Until that gods-damned day when she’d noted how the guards left a hole in their defense in the southern wall every afternoon at two o’clock, and grasped how the gate mechanism operated. Until Galan Ashryver had come riding out through those gates, in full view of where she’d been perched on the roof of a nobleman’s house.
It hadn’t been the sight of him, with his olive skin and dark hair, that had stopped her dead. It hadn’t been the fact that, even from a distance, she could see his turquoise eyes—her eyes, the reason she usually wore a hood in the streets.
No. It had been the way people cheered.
Cheered for him, their prince. Adored him, with his dashing smile and his light armor gleaming in the endless sun, as he and the soldiers behind him rode toward the north coast to continue blockade running. Blockade running. The prince—her target—was a gods-damned blockade runner against Adarlan, and his people loved him for it.
She’d trailed the prince and his men through the city, leaping from rooftop to rooftop, and all it would have taken was one arrow through those turquoise eyes and he would have been dead. But she followed him all the way to the city walls, the cheers growing louder, people tossing flowers, everyone beaming with pride for their perfect, perfect prince.
She’d reached the city gates just as they opened to let him through. And when Galan Ashryver rode off into the sunset, off to war and glory and to fight for good and freedom, she lingered on that roof until he was a speck in the distance.
Then she had walked into the nearest taberna and gotten into the bloodiest, most brutal brawl she’d ever provoked, until the city guard was called in and she vanished moments before everyone was tossed into the stocks. And then she had decided, as her nose bled down the front of her shirt and she spat blood onto the cobblestones, that she wasn’t going to do anything.
There was no point to her plans. Nehemia and Galan would have led the world to freedom, and Nehemia should have been breathing. Together the prince and princess could have defeated the King of Adarlan. But Nehemia was dead, and Celaena’s vow—her stupid, pitiful vow—was worth as much as mud when there were beloved heirs like Galan who could do so much more. She’d been a fool to make that vow.
Even Galan—Galan was barely making a dent against Adarlan, and he had an entire armada at his disposal. She was one person, one complete waste of life. If Nehemia hadn’t been able to stop the king . . . then that plan, to find a way to contact Maeve . . . that plan was absolutely useless.
Mercifully, she still hadn’t seen one of the Fae—not a single damn one—or the faeries, or even a lick of magic. She’d done her best to avoid it. Even before she’d spotted Galan, she’d kept away from the market stalls that offered everything from healing to trinkets to potions, areas that were usually also full of street performers or mercenaries trading their gifts to earn a living. She’d learned which tabernas the magic-wielders liked to frequent and never went near them. Because sometimes she felt a trickling, writhing thing awaken in her gut if she caught a crackle of its energy.
It had been a week since she’d given up her plan and abandoned any attempt to care at all. And she suspected it’d be many weeks more before she decided she was truly sick of teggya, or brawling every night just to feel something, or guzzling sour wine as she lay on rooftops all day.
But her throat was parched and her stomach was grumbling, so Celaena slowly peeled herself off the edge of the roof. Slowly, not because of those vigilant guards, but rather because her head was well and truly spinning. She didn’t trust herself to care enough to prevent a tumble.
She glared at the thin scar stretching across her palm as she shimmied down the drainpipe and into the alley off the market street. It was now nothing more than a reminder of the pathetic promise she’d made at Nehemia’s half-frozen grave over a month ago, and of everything and everyone else she’d failed. Just like her amethyst ring, which she gambled away every night and won back before sunrise.
Despite all that had happened, and Chaol’s role in Nehemia’s death, even after she’d destroyed what was between them, she hadn’t been able to forfeit his ring. She’d lost it thrice now in card games, only to get it back—by whatever means necessary. A dagger poised to slip between the ribs usually did a good deal more convincing than actual words.
Celaena supposed it was a miracle she made it down to the alley, where the shadows momentarily blinded her. She braced a hand on the cool stone wall, letting her eyes adjust, willing her head to stop spinning. A mess—she was a gods-damned mess. She wondered when she’d bother to stop being one.
The tang and reek of the woman hit Celaena before she saw her. Then wide, yellowed eyes were in her face, and a pair of withered, cracked lips parted to hiss, “Slattern! Don’t let me catch you in front of my door again!”
Celaena pulled back, blinking at the vagrant woman—and at her door, which . . . was just an alcove in the wall, crammed with rubbish and what had to be sacks of the woman’s belongings. The woman herself was hunched, her hair unwashed and teeth a ruin of stumps. Celaena blinked again, the woman’s face coming into focus. Furious, half-mad, and filthy.
Celaena held up her hands, backing away a step, then another. “Sorry.”
The woman spat a wad of phlegm onto the cobblestones an inch from Celaena’s dusty boots. Failing to muster the energy to be disgusted or furious, Celaena would have walked away had she not glimpsed herself as she raised her dull gaze from the glob.
Dirty clothes—stained and dusty and torn. Not to mention, she smelled atrocious, and this vagrant woman had mistaken her for . . . for a fellow vagrant, competing for space on the streets.
