Celaena awoke under the canopy of the forest. It was still daylight, and from the dirt on her shirt and pants and boots, it seemed like Rowan had dragged her here from the barrows.
That was vomit on her shirt and pants. And then there was . . . She’d wet herself. Her face heated, but she shoved away the thoughts about why she had pissed herself, why she had hurled her guts up. And that last thought, about magic—
“No discipline, no control, and no courage,” came a growling voice.
Head throbbing, she found Rowan sitting on a rock, his muscular arms braced on his knees. A dagger hung from his left hand, as if he’d been idly tossing the damn thing in the air while she lay in her own filth. “You failed,” he said flatly. “You made it to the other side of the field, but I said to face the wights—not throw a magical tantrum.”
“I will kill you,” she said, the words raw and gasping. “How dare—”
“That was not a wight, Princess.” He flicked his attention toward the trees beyond her. She might have roared about using specifics to escape his bargain to bring her to Doranelle, but when his eyes met hers again, he seemed to say, That thing should not have been there.
Then what in hell was it, you stupid bastard? she silently shot back.
He clenched his jaw before he said aloud, “I don’t know. We’ve had skinwalkers on the prowl for weeks, roaming down from the hills to search for human pelts, but this . . . this was something different. I have never encountered its like, not in these lands or any other. Thanks to having to drag you away, I don’t think I’ll learn anytime soon.” He gave a pointed look at her current state. “It was gone when I circled back. Tell me what happened. I saw only darkness, and when you emerged, you were . . . different.” She dared a look at herself again. Her skin was bone-white, as if the little color she’d received lying on those rooftops in Varese had been leeched away, and not only by fright and sickness.
“No,” she said. “And you can go to hell.”
“Other lives might depend on it.”
“I want to go back to the fortress,” she breathed. She didn’t want to know about the creatures or about the skinwalkers or about any of it. Each word was an effort. “Right now.”
“You’re done when I say you’re done.”
“You can kill me or torture me or throw me off a cliff, but I am done for today. In that darkness, I saw things that no one should be able to see. It dragged me through my memories—and not the decent ones. Is that enough for you?”
He spat out a noise, but got to his feet and began walking. She staggered and stumbled, knees trembling, and kept moving after him, all the way into the halls of Mistward, where she angled her body so that none of the passing sentries or workers could see her soiled pants, the vomit. There was no hiding her face, though. She kept her attention on the prince, until he opened a wooden door and a wall of steam hit her. “These are the female baths. Your room is a level up. Be in the kitchens at dawn tomorrow.” And then he left her again.
Celaena trudged into the steamy chamber, not caring who was in there as she shucked off her clothes, collapsed into one of the sunken stone tubs, and did not stir for a long, long while.
Chaol wasn’t at all surprised that his father was twenty minutes late to their meeting. Nor was he surprised when his father strode into Chaol’s office, slid into the chair opposite his desk, and offered no explanation for his tardiness. With calculated cool and distaste, he surveyed the office: no windows, a worn rug, an open trunk of discarded weapons that Chaol had never found the time to polish or send for repairs.
At least it was organized. The few papers on his desk were stacked; his glass pens were in their proper holders; his suit of armor, which he rarely had occasion to wear, gleamed from its dummy in the corner. His father said at last, “This is what our illustrious king gives the Captain of his Guard?”
Chaol shrugged, and his father studied the heavy oak desk. A desk he’d inherited from his predecessor, and one on which he and Celaena had—
He shut down the memory before it could boil his blood, and instead smiled at his father. “There was a larger office available in the glass addition, but I wanted to be accessible to my men.” It was the truth. He also hadn’t wanted to be anywhere near the administrative wing of the castle, sharing a hallway with courtiers and councilmen.
“A wise decision.” His father leaned back in the ancient wooden chair. “A leader’s instincts.”
Chaol pinned him with a long stare. “I’m to return to Anielle with you—I’m surprised you waste your breath on flattery.”
“Is that so? From what I’ve seen, you have been making no move to prepare for this so-called return. You’re not even looking for a replacement.”
“Despite your low opinion of my position, it’s one I take seriously. I won’t have just anyone looking after this palace.”
“You haven’t even told His Majesty that you’re leaving.” That pleasant, dead smile remained on his father’s face. “When I begged for my leave next week, the king made no mention of you accompanying me. Rather than land you in hot water, boy, I held my tongue.”
Chaol kept his face bland, neutral. “Again, I’m not leaving until I find a proper replacement. It’s why I asked you to meet me. I need time.” It was true—partially, at least.
Just as he had for the past few nights, Chaol had dropped by Aedion’s party—another tavern, even more expensive, even more packed. Aedion wasn’t there again. Somehow everyone thought the general was there, and even the courtesan who’d left with him the first night said the general had given her a gold coin—without utilizing her services—and gone off to find more sparkling wine.
