Perhaps this was hell.
The blackness was rippling now, shifting with sound and color that she passed through. She lived through each image, each memory worse than the next. Chaol’s face as he saw what she truly was; Nehemia’s mutilated body; her final conversation with her friend, the damning things she’d said. When your people are lying dead around you, don’t come crying to me.
It had come true—now thousands of slaves from Eyllwe had been slaughtered for their bravery.
She tumbled through a maelstrom of the moments when she had proved her friend right. She was a waste of space and breath, a stain on the world. Unworthy of her birthright.
This was hell—and looked like hell, as she saw the bloodbath she’d created on the day she rampaged through Endovier. The screams of the dying—the men she’d cut apart—tore at her like phantom hands.
This was what she deserved.
She went mad during that first day in Endovier.
Went mad as the descent slowed and she was stripped and strapped between two blood-splattered posts. The cold air nipped at her bare breasts, a bite that was nothing compared to the terror and agony as a whip cracked and—
She jerked against the ropes binding her. She scarcely had time to draw in a breath before the crack sounded again, cleaving the world like lightning, cleaving her skin.
“Coward,” Nehemia said behind her, and the whip cracked. “Coward.” The pain was blinding. “Look at me.” She couldn’t lift her head, though. Couldn’t turn. “Look at me.”
She sagged against her ropes, but managed to look over her shoulder.
Nehemia was whole, beautiful and untouched, her eyes full of damning hatred. And then from behind her emerged Sam, handsome and tall. His death had been so similar to Nehemia’s, and yet so much worse, drawn out over hours. She had not saved him, either. When she beheld the iron-tipped whip in his hands, when he stepped past Nehemia and let the whip unfurl onto the rocky earth, Celaena let out a low, quiet laugh.
She welcomed the pain with open arms as he took a deep breath, clothes shifting with the movement as he snapped the whip. The iron tip—oh gods, it ripped her clean open, knocked her legs out from underneath her.
“Again,” Celaena told him, the word little more than a rasp. “Again.”
Sam obeyed. There was only the thud of leather on wet flesh as Sam and Nehemia took turns, and a line of people formed behind them, waiting for what they deserved as payment for what she had failed to do.
Such a long line of people. So many lives that she had taken or failed to protect.
She had not walked past the barrier expecting to defeat the Valg princes.
She had walked out there for the same reason she had snapped that day in Endovier.
But the Valg princes had not killed her yet.
She had felt their pleasure as she begged for the whipping. It was their sustenance. Her mortal flesh was nothing to them—it was the agony within that was the prize. They would draw this out forever, keep her as their pet.
There was no one to save her, no one who could enter their darkness and live.
One by one, they groped through her memories. She fed them, gave them everything they wanted and more. Back and back, sorting through the years as they plunged into the dark, twining together. She did not care.
She had not looked into the Valg prince’s eyes expecting to ever again see sunrise.
She did not know how long she fell with them.
But then there was a rushing, roaring below—a frozen river. Whispers and foggy light were rising to meet them. No, not rising—this was the bottom.
An end to the abyss. And an end to her, perhaps, at last.
She didn’t know if the Valg princes’ hissing was from anger or pleasure as they slammed into that frozen river at the bottom of her soul.
Trumpets announced his arrival. Trumpets and silence as the people of Orynth crowded the steep streets winding up to the white palace that watched over them all. It was the first sunny day in weeks—the snow on the cobblestone streets melting quickly, though the wind still had a final bite of winter to it, enough so that the King of Adarlan and his entire massive party were bundled in furs that covered their regalia.
Their gold and crimson flags, however, flapped in the crisp wind, the golden poles shining as brightly as the armor of their bearers, who trotted at the head of the party. She watched them approach from one of the balconies off the throne room, Aedion at her side running a constant commentary about the state of their horses, armor, weapons—about the King of Adarlan himself, who rode near the front on a great black warhorse. There was a pony beside him, bearing a smaller figure. “His sniveling son,” Aedion told her.
The whole castle was miserably quiet. Everyone was dashing around, but silently, tensely. Her father had been on edge at breakfast, her mother distracted, the whole court snarly and wearing far more weapons than usual. Only her uncle seemed the same—only Orlon had smiled at her today, said she looked very pretty in her blue dress and golden crown, and tugged one of her freshly pressed curls. No one had told her anything about this visit, but she knew it was important, because even Aedion was wearing clean clothes, a crown, and a new dagger, which he’d taken to tossing in the air.
“Aedion, Aelin,” someone hissed from inside the throne room—Lady Marion, her mother’s dearest friend and handmaiden. “On the dais, now.” Behind the lovely lady peeked a night-black head of hair and onyx eyes—Elide, her daughter. The girl was too quiet and breakable for her to bother with usually. And Lady Marion, her nursemaid, coddled her own daughter endlessly.
“Rat’s balls,” Aedion cursed, and Marion went red with anger, but did not reprimand. Proof enough that today was different—dangerous, even.
Her stomach shifted. But she followed Lady Marion inside, Aedion at her heels as always, and preched on her little throne set beside her father’s. Aedion took up his place flanking her, shoulders back and head high, already her protector and warrior.
The whole of Orynth was silent as the King of Adarlan entered their mountain home.
She hated the King of Adarlan.
He did not smile—not when he stalked into the throne room to greet her uncle and parents, not when he introduced his eldest son, Crown Prince Dorian Havilliard, and not when they came to the great hall for the largest feast she’d ever seen. He’d only looked at her twice so far: once during that initial meeting, when he’d stared at her long and hard enough that her father had demanded to know what he found so interesting about his daughter, and their whole court had tensed. But she hadn’t broken his dark stare. She hated his scarred, brutish face and furs. Hated the way he ignored his dark-haired son, who stood like a pretty doll beside him, his manners so elegant and graceful, his pale hands like little birds as they moved.