Well. Wasn’t that just wonderful. An all-time low, even for her. Perhaps it’d be funny one day, if she bothered to remember it. She couldn’t recall the last time she’d laughed.
At least she could take some comfort in knowing that it couldn’t get worse.
But then a deep male voice chuckled from the shadows behind her.
The man—male—down the alley was Fae.
After ten years, after all the executions and burnings, a Fae male was prowling toward her. Pure, solid Fae. There was no escaping him as he emerged from the shadows yards away. The vagrant in the alcove and the others along the alley fell so quiet Celaena could again hear those bells ringing in the distant mountains.
Tall, broad-shouldered, every inch of him seemingly corded with muscle, he was a male blooded with power. He paused in a dusty shaft of sunlight, his silver hair gleaming.
As if his delicately pointed ears and slightly elongated canines weren’t enough to scare the living shit out of everyone in that alley, including the now-whimpering madwoman behind Celaena, a wicked-looking tattoo was etched down the left side of his harsh face, the whorls of black ink stark against his sun-kissed skin.
The markings could easily have been decorative, but she still remembered enough of the Fae language to recognize them as words, even in such an artistic rendering. Starting at his temple, the tattoo flowed over his jaw and down his neck, where it disappeared beneath the pale surcoat and cloak he wore. She had a feeling the markings continued down the rest of him, too, concealed along with at least half a dozen weapons. As she reached into her cloak for her own hidden dagger, she realized he might have been handsome were it not for the promise of violence in his pine-green eyes.
It would have been a mistake to call him young—just as it would have been a mistake to call him anything but a warrior, even without the sword strapped across his back and the vicious knives at his sides. He moved with lethal grace and surety, scanning the alley as if he were walking onto a killing field.
The hilt of the dagger was warm in her hand, and Celaena adjusted her stance, surprised to be feeling—fear. And enough of it that it cleared the heavy fog that had been clouding her senses these past few weeks.
The Fae warrior stalked down the alley, his knee-high leather boots silent on the cobblestones. Some of the loiterers shrank back; some bolted for the sunny street, to random doorways, anywhere to escape his challenging stare.
Celaena knew before his sharp eyes met hers that he was here for her, and who had sent him.
She reached for her Eye amulet, startled to find it was no longer around her neck. She’d given it to Chaol—the only bit of protection she could grant him upon leaving. He’d probably thrown it away as soon as he figured out the truth. Then he could go back to the haven of being her enemy. Maybe he’d tell Dorian, too, and the pair of them would both be safe.
Before she could give in to the instinct to scuttle back up the drainpipe and onto the roof, she considered the plan she’d abandoned. Had some god remembered she existed and decided to throw her a bone? She’d needed to see Maeve.
Well, here was one of Maeve’s elite warriors. Ready. Waiting.
And from the vicious temper emanating from him, not entirely happy about it.
The alley remained as still as a graveyard while the Fae warrior surveyed her. His nostrils flared delicately, as if he were—
He was getting a whiff of her scent.
She took some small satisfaction in knowing she smelled horrific, but it wasn’t that smell he was reading. No, it was the scent that marked her as her—the smell of her lineage and blood and what and who she was. And if he said her name in front of these people . . . then she knew that Galan Ashryver would come running home. The guards would be on high alert, and that was not part of her plan at all.
The bastard looked likely to do such a thing, just to prove who was in charge. So she summoned her energy as best she could and sauntered over to him, trying to remember what she might have done months ago, before the world had gone to hell. “Well met, my friend,” she purred. “Well met, indeed.”
She ignored the shocked faces around them, focusing solely on sizing him up. He stood with a stillness that only an immortal could achieve. She willed her heartbeat and breathing to calm. He could probably hear them, could probably smell every emotion raging through her. There’d be no fooling him with bravado, not in a thousand years. He’d probably lived that long already. Perhaps there’d be no beating him, either. She was Celaena Sardothien, but he was a Fae warrior and had likely been one for a great while.
She stopped a few feet away. Gods, he was huge. “What a lovely surprise,” she said loudly enough for everyone to hear. When was the last time she’d sounded that pleasant? She couldn’t even remember the last time she’d spoken in full sentences. “I thought we were to meet at the city walls.”
He didn’t bow, thank the gods. His harsh face didn’t even shift. Let him think what he wanted. She was sure she looked nothing like what he’d been told to expect—and he’d certainly laughed when that woman mistook her for a fellow vagrant.
“Let’s go,” was all he said, his deep, somewhat bored voice seeming to echo off the stones as he turned to leave the alley. She’d bet good money that the leather vambraces on his forearms concealed blades.
She might have given him a rather obnoxious reply, just to feel him out a bit more, but people were still watching. He prowled along, not deigning to look at any of the gawkers. She couldn’t tell if she was impressed or revolted.
She followed the Fae warrior into the bright street and through the bustling city. He was heedless of the humans who paused their working and walking and milling about to stare. He certainly didn’t wait for her to catch up as he strode up to a pair of ordinary mares tied by a trough in a nondescript square. If memory served her correctly, the Fae usually possessed far finer horses. He had probably arrived in another form and purchased these here.