The flames ­rose higher, and the shouts—­of fright, not pain—­rose with them. The flames would not hurt anyone unless she willed it. She could sense other magics fighting against her own, tearing holes into her power, but the conflagration surrounding the veranda burned strong.

“You never gave the keys to Brannon. And you didn’t journey with Brannon and Athril to retrieve the keys from the Valg,” Celaena went on, a crown of fire wreathing her head. “You went to steal them for yourself. You wanted to keep them. Once Brannon and Athril realized that, they fought you. And Athril . . .” Celaena drew Goldryn, its hilt glowing bloodred. “Your beloved Athril, dearest friend of Brannon . . . when Athril fought you, you killed him. You, not the Valg. And in your grief and shame, you ­were weakened enough that Brannon took the keys from you. It ­wasn’t some enemy force who sacked the Sun Goddess’s temple. It was Brannon. He burned any last trace of himself, any clue of where he was going so you would not find him. He left only Athril’s sword to honor his friend—­in the cave where Athril had first carved out the eye of that poor lake creature—­and never told you. After Brannon left these shores, you did not dare follow him, not when he had the keys, not when his magic—my magic—­was so strong.”

It was why Brannon had hidden the Wyrdkey in his ­house­hold’s heirloom—­to give them that extra ounce of power. Not against ordinary enemies, but in case Maeve ever came for them. Perhaps he had not put the keys back in the gate because he wanted to be able to call upon their power should Maeve ever decide to install herself as mistress of all lands.

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“That was why you abandoned your land in the foothills and left it to rot. That was why you built a city of stone surrounded by water: so Brannon’s heirs could not return and roast you alive. That was why you wanted to see me, why you bargained with my mother. You wanted to know what manner of threat I would pose. What would happen when Brannon’s blood mixed with Mab’s line.” Celaena opened her arms wide, Goldryn burning bright in one hand. “Behold my power, Maeve. Behold what I grapple with in the deep dark, what prowls under my skin.”

Celaena exhaled a breath and extinguished each and every flame in the city.

The power ­wasn’t in might or skill. It was in the control—­the power lay in controlling herself. She’d known all along how vast and deadly her fire was, and a few months ago, she would have killed and sacrificed and slaughtered anyone and anything to fulfill her vow. But that hadn’t been strength—­it had been the rage and grief of a broken, crumbling person. She understood now what her mother had meant when she had patted her heart that night she’d given her the amulet.

As every light went out in Doranelle, plunging the world into darkness, Celaena stalked over to Rowan. One look and a flash of her teeth had the twins releasing him. Their bloodied whips still in hand, Gavriel and Lorcan made no move toward her as Rowan sagged against her, murmuring her name.

Lights kindled. Maeve remained where she stood, dress soot-­stained, face shining with sweat. “Rowan, come ­here.” Rowan stiffened, grunting with pain, but staggered to the dais, blood trickling from the hideous wounds on his back. Bile stung Celaena’s throat, but she kept her eyes on the queen. Maeve barely gave Celaena a glance as she seethed, “Give me that sword and get out.” She extended a hand toward Goldryn.

Celaena shook her head. “I don’t think so. Brannon left it in that cave for anyone but you to find. And so it is mine, through blood and fire and darkness.” She sheathed Goldryn at her side. “Not very pleasant when someone ­doesn’t give you what you want, is it?”

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Rowan was just standing there, his face a mask of calm despite his wounds, but his eyes—­was it sorrow there? His friends ­were silently watching, ready to attack should Maeve give the word. Let them try.

Maeve’s lips thinned. “You will pay for this.”

But Celaena stalked to Maeve again, took her hand, and said, “Oh, I don’t think I will.” She threw her mind open to the queen.

Well, part of her mind—­the vision Narrok had given her as she burned him. He had known. Somehow he had seen the potential, as if he’d figured it out while the Valg princes sorted through her memories. It was not a future ­etched in stone, but she did not let her aunt know that. She yielded the memory as if it ­were truth, as if it ­were a plan.

The deafening crowd echoed through the pale stone corridors of the royal castle of Orynth. They ­were chanting her name, almost wailing it. Aelin. A two-­beat pulse that sounded through each step she made up the darkened stairwell. Goldryn was heavy at her back, its ruby smoldering in the light of the sun trickling from the landing above. Her tunic was beautiful yet simple, though her steel gauntlets—­armed with hidden blades—­were as ornate as they ­were deadly.

She reached the landing and stalked down it, past the towering, muscled warriors who lurked in the shadows just beyond the open archway. Not just warriors—her warriors. Her court. Aedion was there, and a few others whose faces ­were obscured by shadow, but their teeth gleamed faintly as they gave her feral grins. A court to change the world.

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The chanting increased, and the amulet bounced between her br**sts with each step. She kept her eyes ahead, a half smile on her face as she emerged at last onto the balcony and the cries grew frantic, as overpowering as the frenzied crowd outside the palace, in the streets, thousands gathered and chanting her name. In the courtyard, young priestesses of Mala danced to each pulse of her name, worshipping, fanatic.

With this power—­with the keys she’d attained—­what she had created for them, the armies she had made to drive out their enemies, the crops she had grown, the shadows she had chased away . . . these things ­were nothing short of a miracle. She was more than human, more than queen.

