Aedion braced his hands on the rail. It couldn’t be true. Not after ten years. Ten years without hope, without proof.
“She has your eyes,” Chaol said, working his jaw. If this assassin—an assassin, gods above—was truly Aelin, then she was the King’s Champion. Then she was the captain’s—
“You sent her to Wendlyn,” Aedion said, his voice ragged. The tears would come later. Right now, he was emptied. Gutted. Every lie, every rumor and act and party he’d thrown, every battle, real or faked, every life he’d taken so more could live . . . How would he ever explain that to her? Adarlan’s Whore.
“I didn’t know who she was. I just thought she would be safer there because of what she is.”
“You realize you’ve only given me a bigger reason to kill you.” Aedion clenched his jaw. “Do you have any idea what kind of risk you took in telling me? I could be working for the king—you thought I was in thrall to him, and all you had for proof against it was a quick story. You might as well have killed her yourself.” Fool—stupid, reckless fool. But the captain still had the upper hand here—the king’s noble captain, who was now toeing the line of treason. He’d wondered about the captain’s allegiance when Ren told him about the involvement of the King’s Champion with the rebels, but—damn. Aelin. Aelin was the King’s Champion, Aelin had helped the rebels, and gutted Archer Finn. His knees threatened to buckle, but he swallowed the shock, the surprise and terror and glimmer of delight.
“I know it was a risk,” the captain said. “But the men who have those rings—something changes in their eyes, a kind of darkness that sometimes manifests physically. I haven’t seen it in you since you’ve been here. And I’ve never seen someone throw so many parties, but only attend for a few minutes. You wouldn’t go to such lengths to hide your meetings with the rebels if you were enslaved to the king, especially when during all this time the Bane still hasn’t come, despite your assurances that it will be here soon. It doesn’t add up.” The captain met his stare. Perhaps not quite a fool, then. “I think she’d want you to know.”
The captain looked down the river toward the sea. This place reeked. Aedion had smelled and seen worse in war camps, but the slums of Renaril certainly gave them a run for their money. And Terrasen’s capital, Orynth, its once-shining tower now a slab of filthy white stone, was well on its way to falling into this level of poverty and despair. But maybe, someday soon . . .
Aelin was alive. Alive, and as much of a killer as he was, and working for the same man. “Does the prince know?” He’d never been able to speak with the prince without remembering the days before Terrasen’s downfall; he’d never been able to hide that hatred.
“No. He doesn’t even know why I sent her to Wendlyn. Or that she’s—you’re both . . . Fae.”
Aedion had never possessed a fraction of the power that had smoldered in her veins, which had burned libraries and caused such general worry that there had been talk—in those months before the world went to hell—of sending her somewhere so that she could learn to control it. He’d overheard debate over packing her off to various academies or tutors in distant lands, but never to their aunt Maeve, waiting like a spider in a web to see what became of her niece. And yet she’d wound up in Wendlyn, on her aunt’s doorstep.
Maeve had either never known or never cared about his inherited gifts. No, all he had were some of the physical traits of their immortal kin: strength, swiftness, sharp hearing, keen smell. It had made him a formidable opponent on the battlefield—and saved his life more than once. Saved his very soul, if the captain was right about those rings.
“Is she coming back?” Aedion asked quietly. The first of the many, many questions he had for the captain, now that he’d proved himself to be more than a useless servant of the king.
There was enough agony in the captain’s eyes that Aedion knew that he loved her. Knew, and felt a tug of jealousy, if only because the captain knew her that well. “I don’t know,” Chaol admitted. If he hadn’t been his enemy, Aedion would have respected the man for the sacrifice implied. But Aelin had to come back. She would come back. Unless that return only earned her a walk to the butchering block.
He would sort through each wild thought when he was alone. He gripped the damp rail harder, fighting the urge to ask more.
But then the captain gave him a weighing look, as if he could see through every mask Aedion had ever worn. For a heartbeat, Aedion considered putting the blade right through the captain and dumping his body in the Avery, despite the information he possessed. The captain glanced at the blade, too, and Aedion wondered if he was thinking the same thing—regretting his decision to trust him. The captain should regret it, should curse himself for a fool.
Aedion said, “Why were you tracking the rebels?”
“Because I thought they might have valuable information.” It had to be truly valuable, then, if he’d risk revealing himself as a traitor to get it.
Aedion had been willing to torture the captain—to kill him, too. He’d done worse before. But torturing and killing his queen’s lover wouldn’t go over well if—when she returned. And the captain was now his greatest source of information. He wanted to know more about Aelin, about her plans, about what she was like and how he could find her. He wanted to know everything. Anything. Especially where the captain now stood on the game board—and what the captain knew about the king. So Aedion said, “Tell me more about those rings.”
But the captain shook his head. “I want to make a bargain with you.”
The black eye was still gruesome, but it improved over the next week as Celaena worked in the kitchens, tried and failed to shift with Rowan, and generally avoided everyone. The spring rains had come to stay and the kitchen was packed every night, so Celaena took to eating dinner on the shadowed steps, arriving just before the Story Keeper began speaking.
