Chaol spotted his two guards, plus half a dozen others, playing cards, women in their laps, grinning like fiends. Until they saw him.
They were still groveling as Chaol sent them packing—back to the castle, where he would deal with them tomorrow. He couldn’t decide whether they deserved to lose their positions, since Aedion had lied, and he didn’t like making choices like that unless he’d slept on them first. So out they went, into the freezing night. And then Chaol began the process of hunting down the general.
But no one knew where he was. First, someone sent Chaol upstairs, to one of the tavern’s bedrooms. Where he indeed found the two women someone said Aedion had slipped away with—but another man was between them. Chaol only demanded where the general had gone. The women said they’d seen him playing dice in the cellar with some masked, high-ranking nobles. So Chaol stormed down there. And indeed, there were the masked, high-ranking nobles. They were pretending to be mere revelers, but Chaol recognized them anyway, even if he didn’t call them out by name. They insisted Aedion was last seen playing the fiddle in the main room.
So Chaol went back upstairs. Aedion was certainly not playing the fiddle. Or the drum, or the lute or the pipes. In fact, it seemed that Aedion Ashryver wasn’t even at his own party.
A courtesan prowled up to him to sell her wares, and would have walked away at his snarl had Chaol not offered her a silver coin for information about the general. She’d seen him leave an hour ago—on the arm of one of her rivals. Headed off to a more private location, but she didn’t know where. If Aedion was no longer here, then . . . Chaol went back to the castle.
But he did hear one more bit of information. The Bane would arrive soon, people said, and when the legion descended on the city, they planned to show Rifthold a whole new level of debauchery. All of Chaol’s guards were invited, apparently.
It was the last thing he wanted or needed—an entire legion of lethal warriors wreaking havoc on Rifthold and distracting his men. If that happened, the king might look too closely at Chaol—or ask where he sometimes disappeared to.
So he needed to have more than just words with Aedion. He needed to find something to use against him so Aedion would agree not to throw these parties and swear to keep his Bane under control. Tomorrow night, he’d go to whatever party Aedion threw.
And see what leverage he could find.
Freezing and aching from shivering all night, Celaena awoke before dawn in her miserable little room and found an ivory tin sitting outside the door. It was filled with a salve that smelled of mint and rosemary, and beneath it was a note written in tight, concise letters.
You deserved it. Maeve sends her wishes for a speedy recovery.
Snorting at the lecture Rowan must have received, and how it must have ruffled his feathers to bring her the gift, Celaena smeared the salve onto her still-swollen lip. A glance in the speckled shard of mirror above the dresser revealed that she had seen better days. And was never drinking wine or eating teggya again. Or going more than a day without a bath.
Apparently Rowan agreed, because he’d also left a few pitchers of water, some soap, and a new set of clothes: white underthings, a loose shirt, and a pale-gray surcoat and cloak similar to what he had worn the day before. Though simple, the fabric was thick and of good quality.
Celaena washed as best she could, shaking with the cold leaking in from the misty forest beyond. Suddenly homesick for the giant bathing pool at the palace, she quickly dried and slid into the clothes, thankful for the layers.
Her teeth wouldn’t stop chattering. Hadn’t stopped chattering all night, actually. Having wet hair now didn’t help, even after she braided it back. She stuffed her feet into the knee-high leather boots and tied the thick red sash around her waist as tightly as she could manage without losing the ability to move, hoping to give herself some shape, but . . .
Celaena scowled at the mirror. She’d lost weight—enough so that her face looked about as hollow as she felt. Even her hair had become rather dull and limp. The salve had already taken down the swelling in her lip, but not the color. At least she was clean again. If frozen to her core. And—completely overdressed for kitchen duty. Sighing, she unwrapped her sash and shrugged off the overcoat, tossing them onto the bed. Gods, her hands were so cold that the ring on her finger was slipping and sliding about. She knew it was a mistake, but she looked at it anyway, the amethyst dark in the early morning light.
What would Chaol make of all this? She was here, after all, because of him. Not just here in this physical place, but here inside this endless exhaustion, the near-constant ache in her chest. It was not his fault that Nehemia died, not when the princess had orchestrated everything. Yet he had kept information from her. He had chosen the king. Even though he’d claimed he loved her, he still loyally served that monster. Maybe she had been a fool for letting him in, for dreaming of a world where she could ignore the fact that he was captain to the man who had shattered her life again and again.
The pain in her chest sharpened enough that breathing became difficult. She stood there for a moment, pushing back against it, letting it sink into the fog that smothered her soul, and then trudged out the door.
The one benefit to scullery duty was that the kitchen was warm. Hot, even. The great brick oven and hearth were blazing, chasing away the morning mist that slithered in from the trees beyond the bay of windows above the copper sinks. There were only two other people in the kitchen—a hunched old man tending to the bubbling pots on the hearth and a youth at the wooden table that split the kitchen in half, chopping onions and monitoring what smelled like bread. By the Wyrd, she was hungry. That bread smelled divine. And what was in those pots?
Despite the absurdly early hour, the young man’s merry prattling had echoed off the stones of the stairwell, but he’d fallen silent, both men stopping their work, when Rowan strode down the steps into the kitchen. The Fae prince had been waiting for her down the hall, arms crossed, already bored. But his animal-bright eyes had narrowed slightly, as if he’d been half hoping she would oversleep and give him an excuse to punish her. As an immortal, he probably had endless patience and creativity when it came to thinking up miserable punishments.