Aelin.

Beloved. Immortal. Blessed.

Aelin.

Aelin of the Wildfire. Aelin Fireheart. Aelin Light-­Bringer.

Aelin.

She raised her arms, tipping back her head to the sunlight, and their cries made the entirety of the White Palace tremble. On her brow, a mark—­the sacred mark of Brannon’s line—­glowed blue. She smiled at the crowd, at her people, at her world, so ripe for the taking.

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Celaena pulled back from Maeve. The queen’s face was pale.

Maeve had bought the lie. She did not see that the vision had been given to Celaena not to taunt her but as a warning—­of what she might become if she did indeed find the keys and keep them. A gift from the man Narrok had once been.

“I suggest,” Celaena said to the Fae Queen, “that you think very, very carefully before threatening me or my own, or hurting Rowan again.”

“Rowan belongs to me,” Maeve hissed. “I can do what I wish with him.”

Celaena looked at the prince, who was standing so stalwart, his eyes dull with pain. Not from the wounds on his back, but from the parting that had been creeping up on them with each step that took them closer to Doranelle.

Slowly, carefully, Celaena pulled the ring from her pocket.

It was not Chaol’s ring that she had been clutching these past few days.

It was the simple golden ring that had been left in Goldryn’s scabbard. She had kept it safe all these weeks, asking Emrys to tell story after story about Maeve as she carefully pieced together the truth about her aunt, just for this very moment, for this very task.

Maeve went as still as death while Celaena lifted the ring between two fingers.

“I think you’ve been looking for this for a long time,” Celaena said.

“That does not belong to you.”

“Doesn’t it? I found it, after all. In Goldryn’s scabbard, where Brannon left it after grabbing it off Athril’s corpse—­the family ring Athril would have given you someday. And in the thousands of years since then, you never found it, so . . . I suppose it’s mine by chance.” Celaena closed her fist around the ring. “But who would have thought you ­were so sentimental?”

Maeve’s lips thinned. “Give it to me.”

Celaena barked out a laugh. “I don’t have to give you a damn thing.” Her smile faded. Beside Maeve’s throne, Rowan’s face was unreadable as he turned toward the waterfall.

All of it—­all of it for him. For Rowan, who had known exactly what sword he was picking up that day in the mountain cave, who had thrown it to her across the ice as a future bargaining chip—­the only protection he could offer her against Maeve, if she was smart enough to figure it out.

She had only realized what he’d done—­that he’d known all along—­when she’d mentioned the ring to him weeks ago and he’d told her he hoped she found some use for it. He didn’t yet understand that she had no interest in bargaining for power or safety or alliance.

So Celaena said, “I’ll make a trade with you, though.” Maeve’s brows narrowed. Celaena jerked her chin. “Your beloved’s ring—­for Rowan’s freedom from his blood oath.”

Rowan stiffened. His friends whipped their heads to her.

“A blood oath is eternal,” Maeve said tightly. Celaena didn’t think his friends ­were breathing.

“I don’t care. Free him.” Celaena held out the ring again. “Your choice. Free him, or I melt this right ­here.”

Such a gamble; so many weeks of scheming and planning and secretly hoping. Even now, Rowan did not turn.

Maeve’s eyes remained on the ring. And Celaena understood why—­it was why she’d dared try it. After a long silence, Maeve’s dress rustled as she straightened, her face pale and tight. “Very well. I’ve grown rather bored of his company these past few decades, anyway.”

Rowan faced her—­slowly, as if he didn’t quite believe what he was hearing. It was Celaena’s gaze, not Maeve’s, that he met, his eyes shining.

“By my blood that flows in you,” Maeve said. “Through no dishonor, through no act of treachery, I hereby free you, Rowan Whitethorn, of your blood oath to me.”

Rowan just stared and stared at her, and Celaena hardly heard the rest, the words Maeve spoke in the Old Language. But Rowan took out a dagger and spilled his own blood on the stones—­whatever that meant. She had never heard of a blood oath being broken before, but had risked it regardless. Perhaps not in all the history of the world had one ever been broken honorably. His friends ­were wide-­eyed and silent.

Maeve said, “You are free of me, Prince Rowan Whitethorn.”

That was all Celaena needed to hear before she tossed the ring to Maeve, before Rowan rushed to her, his hands on her cheeks, his brow against her own.

“Aelin,” he murmured, and it ­wasn’t a reprimand, or a thank-­you, but . . . a prayer. “Aelin,” he whispered again, grinning, and kissed her brow before he dropped to both knees before her.

And when he reached for her wrist, she jerked back. “You’re free. You’re free now.”

Behind them, Maeve watched, brows high. But Celaena could not accept this—­could not agree to it.

Complete and utter submission, that’s what a blood oath was. He would yield everything to her—­his life, any property, any free will.

Rowan’s face was calm, though—­steady, assured. Trust me.

I don’t want you enslaved to me. I won’t be that kind of queen.

You have no court—­you are defenseless, landless, and without allies. She might let you walk out of ­here today, but she could come after you tomorrow. She knows how powerful I am—­how powerful we are together. It will make her hesitate.

Please don’t do this—­I will give you anything ­else you ask, but not this.

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