No—no, there had to be some way. She couldn’t have spent all these months in a fool’s bargain, couldn’t have been tricked that badly. But if Maeve did not know, then there were other bits of information to extract; she would not walk out of here empty-handed.
“The Valg princes—what can you tell me of them?”
For a few heartbeats, Maeve remained silent, as if contemplating the merits of answering more than she’d originally promised. Celaena wasn’t entirely sure that she wanted to know why Maeve decided in her favor as the queen said, “Ah—yes. My men informed me of their presence.” Maeve paused again, no doubt dredging up the information from some ancient corner of her memory. “There are many different races of Valg—creatures that even your darkest nightmares would flee from. They are ruled by the princes, who themselves are made of shadow and despair and hatred and have no bodies to occupy save those that they infiltrate. There aren’t many princes—but I once witnessed an entire legion of Fae warriors devoured by six of them within hours.”
A chill went down her spine, and even the wolves’ hackles rose. “But I killed them with my fire and light—”
“How do you think Brannon won himself such glory and a kingdom? He was a discarded son of nobody, unclaimed by either parent. But Mala loved him fiercely, so his flames were sometimes all that held the Valg princes at bay until we could summon a force to push them back.”
She opened to her mouth to ask the next question, but paused. Maeve wasn’t the sort to toss out random bits of information. So Celaena slowly asked, “Brannon wasn’t royal-born?”
Maeve cocked her head. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you what the mark on your brow means?”
“I was told it was a sacred mark.”
Maeve’s eyes danced with amusement. “Sacred only because of the bearer who established your kingdom. But before that, it was nothing. Brannon was born with the bastard’s mark—the mark every unclaimed, unwanted child possessed, marking them as nameless, nobody. Each of Brannon’s heirs, despite their noble lineage, has since been graced with it—the nameless mark.”
And it had burned that day she’d dueled with Cain. Burned in front of the King of Adarlan. A shudder went down her spine. “Why did it glow when I dueled Cain, and when I faced the Valg princes?” She knew Maeve was well informed about the shadow-creature that had lived inside Cain. Perhaps not a Valg prince, but something small enough to be contained by the Wyrdstone ring he’d worn instead of a collar. It had recognized Elena—and it had said to both of them, You were brought here—all of you were. All the players in the unfinished game.
“Perhaps your blood merely recognized the presence of the Valg and was trying to tell you something. Perhaps it meant nothing.”
She didn’t think so. Especially when the reek of the Valg had been in her parents’ bedroom the morning after they’d been murdered. Either the assassin had been possessed, or he’d known how to use their power to keep her parents unconscious while he slaughtered them. All bits of information to be pieced together later, when she was away from Maeve. If Maeve let her walk out of here.
“Are fire and light the only way to kill the Valg princes?”
“They are hard to kill, but not invincible,” Maeve admitted. “With the way the Adarlanian king compels them, cutting off their heads to sever the collar might do the trick. If you are to return to Adarlan, that will be the only way, I suspect.”
Because in Adarlan, magic was still locked up by the king. If she faced one of the Valg princes again, she’d have to kill it by blade and wits. “If the king is indeed summoning the Valg to his armies, what can be done to stop them?”
“The King of Adarlan, it seems, is doing what I never had the nerve to do while the keys were briefly in my possession. Without all three keys, he is limited. He can only open the portal between our worlds for short periods, long enough to let in perhaps one prince to infiltrate a body he has prepared. But with all three keys, he could open the portal at will—he could summon all the Valg armies, to be led by the princes in their mortal bodies, and . . .” Maeve looked more intrigued than horrified. “And with all three keys, he might not need to rely on magically gifted hosts for the Valg. There are countless lesser spirits amongst the Valg, hungry for entrance to this world.”
“He’d have to make countless collars for them, then.”
“He would not need to, not with all three keys. His control would be absolute. And he would not need living hosts—only bodies.”
Celaena’s heart stumbled a beat, and Rowan tensed from his spot on the ground. “He could have an army of the dead, inhabited by the Valg.”
“An army that does not need to eat or sleep or breathe—an army that will sweep like a plague across your continent, and others. Maybe other worlds, too.”
But he would need all three keys for it. Her chest tightened, and though they were in the open air, the palace, the river, the stars seemed to push in on her. There would be no army that she could raise to stop them, and without magic . . . they were doomed. She was doomed. She was—
A calming warmth wrapped around her, as if someone had pulled her into an embrace. Feminine, joyous, infinitely powerful. This doom has not yet come to pass, it seemed to whisper in her ear. There is still time. Do not succumb to fear yet.
Maeve was watching her with a feline interest, and Celaena wondered what it was that the dark queen beheld—if she, too, could sense that ancient, nurturing presence. But Celaena was warm again, the panic gone, and though the feeling of being held disappeared, she still could have sworn the presence lingered nearby. There was time—the king still did not have the third key.
Brannon—he had possessed all three, yet had chosen to hide them, rather than put them back. And somehow, suddenly, that became the greatest question of all: why?
