Emrys growled his name, but Celaena shrugged. “I don’t want to bother with any of you.”
Malakai caught the unspoken warning in her words—so don’t try to bother with me—and gave her a curt nod. She heard, more than saw, him stride to Emrys and kiss him, then the rumble of some murmured, stern words, and then his steady footsteps as he walked out again.
“Even the demi-Fae warrior males push overprotective to a whole new level,” Emrys said, the words laced with forced lightness.
“It’s in our blood,” Luca said, lifting his chin. “It is our duty, honor, and life’s mission to make sure our families are cared for. Especially our mates.”
“And it makes you a thorn in our side,” Emrys clucked. “Possessive, territorial beasts.” The old man strode to the sink, setting down the cool kettle for Celaena to wash. “My mate means well, lass. But you’re a stranger—and from Adarlan. And you’re training with . . . someone none of us quite understand.”
Celaena dumped the kettle in the sink. “I don’t care,” she said. And meant it.
Training was horrible that day. Not just because Rowan asked if she was going to vomit or piss herself again, but also because for hours—hours—he made her sit amongst the temple ruins on the ridge, battered by the misty wind. He wanted her to shift—that was his only command.
She demanded to know why he couldn’t teach her the magic without shifting, and he gave her the same answer again and again: no shift, no magic lessons. But after yesterday, nothing short of him taking his long dagger and cutting her ears into points would get her to change forms. She tried once—when he stalked into the woods for some privacy. She tugged and yanked and pulled at whatever lay deep inside her, but got nothing. No flash of light or searing pain.
So they sat on the mountainside, Celaena frozen to the bone. At least she didn’t lose control again, no matter what insults he threw her way, either aloud or through one of their silent, vicious conversations. She asked him why he wasn’t pursuing the creature that had been in the barrow-wights’ field, and he merely said that he was looking into it, and the rest was none of her concern.
Thunderclouds clustered during the late afternoon. Rowan forced her to sit through the storm until her teeth were clattering in her skull and her blood was thick with ice, and then they finally made the trek to the fortress. He ditched her by the baths again, eyes glimmering with an unspoken promise that tomorrow would be worse.
When she finally emerged, there were dry clothes in her room, folded and placed with such care that she was starting to wonder whether she didn’t have some invisible servant shadowing her. There was no way in hell an immortal like Rowan would have bothered to do that for a human.
She debated staying in her rooms for the rest of the night, especially as rain lashed at her window, lightning illuminating the trees beyond. But her stomach gurgled. She was light-headed again, and knew she’d been eating like an idiot. With her black eye, the best thing to do was eat—even if it meant going to the kitchens.
She waited until she thought everyone had gone upstairs. There were always leftovers after breakfast—there had to be some at dinner. Gods, she was bone-tired. And ached even worse than she had this morning.
She heard the voices long before she entered the kitchen and almost turned back, but—no one had spoken to her at breakfast save Malakai. Surely everyone would ignore her now, too.
She’d estimated a good number of people in the kitchen, but was still a bit surprised by how packed it was. Chairs and cushions had been dragged in, all facing the hearth, before which Emrys and Malakai sat, chatting with those gathered. There was food on every surface, as if dinner had been held in here. Keeping to the shadows atop the stairs, she observed them. The dining hall was spacious, if a bit cold—why gather around the kitchen hearth?
She didn’t particularly care—not when she saw the food. She slipped in through the gathered crowd with practiced stealth and ease, filling up a plate with roast chicken, potatoes (gods, she was already sick of potatoes), and hot bread. Everyone was still chatting; those who didn’t have seats were standing against the counters or walls, laughing and sipping from their mugs of ale.
The upper half of the kitchen door was open to let out the heat from all the bodies, the sound of rain filling the room like a drum. She caught a glimmer of movement outside, but when she looked, there was nothing there.
Celaena was about to slip back up the stairs when Malakai clapped his hands and everyone stopped talking. Celaena paused again in the shadows of the stairwell. Smiles spread, and people settled in. Seated on the floor in front of Emrys’s chair was Luca, a pretty young woman pressed into his side, his arm casually draped around her shoulders—casually, but with enough of a grip to tell every other male in the room that she was his. Celaena rolled her eyes, not at all surprised.
Still, she caught the look Luca gave the girl, the mischief in his eyes that sent a pang of jealousy right through her. She’d looked at Chaol with that same expression. But their relationship had never been as unburdened, and even if she hadn’t ended things, it never would have been like that. The ring on her finger became a weight.
Lightning flashed, revealing the grass and forest beyond. Seconds later, thunder shook the stones, triggering a few shrieks and laughs.
Emrys cleared his throat, and every eye snapped to his lined face. The ancient hearth illuminated his silver hair, casting shadows throughout the room. “Long ago,” Emrys began, his voice weaving between the drumming rain and grumbling thunder and crackling fire, “when there was no mortal king on Wendlyn’s throne, the faeries still walked among us. Some were good and fair, some were prone to little mischiefs, and some were fouler and darker than the blackest night.”
Celaena swallowed. These were words that had been spoken in front of hearths for thousands of years—spoken in kitchens like this one. Tradition.
“It was those wicked faeries,” Emrys went on, the words resonating in every crack and crevice, “that you always had to watch for on the ancient roads, or in the woods, or on nights like this, when you can hear the wind moaning your name.”