Story Keeper—that’s what Emrys was, a title of honor amongst both Fae and humans in Wendlyn. What it meant was that when he began telling a story, you sat down and shut up. It also meant that he was a walking library of the kingdom’s legends and myths.
By that time, Celaena knew most of the fortress’s residents, if only in the sense that she could put names to faces. She’d observed them out of instinct, to learn her surroundings, her potential enemies and threats. She knew they observed her, too, when they thought she wasn’t paying attention. And any shred of regret she felt at not approaching them was burned up by the fact that no one bothered to approach her, either.
The only person who made an effort was Luca, who still peppered Celaena with questions as they worked, still prattled on and on about his training, the fortress gossip, the weather. He’d only talked to her once about anything else—on a morning when it had taken a monumental effort to peel herself out of bed, and only the scar on her palm had made her plant her feet on the icy floor. She’d been washing the breakfast dishes, staring out the window without seeing anything, too heavy in her bones, when Luca had dumped a pot in the sink and quietly said, “For a long while, I couldn’t talk about what happened to me before I came here. There were some days I couldn’t talk at all. Couldn’t get out of bed, either. But if—when you need to talk . . .”
She’d shut him down with a long look. And he hadn’t said anything like it since.
Thankfully, Emrys gave her space. Lots of space, especially when Malakai arrived during breakfast to make sure Celaena hadn’t caused any trouble. She usually avoided looking at the other fortress couples, but here, where she couldn’t walk away . . . she hated their closeness, the way Malakai’s eyes lit up every time he saw him. Hated it so much that she choked on it.
She never asked Rowan why he, too, came to hear Emrys’s stories. As far as they were each concerned, the other didn’t exist outside of training.
Training was a generous way to describe what they were doing, as she had accomplished nothing. She didn’t shift once. He snarled and sneered and hissed, but she couldn’t do it. Every day, always when Rowan disappeared for a few moments, she tried, but—nothing. Rowan threatened to drag her back to the barrows, as that seemed to be the only thing that had triggered any sort of response, but he’d backed off—to her surprise—when she told him that she’d slit her own throat before entering that place again. So they swore at each other, sat in brooding silence on the temple ruin, and occasionally had those unspoken shouting matches. If she was in a particularly nasty mood, he made her chop wood—log after log, until she could hardly lift the ax and her hands were blistered. If she was going to be pissed off at the whole damn world, he said, if she was going to waste his time by not shifting, then she might as well be useful in some way.
All this waiting—for her. For the shift that made her shudder to think about.
It was on the eighth day after her arrival, after scrubbing pots and pans until her back throbbed, that Celaena stopped in the middle of their hike up the now-familiar ridge. “I have a request.” She never spoke to him unless she needed to—mostly to curse at him. Now she said, “I want to see you shift.”
A blink, those green eyes flat. “You don’t have the privilege of giving orders.”
“Show me how you do it.” Her memories of the Fae in Terrasen were foggy, as if someone had smeared oil over them. She couldn’t remember seeing one of them change, where their clothes had gone, how fast it had been . . . He stared her down, seeming to say, Just this once, and then—
A soft flash of light, a ripple of color, and a hawk was flapping midair, beating for the nearest tree branch. He settled on it, clicking his beak. She scanned the mossy earth. No sign of his clothes, his weapons. It had taken barely more than a few heartbeats.
He gave a battle cry and swooped, talons slashing for her eyes. She lunged behind the tree just as there was another flash and shudder of color, and then he was clothed and armed and growling in her face. “Your turn.”
She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of seeing her tremble. It was—incredible. Incredible to see the shift. “Where do your clothes go?”
“Between, somewhere. I don’t particularly care.” Such dead, joyless eyes. She had a feeling she looked like that these days. She knew she had looked like that the night Chaol had caught her gutting Archer in the tunnel. What had left Rowan so soulless?
He bared his teeth, but she didn’t submit. She’d been watching the demi-Fae warrior males at the fortress, and they growled and showed their teeth about everything. They were not the ethereal, gentle folk that legend painted, that she vaguely remembered from Terrasen. No holding hands and dancing around the maypole with flowers in their hair. They were predators, the lot of them. Some of the dominant females were just as aggressive, prone to snarling when challenged or annoyed or even hungry. She supposed she might have fit in with them if she’d bothered to try.
Still holding Rowan’s stare, Celaena calmed her breathing. She imagined phantom fingers reaching down, pulling her Fae form out. Imagined a wash of color and light. Pushed herself against her mortal flesh. But—nothing.
“Sometimes I wonder whether this is a punishment for you,” she said through her teeth. “But what could you have done to piss off her Immortal Majesty?”
“Don’t use that tone when you talk about her.”
“Oh, I can use whatever tone I want. And you can taunt and snarl at me and make me chop wood all day, but short of ripping out my tongue, you can’t—”