“As for the locations of the three keys,” Maeve said, “I do not know where they are. They were brought across the sea, and I have not heard of them again until these past ten years. It would seem that the king has at least one, probably two. The third, however . . .” She looked her up and down, but Celaena refused to flinch. “You have some inkling of its whereabouts, don’t you?”
She opened her mouth, but Maeve’s fingers clenched the arm of her throne—just enough to make Celaena glance at the stone. So much stone here—in this palace and in the city. And that word Maeve had used earlier, taken . . .
“Don’t you?” Maeve pressed.
Stone—and not a sign of wood, save for plants and furniture . . .
“No, I don’t,” said Celaena.
Maeve cocked her head. “Rowan, rise and tell me the truth.”
His hands clenched, but he stood, his eyes on his queen as he swallowed. Twice. “She found a riddle, and she knows the King of Adarlan has at least the first key, but doesn’t know where he keeps it. She also learned what Brannon did with the third—and where it is. She refused to tell me.” There was a glimmer of horror in his eyes, and his fists were trembling, as if some invisible force had compelled him to say it. The wolves only watched.
Maeve tutted. “Keeping secrets, Aelin? From your aunt?”
“Not for all the world would I tell you where the third key is.”
“Oh, I know,” Maeve purred. She snapped her fingers, and the wolves rose to their feet, shifting in flashes of light into the most beautiful men she’d ever beheld. Warriors from the size of them, from the lethal grace with which they moved; one light and one dark, but stunning—perfect.
Celaena went for Goldryn, but the twins went for Rowan, who did nothing, didn’t even struggle as they gripped his arms, forcing him again to his knees. Two others emerged from the shadows behind them. Gavriel, his tawny eyes carefully empty, and Lorcan, face stone-cold. And in their hands . . .
At the sight of the iron-tipped whip each bore, Celaena forgot to breathe. Lorcan didn’t hesitate as he ripped Rowan’s jacket and tunic and shirt from him.
“Until she answers me,” Maeve said, as if she had just ordered a cup of tea.
Lorcan unfurled the whip, the iron tip clinking against the stones, and drew back his arm. There was nothing merciful on his rugged face, no glimmer of feeling for the friend on his knees.
“Please,” Celaena whispered. There was a crack, and the world fragmented as Rowan bowed when the whip sliced into his back. He gritted his teeth, hissing, but did not cry out.
“Please,” Celaena said. Gavriel sent his whip flying so fast Rowan had only a breath to recover. There was no remorse on Gavriel’s lovely face, no sign of the male she’d thanked weeks ago.
Across the veranda, Maeve said, “How long this lasts depends entirely on you, niece.”
Celaena did not dare drag her gaze away from Rowan, who took the whipping as if he had done this before—as if he knew how to pace himself and how much pain to expect. His friends’ eyes were dead, as if they, too, had given and received this manner of punishment.
Maeve had harmed Rowan before. How many of his scars had she given him? “Stop it,” Celaena growled.
“Not for all the world, Aelin? But what about for Prince Rowan?”
Another strike, and blood was on the stones. And the sound—that sound of the whip . . . the sound that echoed in her nightmares, the sound that made her blood run cold . . .
“Tell me where the third Wyrdkey is, Aelin.”
Crack. Rowan jerked against the twins’ iron grip. Was this why he had been praying to Mala that morning? Because he knew what to expect from Maeve?
She opened her mouth, but Rowan lifted his head, teeth bared, his face savage with pain and rage. He knew she could read the word in his eyes, but he still said, “Don’t.”
It was that word of defiance that broke the hold she’d kept on herself for the past day, the damper she’d put on her power as she secretly spiraled down to the core of her magic, pulling up as much as she could gather.
The heat spread from her, warming the stones so swiftly that Rowan’s blood turned to red steam. His companions swore and near-invisible shields rippled around them and their sovereign.
She knew the gold in her eyes had shifted to flame, because when she looked to Maeve, the queen’s face had gone bone-white.
And then Celaena set the world on fire.
Maeve was not burning, and neither were Rowan or his friends, whose shields Celaena tore through with half a thought. But the river was steaming around them, and shouting arose from the palace, from the city, as a flame that did not burn or hurt enveloped everything. The entire island was wreathed in wildfire.
Maeve was standing now, stalking off the dais. Celaena let a little more heat seep through her hold on the flame, warming Maeve’s skin as she moved to meet her aunt. Wide-eyed, Rowan hung from his friends’ arms, his blood fizzing on the stones.
“You wanted a demonstration,” Celaena said quietly. Sweat trickled down her back, but she gripped the magic with everything she had. “One thought from me, and your city will burn.”
“It is stone,” Maeve snapped.
Celaena smiled. “Your people aren’t.”
Maeve’s nostrils flared delicately. “Would you murder innocents, Aelin? Perhaps. You did it for years, didn’t you?”
Celaena’s smile didn’t falter. “Try me. Just try to push me, Aunt, and see what comes of it. This was what you wanted, wasn’t it? Not for me to master my magic, but for you to learn just how powerful I am. Not how much of your sister’s blood flows in my veins—no, you’ve known from the start that I have very little of Mab’s power. You wanted to know how much I got from Brannon.”