Murtaugh Allsbrook and his riders spread the news like wildfire. Down every road, over every river, to the north and south and west, through snow and rain and mist, their hooves churning up the dust of each kingdom.
And for every town they told, every tavern and secret meeting, more riders went out.
More and more, until there was not a road they had not covered, until there was not one soul who did not know that Aelin Galathynius was alive—and willing to stand against Adarlan.
Across the White Fangs and the Ruhnns, all the way to the Western Wastes and the red-haired queen who ruled from a crumbling castle. To the Deserted Peninsula and the oasis-fortress of the Silent Assassins. Hooves, hooves, hooves, echoing through the continent, sparking against cobblestones, all the way to Banjali and the riverfront palace of the King and Queen of Eyllwe, still in their midnight mourning clothes.
Hold on, the riders told the world.
Dorian’s father was in a rage the likes of which he’d not seen before. Two ministers had been executed this morning, for no worse crime than attempting to calm the king.
A day after the news arrived of what Aelin had done in Wendlyn, his father was still livid, still demanding answers.
Dorian might have found it funny—so typically Celaena to make such a flamboyant return—had he not been utterly petrified. She had drawn a line in the sand. Worse than that, she’d defeated one of the king’s deadliest generals.
No one had done that and lived. Ever.
Somewhere in Wendlyn, his friend was changing the world. She was fulfilling the promise she’d made him. She had not forgotten him, or any of them still here.
And perhaps when they figured out a way to destroy that tower and free magic from his father’s yoke, she would know her friends had not forgotten her, either. That he had not forgotten her.
So Dorian let his father rage. He sat in on those meetings and shut down his revulsion and horror when his father sent a third minister to the butchering block. For Sorscha, for the promise of keeping her safe, of someday, perhaps, not having to hide what and who he was, he kept on his well-worn mask, offered banal suggestions about what to do regarding Aelin, and pretended. One last time.
When Celaena got back, when she returned as she’d sworn she would . . .
Then they would set about changing the world together.
It took a week for Celaena and Rowan to reach Doranelle. They traveled over the rough, miserable mountains where Maeve’s wild wolves monitored them day and night, then down into the lush valley through forests and fields, the air heavy with spices and magic.
The temperature grew warmer the farther south they traveled, but breezes kept it from being too unpleasant. After a while, they began spotting pretty stone villages in the distance, but Rowan kept them away, hidden, until they crested a rocky hill and Doranelle spread before them.
It took her breath away. Even Orynth could not compare to this.
They had called it the City of Rivers for a reason. The pale-stoned city was built on a massive island smack in the center of several of them, the waters raging as the tributaries from the surrounding hills and mountains blended. On the island’s north end, the rivers toppled over the mouth of a mighty waterfall, its basin so huge that the mist floated into the clear day, setting the domed buildings, pearlescent spires, and blue rooftops shining. There were no boats moored to the city edges, though there were two elegant stone bridges spanning the river—heavily guarded. Fae moved across the bridges, and carts loaded with everything from vegetables to hay to wine. Somewhere, there had to be fields and farms and towns to supply them. Though she’d bet Maeve had a stronghold of goods stocked up.
“I assume you normally fly right in and don’t deign to use the bridges,” she said to Rowan, who was frowning at the city, not looking very much like a warrior about to return home. He nodded distantly. He’d fallen silent in the past day—not rude, but quiet and vague, as if he were rebuilding the wall between them. This morning, she’d awoken in their hilltop camp to find him staring at the sunrise, looking for all the world as if he’d been having a conversation with it. She hadn’t had the nerve to ask if he’d been praying to Mala Fire-Bringer, or what he would even ask of the Sun Goddess. But there had been a strangely familiar warmth wrapped around the camp, and she could have sworn that she felt her magic leap in joyous response. She didn’t let herself think about it.
Because for the past day, she, too, had been lost in herself, busy gathering her strength and clarity. She hadn’t been able to talk much, and even now, focusing on the present required an immense effort. “Well,” she said, taking an exaggerated breath and patting Goldryn’s hilt, “let’s go see our beloved aunt. I’d hate to keep her waiting.”
It took them until nightfall to reach the bridge, and Celaena was glad: there were fewer Fae to witness their arrival, even though the winding, elegant streets were now full of musicians and dancing and vendors selling hot food and drinks. There had been plenty of that in Adarlan, but here there was no empire weighing on them, no darkness or cold or despair. Maeve had not sent aid ten years ago—and while the Fae danced and drank mulled cider, Celaena’s people had been butchered and burned. She knew it wasn’t their fault, but as she headed across the city, toward the northern edge by the waterfall, she couldn’t bring herself to smile at the merriment.
She reminded herself that she had danced and drunk and done whatever she pleased while her own people had suffered for ten years, too. She was in no position to resent the Fae, or anyone except the queen who ruled over this city.