“Oh, not that one,” Luca groaned, but it wasn’t heartfelt. Some of the others laughed—a bit nervously, even. Someone else protested, “I won’t sleep for a week.”
Celaena leaned against the stone wall, shoveling food down her throat as the old man wove his tale. The hair on her neck stood on end for the duration of it, and she could see every horrific moment of the story as clearly as if she had lived it.
As Emrys finished his tale, thunder boomed, and even Celaena flinched, almost upsetting her empty plate. There were some wary laughs, some taunts and gentle pushes. Celaena frowned. If she’d heard this story—with the wretched creatures who delighted in skin-sewing and bone-crunching and lightning-crisping—before traveling here with Rowan, she never would have followed him. Not in a million years.
Rowan hadn’t lit a single fire on the journey here—hadn’t wanted to attract attention. From these sorts of creatures? He hadn’t known what that thing was the day before in the barrows. And if an immortal didn’t know . . . She used breathing exercises to calm her pounding heart. Still, she’d be lucky if she slept tonight.
Though everyone else seemed to be waiting for the next story, Celaena stood. As she turned to leave, she looked again to that half-open kitchen door, just to make sure there was nothing lurking outside. But it was not some fell creature who waited in the rain. A large white-tailed hawk was perched in the shadows.
It sat absolutely still. But the hawk’s eyes—there was something strange about them . . . She’d seen that hawk before. It had watched her for days as she’d lazed on that rooftop in Varese, watched her drink and steal and doze and brawl.
At least she now knew what Rowan’s animal form was. What she didn’t know was why he bothered to listen to these stories.
“Elentiya.” Emrys was extending a hand from where he sat before the hearth. “Would you perhaps share a story from your lands? We’d love to hear a tale, if you’d do us the honor.”
Celaena kept her eyes on the old man as everyone turned to where she stood in the shadows. Not one of them offered a word of encouragement, save for Luca, who said, “Tell us!”
But she had no right to tell those stories as if they were her own. And she could not remember them correctly, not as they had been told at her bedside.
She clamped down on the thought as hard as she could, shoving it back long enough to calmly say, “No, thank you,” and walk away. No one came after her. She didn’t give a damn what Rowan made of the whole thing.
The whispers died with each step, and it wasn’t until she’d shut the door to her freezing room and slid into bed that she loosed a sigh. The rain stopped, the clouds cleared on a brisk wind, and through the window, a patch of stars flickered above the tree line.
She had no stories to tell. All the legends of Terrasen were lost to her, and only fragments were strewn through her memories like rubble.
She pulled her scrap of blanket higher and draped an arm over her eyes, shutting out the ever-watching stars.
Mercifully, Dorian wasn’t forced to entertain Aedion again, and saw little of him outside of state dinners and meetings, where the general pretended he didn’t exist. He saw little of Chaol, too, which was a relief, given how awkward their conversations had been of late. But he’d begun to spar with the guards in the mornings. It was about as fun as lying on a bed of hot nails, but at least it gave him something to do with the restless, anxious energy that hounded him day and night.
Not to mention all those cuts and scrapes and sprains gave him an excuse to go to the healers’ catacombs. Sorscha, it seemed, had caught on to his training schedule, and her door was always open when he arrived.
He hadn’t been able to stop thinking about what she’d said in his room, or wondering why someone who had lost everything would dedicate her life to helping the family of the man who had taken it all away. And when she’d said Because I had nowhere else to go . . . for a second, it hadn’t been Sorscha but Celaena, broken with grief and loss and rage, coming to his room because there was no one else to turn to. He’d never known what that was like, that loss, but Sorscha’s kindness to him—which he’d repaid so foully until now—hit him like a stone to the head.
Dorian entered her workroom, and Sorscha looked up from the table and smiled, broadly and prettily and . . . well, wasn’t that exactly the reason he found excuses to come here every day.
He held up his wrist, already stiff and throbbing. “Landed on it badly,” he said by way of greeting. She came around the table, giving him enough time to admire the long lines of her figure in her simple gown. She moved like water, he thought, and often caught himself marveling at the way she used her hands.
“There’s not much I can do for that,” she said after examining his wrist. “But I have a tonic for the pain—only to subdue it, and I can put your arm in a sling if—”
“Gods, no. No sling. I’ll never hear the end of it from the guards.”
Her eyes twinkled, just a bit—in that way they did when she was amused and tried hard not to be.
But if there was no sling, then he had no excuse to be here, and even though he had an inane council meeting in an hour and still needed to bathe . . . He stood. “What are you working on?”
She took a careful step back from him. She always did that, to keep the wall up. “Well, I have a few tonics and salves to make for some of the servants and guards today—to replenish their stocks.” He knew he shouldn’t, but he moved to peer over her narrow shoulder at the worktable, at the bowls and vials and beakers. She made a small noise in her throat, and he swallowed his smile as he leaned a bit closer. “This is normally a task for apprentices, but they were so busy today that I offered to take some of their workload.” She usually talked like this when she was nervous. Which, Dorian had noticed with some satisfaction, was when he came near. And not in a bad way—if he’d sensed that she was truly uncomfortable, he’d have kept his distance. This was more . . . flustered. He liked flustered.