Chaol had stood on the street corner where the courtesan said she’d left him, but found nothing. And wasn’t it fascinating that no one really seemed to know exactly when the Bane would arrive, or where they were currently camped—only that they were on their way. Chaol was too busy during the day to track Aedion down, and during the king’s various meetings and luncheons, confronting the general was impossible. But tonight he planned to arrive at the party early enough that he’d see if Aedion even showed and where he slipped off to. The sooner he could get something on Aedion, the sooner he could settle all this nonsense and keep the king from looking too long in his direction before he turned in his resignation.
He’d only called this meeting because of a thought that had awoken him in the middle of the night—a slightly insane, highly dangerous plan that would likely get him killed before it even accomplished anything. He’d skimmed through all those books Celaena had found on magic, and found nothing at all about how he might help Dorian—and Celaena—by freeing it. But Celaena had once told him that the rebel group Archer and Nehemia had run claimed two things: one, that they knew where Aelin Galathynius was; and two, that they were close to finding a way to break the King of Adarlan’s mysterious power over the continent. The first one was a lie, of course, but if there was the slightest chance that these rebels knew how to free magic . . . he had to take it. He was already going out to trail Aedion, and he’d seen all of Celaena’s notes about the rebel hideouts, so he had an idea of where they could be found. This would have to be dealt with carefully, and he still needed as much time as he could buy.
His father’s dead smile faded, and true steel, honed by decades of ruling Anielle, shone through. “Rumor has it you consider yourself a man of honor. Though I wonder what manner of man you truly are, if you do not honor your bargains. I wonder . . .” His father made a good show of chewing on his bottom lip. “I wonder what your motive was, then, in sending your woman to Wendlyn.” Chaol fought the urge to stiffen. “For the noble Captain Westfall, there would be no question that he truly wanted His Majesty’s Champion to dispatch our foreign enemies. Yet for the oath-breaker, the liar . . .”
“I am not breaking my vow to you,” Chaol said, meaning every word. “I intend to go to Anielle—I will swear that in any temple, before any god. But only when I’ve found a replacement.”
“You swore a month,” his father growled.
“You’re to have me for the rest of my damned life. What is a month or two more to you?”
His father’s nostrils flared. What purpose, then, did his father have in wanting him to return so quickly? Chaol was about to ask, itching to make his father squirm a bit, when an envelope landed on his desk.
It had been years—years and years, but he still remembered his mother’s handwriting, still recalled the elegant way in which she drew his name. “What is this?”
“Your mother sent a letter to you. I suppose she’s expressing her joy at your anticipated return.” Chaol didn’t touch the envelope. “Aren’t you going to read it?”
“I have nothing to say to her, and no interest in what she has to say to me,” Chaol lied. Another trap, another way to unnerve him. But he had so much to do here, so many things to learn and uncover. He’d honor his vow soon enough.
His father snatched back the letter, tucking it into his tunic. “She will be most saddened to hear that.” And he knew his father, well aware of Chaol’s lie, would tell his mother exactly what he’d said. For a heartbeat, his blood roared in his ears, the way it always had when he’d witnessed his father belittling his mother, reprimanding her, ignoring her.
He took a steadying breath. “Four months, then I’ll go. Set the date and it’ll be done.”
A slow smile. “I could go to the king right now and ask for your dismissal instead of waiting three months.”
Chaol clenched his jaw. “Name your price, then.”
“Oh, there’s no price. But I think I like the idea of you owing me a favor.” That dead smile returned. “I like that idea very much. Two months, boy.”
They did not bother with good-byes.
Sorscha was called up to the Crown Prince’s chambers just as she was settling in to brew a calming tonic for an overworked kitchen girl. And though she tried not to seem too eager and pathetic, she found a way to very, very quickly dump the task on one of the lower-level apprentices and make the trek to the prince’s tower.
She’d never been here, but she knew where it was—all the healers did, just in case. The guards let her pass with hardly a nod, and by the time she’d ascended the spiral staircase, the door to his chambers was already open.
A mess. His rooms were a mess of books and papers and discarded weapons. And there, sitting at a table with hardly a foot of space cleared for him, was Dorian, looking rather embarrassed—either at the mess, or at his split lip.
She managed to bow, even as that traitorous heat flooded her again, up her neck and across her face. “Your Highness summoned me?”
A cleared throat. “I—well, I think you can see what needs repairing.”
Another injury to his hand. This one looked like it was from sparring, but the lip . . . getting that close to him would be an effort of will. Hand first, then. Let that distract her, anchor her.
She set down her basket of supplies and lost herself in the work of readying ointments and bandages. His scented soap caressed her nose, strong enough to suggest he’d just bathed. Which was a horrible thing to think about as she stood beside his chair, because she was a professional healer, and imagining her patients naked was not a—