Her dull knife was a nightmare when it came to chopping mushrooms, scallions, and an endless avalanche of potatoes. No one, except perhaps Emrys with his all-seeing eyes, seemed to notice her perfect slices. Someone merely scooped them up and tossed them in a pot, then told her to cut something else.
Then—nothing. Everyone but her two companions vanished upstairs, and sleepy laughter, grumbling, and clinking silverware echoed down the stairwell. Famished, Celaena looked longingly at the food left on the worktable just as she caught Luca staring at her.
“Go ahead,” he said with a grin before moving to help Emrys haul a massive iron cauldron over toward the sink. Even with the insanity of the past hour, Luca had managed to chat up almost every person who came into the kitchen, his voice and laughter floating over the clanging pots and barked orders. “You’ll be at those dishes for a while and might as well eat now.”
Indeed, there was a tower of dishes and pots already by the sinks. The cauldron alone would take forever. So Celaena plunked down at the table, served herself some eggs and potatoes, poured a cup of tea, and dug in.
Devouring was a better word for what she did. Holy gods, it was delicious. Within moments, she’d consumed two pieces of toast laden with eggs, then started on the fried potatoes. Which were as absurdly good as the eggs. She ditched the tea in favor of downing a glass of the richest milk she’d ever tasted. Not that she ever really drank milk, since she’d had her pick of exotic juices in Rifthold, but . . . She looked up from her plate to find Emrys and Luca gaping from the hearth. “Gods above,” the old man said, moving to sit at the table. “When was the last time you ate?”
Good food like this? A while. And if Rowan was coming back at some point, she didn’t want to be swaying from hunger. She needed her strength for training. Magic training. Which was sure to be horrific, but she would do it—to fulfill her bargain with Maeve and honor her vow to Nehemia. Suddenly not very hungry, she set down her fork. “Sorry,” she said.
“Oh, eat all you like,” Emrys said. “There’s nothing more satisfying to a cook than seeing someone enjoy his food.” He said it with enough humor and kindness that it chafed.
How would they react if they knew the things she’d done? What would they do if they knew about the blood she’d spilled, how she’d tortured Grave and taken him apart piece by piece, the way she’d gutted Archer in that sewer? The way she’d failed her friend. Failed a lot of people.
They were noticeably quieter as they sat down. They didn’t ask her any questions. Which was perfect, because she didn’t really want to start a conversation. She wouldn’t be here for long, anyway. Emrys and Luca kept to themselves, chatting about the training Luca was to do with some of the sentries on the battlements that day, the meat pies Emrys would make for lunch, the oncoming spring rains that might ruin the Beltane festival like last year. Such ordinary things to talk about, worry about. And they were so easy with each other—a family in their own way.
Uncorrupted by a wicked empire, by years of brutality and slavery and bloodshed. She could almost see the three souls in the kitchen lined up beside each other: theirs bright and clear, hers a flickering black flame.
Do not let that light go out. Nehemia’s last words to her that night in the tunnels. Celaena pushed around the food on her plate. She’d never known anyone whose life hadn’t been overshadowed by Adarlan. She could barely remember her brief years before the continent had been enslaved, when Terrasen had still been free.
She could not remember what it was like to be free.
A pit yawned open beneath her feet, so deep that she had to move lest it swallow her whole.
She was about to get started on the dishes when Luca said from down the table, “So you either have to be very important or very unlucky to have Rowan training you to enter Doranelle.” Damned was more like it, but she kept her mouth shut. Emrys was looking on with cautious interest. “That is what you’re training for, right?”
“Isn’t that why you’re all here?” The words came out flatter than even she expected.
Luca said, “Yes, but I’ve got years until I learn whether I’ve met their qualifications.”
Years. Years? Maeve couldn’t mean for her to be here that long. She looked at Emrys. “How long have you been training?”
The old man snorted. “Oh, I was about fifteen when I came here, and worked for them for about . . . ten years, and I was never worthy enough. Too ordinary. Then I decided I’d rather have a home and my own kitchen here than be looked down upon in Doranelle for the rest of my days. It didn’t hurt that my mate felt the same way. You’ll meet him soon enough. He’s always popping in to steal food for himself and his men.” He chuckled, and Luca grinned.
Mate—not husband. The Fae had mates: an unbreakable bond, deeper than marriage, that lasted beyond death. Celaena asked, “So you’re all—half-breeds?”
Luca stiffened, but flashed a smile as he said, “Only the pure-blooded Fae call us that. We prefer demi-Fae. But yes, most of us were born to mortal mothers, with the fathers unaware they’d sired us. The gifted ones usually get snatched away to Doranelle, but for us common offspring, the humans still aren’t comfortable with us, so . . . we go here, we come to Mistward. Or to the other border outposts. Few enough get permission to go to Doranelle that most just come here to live among their own kind.” Luca’s eyes narrowed on her ears. “Looks like you got more human in you than Fae.”
“Because I’m not half.” She didn’t want to share any more details than that.
“Can you shift?” Luca asked. Emrys shot him a warning look.
“Can you?” she asked.
“Oh, no. Neither of us can. If we could, we’d probably be in Doranelle with the other ‘gifted’ offspring that Maeve likes to collect.”
