“I have kept my vow to you.”
“Did I or did I not tell you to execute Lorcan on sight?”
“There were … circumstances that prevented it from happening. We tried.”
“Yet you failed. Am I not supposed to discipline my blood-bonded who fail me?”
Gavriel lowered his head. “Of course—we will accept it. And I will also take on the punishment you intended for Aelin Galathynius.”
Aelin lifted her head slightly, glazed eyes going wide. She tried to speak, but the words had been broken from her, her voice blown out from screaming. Elide knew the word the queen mouthed. No.
Not for her. Elide wondered if Gavriel’s sacrifice was not only for Aelin’s sake. But for Aedion’s. So the son would not have to bear the pain of his queen being hurt—
“Aelin Galathynius,” Maeve mused. “So much talk about Aelin Galathynius. The Queen Who Was Promised. Well, Gavriel”—a vicious smile—“if you’re so invested in her court, why don’t you join it?”
Fenrys tensed, preparing to lunge in front of the dark power for his friend.
But Maeve said, “I sever the blood oath with you, Gavriel. Without honor, without good faith. You are dismissed from my service and stripped of your title.”
“You bitch,” Fenrys snapped as Gavriel’s breathing turned shallow.
“Majesty, please—” Gavriel hissed, clapping a hand over his arm as invisible claws raked two lines down his skin, drawing blood that spilled into the grass. A similar mark appeared on Maeve’s arm, her blood spilling.
“It is done,” she said simply. “Let the world know you, a male of honor, have none. That you betrayed your queen for another, for a bastard get of yours.”
Gavriel stumbled back—then collapsed in the sand, a hand shoved against his chest. Fenrys snarled, his face more lupine than Fae, but Maeve laughed softly. “Oh, you’d like for me to do the same, wouldn’t you, Fenrys? But what greater punishment for the one who is a traitor to me in his very soul than to serve me forever?”
Fenrys hissed, his breath coming in ragged gulps, and Elide wondered if he’d leap upon the queen and try to kill her.
But Maeve turned to Aelin and said, “Get up.”
Aelin tried. Her body failed her.
Maeve clicked her tongue, and an invisible hand hauled Aelin to her feet. Pain-fogged eyes cleared, then filled with cold rage as Aelin took in the approaching queen.
An assassin, Elide reminded herself. Aelin was an assassin, and if Maeve got close enough …
But Maeve didn’t. And those invisible hands cut the tethers on Aelin’s sword belts. Goldryn thunked to the ground. Then daggers slid from their sheaths.
“So many weapons,” Maeve contemplated as the invisible hands disarmed Aelin with brutal efficiency. Even blades hidden beneath clothes found their way out—slicing as they went. Blood bloomed beneath Aelin’s shirt and pants. Why did she stand there—
Gathering her strength. For one last strike. One last stand.
Let the queen believe her broken. “Why?” Aelin rasped. Buying herself time.
Maeve toed a fallen dagger, the blade edged with Aelin’s blood. “Why bother with you at all? Because I can’t very well let you sacrifice yourself to forge a new Lock, can I? Not when you already have what I want. And I have known for a very, very long time that you would give me what I seek, Aelin Galathynius, and have taken the steps toward ensuring that.”
Aelin breathed, “What?”
Maeve said, “Haven’t you figured it out? Why I wanted your mother to bring you to me, why I demanded such things of you this spring?”
None of them dared move.
Maeve snorted, a delicate, feminine sound of triumph. “Brannon stole the keys from me, after I took them from the Valg. They were mine, and he snatched them. And then he mated with that goddess of yours, breeding the fire into the bloodline, ensuring I would think hard before touching his land, his heirs. But all bloodlines fade. And I knew a time would come when Brannon’s flames would dim to a flicker, and I’d be poised to strike.”
Aelin sagged against the hands that held her up.
“But in my dark power, I saw a glimmer of the future. I saw that Mala’s power would surge again. And that you would lead me to the keys. Only you—the one Brannon left clues for, the one who could find all three. And I saw who you were, what you were. I saw who you loved. I saw your mate.”
The sea breeze hissing through the grasses was the only sound.
“What a powerhouse you two would be—you and Prince Rowan. And any offspring of that union …” A vicious smirk. “You and Rowan could rule this continent if you wished. But your children … your children would be powerful enough to rule an empire that could sweep the world.”
Aelin closed her eyes. The Fae males were shaking their heads slowly—not believing it.
“I didn’t know when you would be born, but when Prince Rowan Whitethorn came into this world, when he came of age and was the strongest purebred Fae male in my realm … you were still not there. And I knew what I would have to do. To leash you. To break you to my will, to hand over those keys without thought once you were strong and trained enough to acquire them.”
Aelin’s shoulders shook. Tears slid out past her closed eyes.
“It was so easy to tug on the right psychic thread that day Rowan saw Lyria at the market. To shove him down that other path, to trick those instincts. A slight altering of fate.”
“Oh, gods,” Fenrys breathed.
Maeve said, “So your mate was given to another. And I let him fall in love, let him get her with child. And then I broke him. No one ever asked how those enemy forces came to pass by his mountain home.”
Aelin’s knees gave out completely. Only the invisible hands kept her upright as she wept.
“He took the blood oath without question. And I knew that whenever you were born, whenever you’d come of age … I’d ensure that your paths crossed, and you’d take one look at each other and I’d have you by the throat. Anything I asked for, you’d give to me. Even the keys. For your mate, you could do no less. You almost did that day in Doranelle.”