None of the guards stopped them, though she did note shadows trailing them from the rooftops and alleys, a few birds of prey circling above. Rowan didn’t acknowledge them, though she caught his teeth glinting in the golden lamplight. Apparently, the escort wasn’t making the prince too happy, either. How many of them did he know personally? How many had he fought beside, or ventured with to unmapped lands?
They saw no sign of his friends, and he made no comment about whether or not he expected to see them. Even though his gaze was straight ahead, she knew he was aware of every sentry watching them, every breath issued nearby.
She didn’t have the space left in her for doubt or fear. As they walked, she played with the ring tucked into her pocket, turning it over and over as she reminded herself of her plan and of what she needed to accomplish before she left this city. She was as much a queen as Maeve. She was the sovereign of a strong people and a mighty kingdom.
She was the heir of ash and fire, and she would bow to no one.
They were escorted through a shining palace of pale stone and sky-blue gossamer curtains, the floors a mosaic of delicate tiles depicting various scenes, from dancing maidens to pastorals to the night sky. Throughout the building, the river itself ran in tiny streams, sometimes gathering in pools freckled with night-blooming lilies. Jasmine wove around the massive columns, and lights of colored glass hung from the arched ceilings. Enough of the palace was open to the elements to suggest that the weather here was always this mild. Music played from distant rooms, but it was faint and placid compared to the riot of sound and color in the city outside the mammoth marble palace walls.
Sentries were everywhere. They lurked just out of sight, but in her Fae body she could smell them, the steel and the crisp scent of whatever soap they must use in the barracks. Not too different from the glass castle. But Maeve’s stronghold had been built from stone—so much stone, everywhere, all of it pale and carved and polished and gleaming. She knew Rowan had private quarters in this palace, and that the Whitethorn family had various residences in Doranelle, but they saw nothing of his kin. He’d told her on their journey that there were several other princes in his family, with his father’s brother ruling over them. Fortunately for Rowan, his uncle had three sons, keeping him free of responsibility, though they certainly tried to use Rowan’s position with Maeve to their advantage. As scheming and sycophantic as any royal family in Adarlan, she supposed.
After an eternity of walking in silence, Rowan led her onto a wide veranda overhanging the river. He was tense enough to suggest he was scenting and hearing things she couldn’t, but he offered no warning. The waterfall beyond the palace roared, though not loud enough to drown out conversation.
Across the veranda sat Maeve on her throne of stone.
Sprawled on either side of the throne were the twin wolves, one black and one white, monitoring their approach with cunning golden eyes. There was no one else—no smell of Rowan’s other friends lurking nearby as they crossed the tiled floor. She wished Rowan had let her freshen up in his suite, but . . . she supposed that wasn’t what this meeting was about, anyway.
Rowan kept pace with her as she stalked to the small dais before the carved railing, and when they stopped, he dropped to his knees and bowed his head. “Majesty,” he murmured.
Her aunt did not even glance at Rowan or bid him to rise. She left her nephew kneeling as she turned her violet, starry eyes to Celaena and gave her that spider’s smile.
“It would seem that you have accomplished your task, Aelin Galathynius.”
Another test—using her name to elicit a reaction.
She smiled right back at Maeve. “Indeed.”
Rowan kept his head down, eyes on the floor. Maeve could make him kneel there for a hundred years if she wished. The wolves beside the throne didn’t move an inch.
Maeve deigned a glance at Rowan and then gave Celaena that little smile again. “I will admit that I am surprised that you managed to gain his approval so swiftly. So,” Maeve said, lounging in her throne, “show me, then. A demonstration of what you have learned these months.”
Celaena clenched the ring in her pocket, not lowering her chin one millimeter. “I would prefer to first retrieve the knowledge you’re keeping to yourself.”
A feminine click of the tongue. “You don’t trust my word?”
“You can’t believe I’d give you everything you want with no proof you can deliver your side of the bargain.”
Rowan’s shoulders tensed, but his head remained down.
Maeve’s eyes narrowed slightly. “The Wyrdkeys.”
“How they can be destroyed, where they are, and what else you know of them.”
“They cannot be destroyed. They can only be put back in the gate.”
Celaena’s stomach twisted. She’d known that already, but hearing the confirmation was hard, somehow. “How can they be put back in the gate?”
“Don’t you think they would already have been restored to their home if anyone knew?”
“You said you knew about them.”
An adder’s smile. “I do know about them. I know they can be used to create, to destroy, to open portals. But I do not know how to put them back. I never learned how, and then they were taken by Brannon across the sea and I never saw them again.”
“What did they look like? What did they feel like?”
Maeve cupped her palm and looked at it, as if she could see the keys lying there. “Black and glittering, no more than slivers of stone. But they were not stone—they were like nothing on this earth, in any realm. It was like holding the living flesh of a god, like containing the breath of every being in every realm all at once. It was madness and joy and terror and despair and eternity.”
The thought of Maeve possessing all three of the keys, even for brief moment, was horrifying enough that Celaena didn’t let herself fully contemplate it. She just said, “And what else can you tell me about them?”
“That’s all I can recall, I’m afraid.” Maeve settled back in her throne.