Rowan said, “What is it?”
“The third Wyrdkey.” She swore. She could tell no one, because if anyone knew . . . they would head straight to Rifthold. Straight to the Assassins’ Keep.
“Aelin.” Was it fear, pain, or both in his eyes? “Tell me what you learned.”
“Not while you are bound to her.”
“I am bound to her forever.”
“I know.” He was Maeve’s slave—worse than a slave. He had to obey every command, no matter how wretched.
He leaned over his knees, dipping a large hand in the water. “You’re right. I don’t want you to tell me. Any of it.”
“I hate that,” she breathed. “I hate her.”
He looked away, toward Goldryn, discarded behind them on the rock. She’d told him its history this morning as she scarfed down enough food for three full-grown Fae warriors. He hadn’t seemed particularly impressed, and when she showed him the ring she’d found in the scabbard, he had nothing to say other than “I hope you find a good use for it.” Indeed.
But the silence that was building between them was unacceptable. She cleared her throat. Perhaps she couldn’t tell him the truth about the third Wyrdkey, but she could offer him another.
The truth. The truth of her, undiluted and complete. And after all that they had been through, all that she still wanted to do . . .
So she steeled herself. “I have never told anyone this story. No one in the world knows it. But it’s mine,” she said, blinking past the burning in her eyes, “and it’s time for me to tell it.”
Rowan leaned back on the rock, bracing his palms behind him.
“Once upon a time,” she said to him, to the world, to herself, “in a land long since burned to ash, there lived a young princess who loved her kingdom . . . very much.”
And then she told him of the princess whose heart had burned with wildfire, of the mighty kingdom in the north, of its downfall and of the sacrifice of Lady Marion. It was a long story, and sometimes she grew quiet and cried—and during those times he leaned over to wipe away her tears.
When she finished, Rowan merely passed her more of the tonic. She smiled at him, and he looked at her for a while before he smiled back, a different smile than all the others he’d given her before.
They were quiet for some time, and she didn’t know why she did it, but she held out a hand in front of her, palm facing the pool beneath.
And slowly, wobbling, a droplet of water the size of a marble rose from the surface to her cupped palm.
“No wonder your sense of self-preservation is so pathetic, if that’s all the water you can conjure.” But Rowan flicked her chin, and she knew he understood what it meant, to have summoned even a droplet to her hand. To feel her mother smiling at her from realms away.
She grinned at Rowan through her tears, and sent the droplet splashing onto his face.
Rowan tossed her into the pool. A moment later, laughing, he jumped in himself.
After a week of regaining her strength, she and the other injured demi-Fae had recovered enough to attend a celebration thrown by Emrys and Luca. Before she and Rowan headed downstairs to join the festivities, Celaena peered in the mirror—and stopped dead.
The somewhat shorter hair was the least of the changes.
She was now flushed with color, her eyes bright and clear, and though she’d regained the weight she’d lost that winter, her face was leaner. A woman—a woman was smiling back at her, beautiful for every scar and imperfection and mark of survival, beautiful for the fact that the smile was real, and she felt it kindle the long-slumbering joy in her heart.
She danced that night. The morning after, she knew it was time.
When she and Rowan had finished saying their good-byes to the others, she paused at the edge of the trees to look at the crumbling stone fortress. Emrys and Luca were waiting for them at the tree line, faces pale in the morning light. The old male had already stuffed their bags full of food and supplies, but he still pressed a hot loaf into Celaena’s hands as they looked at each other.
She said, “It might take a while, but if—when I reclaim my kingdom, the demi-Fae will always have a home there. And you two—and Malakai—will have a place in my household, should you wish it. As my friends.”
Emrys’s eyes were gleaming as he nodded, gripping Luca’s hand. The young man, who had opted to keep a long, wicked scratch bestowed in battle down his face, merely stared at her, wide-eyed. A part of her heart ached at the shadows that now lay in his face. Bas’s betrayal would haunt him, she knew. But Celaena smiled at him, ruffled his hair, and made to turn away.
“Your mother would be proud,” Emrys said.
Celaena put a hand on her heart and bowed in thanks.
Rowan cleared his throat, and Celaena gave them one last parting smile before she followed the prince into the trees—to Doranelle, and to Maeve, at last.
“Just be ready to leave for Suria in two days,” Aedion ordered Ren as the three of them gathered at midnight in the apartment where Ren and Murtaugh had stayed, still unaware of who it belonged to. “Take the southern gate—it’ll be the least monitored at that hour.”
It had been weeks since they’d last met, and three days since a vague letter had arrived for Murtaugh from Sol of Suria, a friendly invitation to a long-lost friend to visit him. The wording was simple enough that they all knew the young lord was feeling them out, hinting at interest in the “opportunity” Murtagh had mentioned in an earlier letter. Since then, Aedion had combed every path northward, calculating the movements and locations of every legion and garrison along the way. Two more days; then perhaps this court could begin to rebuild itself.
“Why does it feel like we’re fleeing, then?” Ren paused his usual pacing. The young Lord of Allsbrook had healed up just fine, though he’d now converted some of the great room into his own personal training space to rebuild his strength. Aedion wondered just how thrilled their queen would be to learn about that.
