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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.”

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.

“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?”

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.

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.


Beloved. Immortal. Blessed.


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


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.

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.

I claim you, Aelin. To what­ever end.

She might have continued to silently argue with him, but that strange, feminine warmth that she’d felt at the campsite that morning wrapped around her, as if assuring her it was all right to want this badly enough that it hurt, telling her that she could trust the prince, and more than that—­more than anything, she could trust herself. So when Rowan reached for her wrist again, she did not fight him.

“Together, Fireheart,” he said, pushing back the sleeve of her tunic. “We’ll find a way together.” He looked up from her exposed wrist. “A court that will change the world,” he promised.

And then she was nodding—­nodding and smiling, too, as he drew the dagger from his boot and offered it to her. “Say it, Aelin.”

Not daring to let her hands shake in front of Maeve or Rowan’s stunned friends, she took his dagger and held it over her exposed wrist. “Do you promise to serve in my court, Rowan Whitethorn, from now until the day you die?” She did not know the right words or the Old Language, but a blood oath ­wasn’t about pretty phrases.

“I do. Until my last breath, and the world beyond. To what­ever end.”

She would have paused then, asked him again if he really wanted to do this, but Maeve was still there, a shadow lurking behind them. That was why he had done it now, ­here—­so Celaena could not object, could not try to talk him out of it.

It was such a Rowan thing to do, so pigheaded, that she could only grin as she drew the dagger across her wrist, leaving a trail of blood in its wake. She offered her arm to him.

With surprising gentleness, he took her wrist in his hands and lowered his mouth to her skin.

For a heartbeat, something lightning-­bright snapped through her and then settled—­a thread binding them, tighter and tighter with each pull Rowan took of her blood. Three mouthfuls—­his canines pricking against her skin—­and then he lifted his head, his lips shining with her blood, his eyes glittering and alive and full of steel.

There ­were no words to do justice to what passed between them in that moment.

Maeve saved them from trying to remember how to speak as she hissed, “Now that you have insulted me further, get out. All of you.” His friends ­were gone in an instant, padding off for the shadows, taking those wretched whips with them.

Celaena helped Rowan to his feet, letting him heal the wound on her wrist as his back knitted together. Shoulder to shoulder, they looked at the Fae Queen one last time.

But there was only a white barn owl flapping off into the moonlit night.

They hurried out of Doranelle, not stopping until they found a quiet inn in a small, half-­forgotten town miles away. Rowan didn’t even dare to swing by his quarters to collect his belongings, and claimed he had nothing worthwhile to take, anyway. His friends did not come after them, did not try to bid them good-­bye as they slipped across the bridge and into the night-­veiled lands beyond. After hours of running, Celaena tumbled into bed and slept like the dead. But at dawn, she begged Rowan to retrieve his needles and ink from his pack.

She bathed while he readied what he needed, and she scrubbed herself with coarse salt in the tiny inn bathroom until her skin gleamed. Rowan said nothing as she walked back into the bedroom, hardly gave her more than a passing glance as she removed her robe, bare to the waist, and laid on her stomach on the worktable he’d ordered brought in. His needles and ink ­were already on the table, his sleeves had been rolled up to the elbows, and his hair was tied back, making the elegant, brutal lines of his tattoo all the more visible.

“Deep breath,” he said. She obeyed, resting her hands under her chin as she played with the fire, weaving her own flames among the embers. “Have you had enough water and food?”

She nodded. She’d devoured a full breakfast before getting into the bath.

“Let me know when you need to get up,” he said. He gave her the honor of not second-­guessing her decision or warning her of the oncoming pain. Instead, he brushed a steady hand down her scarred back, an artist assessing his canvas. He ran strong, callused fingers along each scar, testing, and her skin prickled.

Then he began the pro­cess of drawing the marks, the guide he would follow in the hours ahead. Over breakfast, he’d already sketched a few designs for her approval. They ­were so perfect it was as if he’d reached into her soul to find them. It hadn’t surprised her at all.

He let her use the bathing room when he’d finished with the outline, and soon she was again facedown on the table, hands under her chin. “Don’t move from now on. I’m starting.”

She gave a grunt of ac­know­ledg­ment and kept her gaze on the fire, on the embers, as the heat of his body hovered over hers. She heard his slight intake of breath, and then—

The first prick stung—­holy gods, with the salt and iron, it hurt. She clamped her teeth together, mastered it, welcomed it. That was what the salt was for with this manner of tattoo, Rowan had told her. To remind the bearer of the loss. Good—­good, was all she could think as the pain spiderwebbed through her back. Good.

And when Rowan made the next mark, she opened her mouth and began her prayers.

They ­were prayers she should have said ten years ago: an even-­keeled torrent of words in the Old Language, telling the gods of her parents’ death, her uncle’s death, Marion’s death—­four lives wiped out in those two days. With each sting of Rowan’s needle, she beseeched the faceless immortals to take the souls of her loved ones into their paradise and keep them safe. She told them of their worth—­told them of the good deeds and loving words and brave acts they’d performed. Never pausing for more than a breath, she chanted the prayers she owed them as daughter and friend and heir.

For the hours Rowan worked, his movements falling into the rhythm of her words, she chanted and sang. He did not speak, his mallet and needles the drum to her chanting, weaving their work together. He did not disgrace her by offering water when her voice turned hoarse, her throat so ravaged she had to whisper. In Terrasen she would sing from sunrise to sunset, on her knees in gravel without food or drink or rest. ­Here she would sing until the markings ­were done, the agony in her back her offering to the gods.

When it was done her back was raw and throbbing, and it took her a few attempts to rise from the table. Rowan followed her into the nearby night-­dark field, kneeling with her in the grass as she tilted her face up to the moon and sang the final song, the sacred song of her ­house­hold, the Fae lament she’d owed them for ten years.

Rowan did not utter a word while she sang, her voice broken and raw. He remained in the field with her until dawn, as permanent as the markings on her back. Three lines of text scrolled over her three largest scars, the story of her love and loss now written on her: one line for her parents and uncle; one line for Lady Marion; and one line for her court and her people.

On the smaller, shorter scars, ­were the stories of Nehemia and of Sam. Her beloved dead.

No longer would they be locked away in her heart. No longer would she be ashamed.



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