Emrys growled. “Careful, Luca.”
“Maeve doesn’t deny it, so why should I? That’s what Bas and the others are saying, too. Anyway, there are a few sentries here who have secondary forms, like Malakai—Emrys’s mate. And they’re here because they want to be.”
She wasn’t at all surprised that Maeve took an interest in the gifted ones—or that Maeve locked all the useless ones out. “And do either of you have—gifts?”
“You mean magic?” Luca said, his mouth quirking to the side. “Oh, no—neither of us got a lick of it. I heard your continent always had more wielders than we did, anyway, and more variety. Say, is it true that it’s all gone over there?”
She nodded. Luca let out a low whistle. He opened his mouth to ask more, but she wasn’t particularly in the mood to talk about it so she said, “Does anyone at this fortress have magic?” Maybe they’d be able to tell her what to expect with Rowan—and Maeve.
Luca shrugged. “Some. They’ve only got a hint of boring stuff, like encouraging plants to grow or finding water or convincing rain to come. Not that we need it here.”
They’d be of no assistance with Rowan or Maeve, then. Wonderful.
“But,” Luca chattered on, “no one here has any exciting or rare abilities. Like shape-shifting into whatever form they want, or controlling fire”—her stomach clenched at that—“or oracular sight. We did have a female wander in with raw magic two years ago—she could do anything she wanted, summon any element, and she was here a week before Maeve called her to Doranelle and we never heard from her again. A shame—she was so pretty, too. But it’s the same here as it is everywhere else: a few people with a pathetic trace of elemental powers that are really only fun for farmers.”
Emrys clicked his tongue. “You should pray the gods don’t strike you with lightning for speaking like that.” Luca groaned, rolling his eyes, but Emrys continued his lecture, gesturing at the youth with his teacup. “Those powers were gifts given to us by them long ago—gifts we needed to survive—and were passed down through the generations. Of course they’d be aligned with the elements, and of course they’d be watered down after so long.”
Celaena glanced toward those iron figurines on the mantel. She contemplated mentioning that some believed the gods had also bred with ancient humans and given them magic that way, but . . . that would involve more talking than necessary. She tilted her head to the side. “What do you know about Rowan? How old is he?” The more she learned, the better.
Emrys wrapped his wrinkled hands around his teacup. “He’s one of the few Fae we see around Mistward—he stops in every now and then to retrieve reports for Maeve, but he keeps to himself. Never stays the night. Occasionally he’ll come with the others like him—there are six of them who closely serve the Queen as war leaders or spies, you see. They never talk to us, and all we hear are rumors about where they go and what they do. But I’ve known Rowan since I first came here. Not that I really know him, mind you. Sometimes he’s gone for years, off serving Her Majesty. And I don’t think anyone knows how old he is. When I was fifteen, the oldest people living here had known him since they were younglings, so . . . I’d say he’s very old.”
“And mean as an adder,” Luca muttered.
Emrys gave him a warning look. “You’d best mind your tongue.” He glanced toward the doors, as if Rowan would be lurking there. When his gaze fell again on Celaena, it was wary. “I’ll admit that you’re probably in for a good heap of difficulty.”
“He’s a stone-cold killer and a sadist is what he means,” Luca added. “The meanest of Maeve’s personal cabal of warriors, they say.”
Well, that wasn’t a surprise, either. But there were five others like him—that was an unpleasant fact. She said quietly, “I can handle him.”
“We’re not allowed to learn the Old Language until we enter Doranelle,” Luca said, “but I heard his tattoo is a list of all the people he’s slaughtered.”
“Hush,” Emrys said.
“It’s not like he doesn’t act like it.” Luca frowned again at Celaena. “Maybe you should consider whether Doranelle is worth it, you know? It’s not so bad living here.”
She’d already had enough interacting. “I can handle him,” she repeated. Maeve couldn’t intend to keep her here for years. If that started to seem likely, Celaena would leave. And find another way to stop the king.
Luca opened his mouth but Emrys hushed him again, his gaze falling on Celaena’s scarred hands. “Let her run her own course.”
Luca started chattering about the weather, and Celaena headed to the mountain of dishes. As she washed, she fell into a rhythm, as she’d done while cleaning her weapons aboard that ship.
The kitchen sounds turned muffled as she let herself spiral down, contemplating that horrible realization again and again: she could not remember what it was like to be free.
The Blackbeak Clan was the last to fully assemble at the Ferian Gap.
As a result, they got the smallest and farthest rooms in the warren of halls carved into the Omega, the last of the Ruhnn Mountains and the northernmost of the sister-peaks flanking the snow-blasted pass.
Across the gap was the Northern Fang, the final peak of the White Fangs, which was currently occupied by the king’s men—massive brutes who still didn’t know quite what to make of the witches who had stalked in from every direction.
They’d been here for a day and Manon had yet to glimpse any sign of the wyverns the king had promised. She’d heard them, even though they were housed across the pass in the Northern Fang. No matter how deep you got into the Omega’s stone halls, the shrieks and roars vibrated in the stone, the air pulsed with the boom of leathery wings, and the floors hissed with the scrape of talon on rock.