“You are fleeing,” Aedion drawled, biting into one of the apples he’d picked up at the market for Ren and the old man. “The longer you stay here,” he went on, “the bigger the risk of being discovered and of all our plans falling apart. You’re too recognizable now, and you’re of better use to me in Terrasen. There’s no negotiating, so don’t bother trying.”
“And what about you?” Ren asked the captain, who was seated in his usual chair.
Chaol frowned and said quietly, “I’m going to Anielle in a few days.” To fulfill the bargain he’d made when he sold his freedom to get Aelin to Wendlyn. If Aedion let himself think too much about it, he knew he might feel bad—might try to convince the captain to stay, even. It wasn’t that Aedion liked the captain, or even respected him. In fact, he wished Chaol had never caught him in that stairwell, mourning the slaughter of his people in the labor camps. But here they were, and there was no going back.
Ren paused his pacing to stare down the captain. “As our spy?”
“You’ll need someone on the inside, regardless of whether I’m in Rifthold or Anielle.”
“I have people on the inside,” Ren said.
Aedion waved a hand. “I don’t care about your people on the inside, Ren. Just be ready to go, and stop being a pain in my ass with your endless questions.” He would chain Ren to a horse if he had to.
Aedion was about to turn to go when feet thundered up the stairs. They all had their swords drawn as the door flew open and Murtaugh appeared, panting and grasping the doorframe. The old man’s eyes were wild, his mouth opening and closing. Behind him, the stairwell revealed no sign of a threat, no pursuit. But Aedion kept his sword out and angled himself into a better position.
Ren rushed to Murtaugh, slipping an arm under his shoulders, but the old man planted his heels in the rug. “She’s alive,” he said, to Ren, to Aedion, to himself. “She’s—she’s truly alive.”
Aedion’s heart stopped. Stopped, then started, then stopped again. Slowly, he sheathed his sword, calming his racing mind before he said, “Out with it, old man.”
Murtaugh blinked and let out a choked laugh. “She’s in Wendlyn, and she’s alive.”
The captain stalked across the floor. Aedion might have joined him had his legs not stopped working. For Murtaugh to have heard about her . . . The captain said, “Tell me everything.”
Murtaugh shook his head. “The city’s swarming with the news. People are in the streets.”
“Get to the point,” Aedion snapped.
“General Narrok’s legion did indeed go to Wendlyn,” Murtaugh said. “And no one knows how or why, but Aelin . . . Aelin was there, in the Cambrian Mountains, and was part of a host that met them in battle. They’re saying she’s been hiding in Doranelle all this time.”
Alive, Aedion had to tell himself—alive, and not dead after the battle, even if Murtaugh’s information about her whereabouts was wrong.
Murtaugh was smiling. “They slaughtered Narrok and his men, and she saved a great number of people—with magic. Fire, they say—power the likes of which the world has not seen since Brannon himself.”
Aedion’s chest tightened to the point of hurting. The captain was just staring at the old man.
It was a message to the world. Aelin was a warrior, able to fight with blade or magic. And she was done with hiding.
“I’m riding north today. It cannot wait as we had planned,” Murtaugh said, turning toward the door. “Before the king tries to keep the news from spreading, I need to let Terrasen know.” They trailed him down the stairs and into the warehouse below. Even from inside, Aedion’s Fae hearing picked up the rising commotion in the streets. The moment he entered the palace, he would have to consider his every step, every breath. Too many eyes would be on him now.
Aelin. His Queen. Aedion slowly smiled. The king would never suspect, not in a thousand years, who he’d actually sent to Wendlyn—that his own Champion had destroyed Narrok. Few had ever known about the Galathyniuses’ deeply rooted distrust of Maeve—so Doranelle would be a believable place to hide and raise a young queen all these years.
“Once I get out of the city,” Murtaugh said, going to the horse he’d tied inside the warehouse, “I’ll send riders to every contact, to Fenharrow and Melisande. Ren, you stay here. I’ll take care of Suria.”
Aedion gripped the man’s shoulder. “Get word to my Bane—tell them to lie low until I return, but keep those supply lines with the rebels open at any cost.” He didn’t let go until Murtaugh gave him a nod.
“Grandfather,” Ren said, helping the man into the saddle. “Let me go instead.”
“You stay here,” Aedion ordered, and Ren bristled.
Murtaugh murmured his agreement. “Gather what information you can, and then you’ll come to me when I’m ready.”
Aedion didn’t give Ren time to refuse as he hauled open the warehouse door for Murtaugh. Brisk night air poured in, bringing with it the ruckus from the city. Aelin—Aelin had done this, caused this clamor of sound. The stallion pawed and huffed, and Murtaugh might have galloped off had the captain not surged to grab his reins.
“Eyllwe,” Chaol breathed. “Send word to Eyllwe. Tell them to hold on—tell them to prepare.” Perhaps it was the light, perhaps it was the cold, but Aedion could have sworn there were tears in the captain’s eyes as he said, “Tell them it’s time to fight back.”