he could see through to her bones. Then the king was swept into conversation with her parents and uncle and all the lords and ladies of the court who had placed themselves around the royal family.

She had always known her court took no chances, not with her and not with her parents or uncle. Even now, she noticed the eyes of her father’s closest friends darting to the windows and doorways as they maintained conversation with those around them.

The rest of the hall was filled with the party from Adarlan and the outer circles of Orlon’s court, along with key merchants from the city who wanted to make ties with Adarlan. Or something like that. But her attention was on the prince across from her, who seemed utterly ignored by his father and his own court, shoved down near the end with her and Aedion.

He ate so beautifully, she thought, watching him cut into his roast chicken. Not a drop moved out of place, not a scrap fell on the table. She had decent manners, while Aedion was hopeless, his plate littered with bones and crumbs scattered everywhere, even some on her own dress. She’d kicked him for it, but his attention was too focused on the royals down the table.

So both she and the Crown Prince ­were to be ignored, then. She looked at the boy again, who was around her age, she supposed. His skin was from the winter, his blue-­black hair neatly trimmed; his sapphire eyes lifted from his plate to meet hers.

“You eat like a fine lady,” she told him.

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His lips thinned and color stained his ivory cheeks. Across from her, Quinn, her uncle’s Captain of the Guard, choked on his water.

The prince glanced at his father—­still busy with her uncle—­before replying. Not for approval, but in fear. “I eat like a prince,” Dorian said quietly.

“You do not need to cut your bread with a fork and knife,” she said. A faint pounding started in her head, followed by a flickering warmth, but she ignored it. The hall was hot, as they’d shut all the windows for some reason.

“Here in the North,” she went on as the prince’s knife and fork remained where they ­were on his dinner roll, “you need not be so formal. We don’t put on airs.”

Hen, one of Quinn’s men, coughed pointedly from a few seats down. She could almost hear him saying, Says the little lady with her hair pressed into careful curls and wearing her new dress that she threatened to skin us over if we got dirty.

She gave Hen an equally pointed look, then returned her attention to the foreign prince. He’d already looked down at his food again, as if he expected to be neglected for the rest of the night. And he looked lonely enough that she said, “If you like, you could be my friend.” Not one of the men around them said anything, or coughed.

Dorian lifted his chin. “I have a friend. He is to be Lord of Anielle someday, and the fiercest warrior in the land.”

She doubted Aedion would like that claim, but her cousin remained focused down the table. She wished she’d kept her mouth closed. Even this useless foreign prince had friends. The pounding in her head increased, and she took a drink of her water. Water—­always water to cool her insides.

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Reaching for her glass, however, sent spikes of red-­hot pain through her head, and she winced. “Princess?” Quinn said, always the first to notice.

She blinked, black spots forming. But the pain stopped.

No, not a stop, but a pause. A pause, then—

Right between her eyes, it ached and pressed at her head, trying to get in. She rubbed her brows. Her throat closed up, and she reached for the water, thinking of coolness, of calm and cold, exactly as her tutors and the court had told her. But the magic was churning in her gut—­burning up. Each pulse of pain in her head made it worse.

“Princess,” Quinn said again. She got to her feet, legs wobbling. The blackness in her vision grew with each blow from the pain, and she swayed. Distantly, as if she ­were underwater, she heard Lady Marion say her name, reach for her, but she wanted her mother’s cool touch.

Her mother turned in her seat, face drawn, her golden earrings catching in the light. She stretched out an arm, beckoning. “What is it, Fireheart?”

“I don’t feel well,” she said, barely able to get the words out. She gripped her mother’s velvet-­clad arm, for comfort and to keep her buckling knees from giving out.

“What feels wrong?” her mother asked, even as she put a hand to her forehead. A flicker of worry, then a glance back at her father, who watched from beside the King of Adarlan. “She’s burning up,” she said softly. Lady Marion was suddenly behind her, and her mother looked up to say, “Have the healer go to her room.” Marion was gone in an instant, hurrying to a side door.

She didn’t need a healer, and she gripped her mother’s arm to tell her as much. Yet no words would come out as the magic surged and burned. Her mother hissed and jerked back—­smoke rising from her dress, from where she had gripped her. “Aelin.”

Her head gave a throb—­a blast of pain, and then . . .

A wriggling, squirming inside her head.

A worm of darkness, pushing its way in. Her magic roiled, thrashing, trying to get it out, to burn it up, to save them both, but—“Aelin.”

“Get it out,” she rasped, pushing at her temples as she backed away from the table. Two of the foreign lords grabbed Dorian from the table and swept him from the room.

Her magic bucked like a stallion as the worm wriggled farther in. “Get it out.”

“Aelin.” Her father was on his feet now, hand on his sword. Half the others ­were standing too, but she flung out a hand—­to keep them away, to warn them.

Blue flame shot out. Two people dove in time to avoid it, but everyone was on their feet as the vacated seats went up in flames.

The worm would latch into her mind and never let go.

She grabbed at her head, her magic screaming, so loud it could shatter the world. And then she was burning, a living column of turquoise flame, sobbing as the dark worm continued its work and the walls of her mind began to give.

Above her own voice, above the shouting in the hall, she heard her father’s bellow—­a command to her mother, who was on her knees, hands outstretched toward her in supplication. “Do it, Evalin!”

The pillar of flame grew hotter, hot enough that people ­were fleeing now.

Her mother’s eyes met her own, full of pleading and pain.

Then water—­a wall of water crashing down on her, slamming her to the stones, flowing down her throat, into her eyes, choking her.

Drowning her. Until there was no air for her flame, only water and its freezing embrace.

The King of Adarlan looked at her for a third time—­and smiled.

The Valg princes enjoyed that memory, that terror and pain. And as they paused to savor it, Celaena understood. The King of Adarlan had used his power on her that night. Her parents could not have known that the person responsible for that dark worm, which had vanished as soon as she’d lost consciousness, was the man sitting beside them.

There was another one of them now—­a fourth prince, living inside Narrok, who said, “The soldiers have almost taken the tunnel. Be ready to move soon.” She could feel him hovering over her, observing. “You’ve found me a prize that will interest our liege. Do not waste her. Sips only.”

She tried to summon horror—­tried to feel anything at the thought of where they would take her, what they would do to her. But she could feel nothing as the princes murmured their understanding, and the memory tumbled onward.

Her mother thought it was an attack from Maeve, a vicious reminder of what­ever debt she owed, to make them look vulnerable. In the hours afterward, as she’d lain in the ice-­cold bath adjacent to her bedroom, she had used her Fae ears to overhear her parents and their court debating it from the sitting room of their suite.

It had to be Maeve. No one ­else could do anything like that, or know that such a demonstration—­in front of the King of Adarlan, who already loathed magic—­would be detrimental.

She did not want to talk, even once she was again capable of walking and speaking and acting like a princess. Insisting some normalcy might help, her mother made her go to a tea the next afternoon with Prince Dorian, carefully guarded and monitored, with Aedion sitting between them. And when Dorian’s flawless manners faltered and he knocked over the teapot, spilling on her new dress, she’d made a good show of having Aedion threaten to pummel him.

But she didn’t care about the prince, or the tea, or the dress. She could barely walk back to her room, and that night she dreamt of the maggot invading her mind, waking with screams and flames in her mouth.

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