Slowly, Aelin slid her feet under herself again, the movement so pained that Elide cringed. But Aelin lifted her head, lip curling back from her teeth.
“I will kill you,” Aelin snarled at the Fae Queen.
“That’s what you said to Rowan after you met him, wasn’t it?” Maeve’s faint smile lingered. “I’d pushed and pushed your mother to bring you to me, so you could meet him, so I could have you at last when Rowan felt the bond, but she refused. And we know how well that turned out for her. And during those ten years afterward, I knew you were alive. Somewhere. But when you came to me … when you and your mate looked at each other with only hate in your eyes … I’ll admit I did not anticipate it. That I had broken Rowan Whitethorn so thoroughly that he did not recognize his own mate—that you were so broken by your own pain you didn’t notice, either. And when the signs appeared, the carranam bond washed away any suspicion on his part that you might be his. But not you. How long has it been, Aelin, since you realized he was your mate?”
Aelin said nothing, her eyes churning with rage and grief and despair.
Elide whispered, “Leave her alone.” Lorcan’s grip on her tightened in warning.
Maeve ignored her. “Well? When did you know?”
“At Temis’s temple,” Aelin admitted, glancing to Manon. “The moment the arrow went through his shoulder. Months ago.”
“And you’ve hidden it from him, no doubt to save him from any guilt regarding Lyria, any sort of emotional distress …” Maeve clicked her tongue. “What a noble little liar you are.”
Aelin stared at nothing, her eyes going blank.
“I had planned for him to be here,” Maeve said, frowning at the horizon. “Since letting you two go that day in Doranelle was so that you could lead me to the keys again. I even let you think you’d gotten away with it, by freeing him. You had no idea that I unleashed you. But if he’s not here … I’ll have to make do.”
Aelin stiffened. Fenrys snarled in warning.
Maeve shrugged. “If it’s any consolation, Aelin, you would have had a thousand years with Prince Rowan. Longer.”
The world slowed, and Elide could hear her own blood roaring in her ears as Maeve said, “My sister Mab’s line ran true. The full powers, shifting abilities, and the immortality of the Fae. You’re likely about five years away from Settling.”
Aelin’s face crumpled. This was not a draining of magic and physical strength, but of spirit.
“Perhaps we’ll celebrate your Settling together,” Maeve mused, “since I certainly have no plans to waste you on that Lock. To waste the keys, when they are meant to be wielded, Aelin.”
“Maeve, please,” Fenrys breathed.
Maeve examined her immaculate nails. “What I find to be truly amusing is that it seems I didn’t even need you to be Rowan’s mate. Or really need to break him at all. A fascinating experiment in my own powers, if anything. But since I doubt you’ll still go willingly, not at least without trying to die on me first, I’ll let you have a choice.”
Aelin seemed to be bracing herself as Maeve lifted a hand and said, “Cairn.”
The males went rigid. Lorcan turned near-feral behind Elide, subtly trying to drag her back, to work around the order he’d been given.
A handsome, brown-haired warrior walked toward them from the cluster of escorts. Handsome, if it weren’t for the sadistic cruelty singing in his blue eyes. If it wasn’t for the blades at his sides, the whip curled along one hip, the sneering smile. She’d seen that smile before—on Vernon’s face. On so many faces at Morath.
“Allow me to introduce the newest member of my cadre, as you like to call them. Cairn, meet Aelin Galathynius.”
Cairn stepped up to his queen’s side. And the look the male gave Elide’s queen made her stomach turn over. Sadist—yes, that was the word for him, without him even saying one himself.
“Cairn,” Maeve said, “is trained in abilities that you have in common. Of course, you only had a few years to learn the art of torment, but … perhaps Cairn can teach you some of the things he’s learned in his centuries of practicing.”
Fenrys was pale with rage. “Maeve, I beg you—”
Darkness slammed into Fenrys, shoving him to his knees, forcing his head to the dirt. “That is enough,” Maeve hissed.
Maeve was smiling again when she turned back to Aelin. “I said you have a choice. And you do. Either you come willingly with me and get acquainted with Cairn, or …”
Those eyes slid to Lorcan. To Elide.
And Elide’s heart stopped as Maeve said, “Or I still take you—and bring Elide Lochan with us. I’m certain she and Cairn will get along wonderfully.”
Aelin’s body hurt.
Everything hurt. Her blood, her breath, her bones.
There was no magic left. Nothing left to save her.
“No,” Lorcan said softly.
Just turning her head sparked agony down her spine. But Aelin looked at Elide, at Lorcan forced to hold her, his face white with pure terror as he glanced between Cairn and Maeve and Elide. Manon was doing the same—sizing up the odds, how fast she’d have to be to clear the area.
Good. Good—Manon would get Elide out. The witch had been waiting for Aelin to make a move, not realizing that … she had nothing left. There was no power left for a final strike.
And that dark power was still coiled around her bones, so tightly that one move of aggression … one move, and her bones would snap.
Maeve said to Lorcan, “No to what, Lorcan? Elide Lochan being taken with us if Aelin decides to put up a fight, or my generous offer to leave Elide be if Her Majesty comes willingly?”
One look at the brown-haired Fae warrior—Cairn—standing at Maeve’s side, and Aelin had known what he was. She’d killed enough of them over the years. She’d spent time with Rourke Farran. What he’d do to Elide … Lorcan also knew what a male like Cairn would do to a young woman. And if he was sanctioned by Maeve herself …