Rowan addressed the old man by the hearth—standing so still that Celaena wondered if the prince had learned it or been born with it. “Your new scullery maid for the morning shift. After breakfast, I have her for the rest of the day.” Apparently, his lack of greeting wasn’t personal. Rowan looked at her with raised brows, and she could see the words in his eyes as clearly as if he’d spoken them: You wanted to remain unidentified, so go ahead, Princess. Introduce yourself with whatever name you want.
At least he’d listened to her last night. “Elentiya,” she choked out. “My name is Elentiya.” Her gut tightened.
Thank the gods Rowan didn’t snort at the name. She might have eviscerated him—or tried to, at least—if he mocked the name Nehemia had given her.
The old man hobbled forward, wiping his gnarled hands on a crisp white apron. His brown woolen clothes were simple and worn—a bit threadbare in places—and he seemed to have some trouble with his left knee, but his white hair was tied back neatly from his tan face. He bowed stiffly. “So good of you to find us additional help, Prince.” He shifted his chestnut-brown eyes to Celaena and gave her a no-nonsense once-over. “Ever work in a kitchen?”
With all the things she had done, all the places and things and people she had seen, she had to say no.
“Well, I hope you’re a fast learner and quick on your feet,” he said.
“I’ll do my best.” Apparently that was all Rowan needed to hear before he stalked off, his footsteps silent, every movement smooth and laced with power. Just watching him, she knew he’d held back last night when punching her. If he’d wanted to, he could have shattered her jaw.
“I’m Emrys,” the old man said. He hurried to the oven, grabbing a long, flat wooden shovel from the wall to pull a brown loaf out of the oven. Introduction over. Good. No wishy-washy nonsense or smiling or any of that. But his ears—
Half-breeds. Peeking up from Emrys’s white hair were the markers of his Fae heritage.
“And this is Luca,” the old man said, pointing to the youth at the worktable. Even though a rack of iron pots and pans hanging from the ceiling partially blocked her view of him, he gave Celaena a broad smile, his mop of tawny curls sticking up this way and that. He had to be a few years younger than her at least, and hadn’t yet grown into his tall frame or broad shoulders. He didn’t have properly fitting clothes, either, given how short the sleeves of his ordinary brown tunic were. “You and he will be sharing a lot of the scullery work, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, it’s absolutely miserable,” Luca chirped, sniffling loudly at the reek of the onions he was chopping, “but you’ll get used to it. Though maybe not the waking up before dawn part.” Emrys shot the young man a glare, and Luca amended, “At least the company’s good.”
She gave him her best attempt at a civilized nod and took in the layout again. Behind Luca, a second stone staircase spiraled up and out of sight, and the two towering cupboards on either side of it were crammed with well-worn, if not cracked, dishes and cutlery. The top half of a wooden door by the windows was wide open, a wall of trees and mist swirling beyond a small clearing of grass. Past them, the ring of megaliths towered like eternal guardians.
She caught Emrys studying her hands and held them out, scars and all. “Already mangled and ruined, so you won’t find me weeping over broken nails.”
“Mother keep me. What happened?” But even as the old man spoke, she could see him putting the pieces together—see him deciphering Celaena’s accent, taking in her swollen lip and the shadows under her eyes.
“Adarlan will do that to a person.” Luca’s knife thudded on the table, but Celaena kept her eyes on the old man. “Give me whatever work you want. Any work.”
Let Rowan think she was spoiled and selfish. She was, but she wanted sore muscles and blistered hands and to fall into bed so exhausted she wouldn’t dream, wouldn’t think, wouldn’t feel much of anything.
Emrys clicked his tongue. There was enough pity in the man’s eyes that for a heartbeat, Celaena contemplated biting his head off. Then he said, “Just finish the onions. Luca, you mind the bread. I’ve got to start on the casseroles.”
Celaena took up the spot that Luca had already vacated at the end of the table, passing the giant hearth as she did so—a mammoth thing of ancient stone, carved with symbols and odd faces. Even the posts of the brazier had been fashioned into standing figures, and displayed atop the thin mantel was a set of nine iron figurines. Gods and goddesses.
Celaena quickly looked away from the two females in the center—one crowned with a star and armed with a bow and quiver, the other bearing a polished bronze disk upheld between her raised hands. She could have sworn she felt them watching her.
Breakfast was a madhouse.
As dawn filled the windows with golden light, chaos descended on the kitchen, people rushing in and out. There weren’t any servants, just weathered people doing their chores or even helping because they felt like it. Great tubs of eggs and potatoes and vegetables vanished as soon as they were placed on the table, whisked up the stairs and into what had to be the dining hall. Jugs of water, of milk, of the gods knew what were hauled up. Celaena was introduced to some of the people, but most didn’t cast a look in her direction.
And wasn’t that a lovely change from the usual stares and terror and whispers that had marked the past ten years of her life. She had a feeling Rowan would keep his mouth shut about her identity, if only because he seemed to hate talking to others as much as she did. In the kitchen, chopping vegetables and washing pans, she was absolutely, gloriously nobody.