The path led absolutely nowhere. It ran into a sea cliff with no way to the narrow strip of beach below, no sign of anyone living nearby. Rowan stood at the cliff ’s edge, arms crossed as he stared out at the jade sea. “It doesn’t make sense,” he said, more to himself than to her. “This is the fourth body in the last few weeks—none of them reported missing.” He squatted on the sandy ground and drew a rough line in the dirt with a tattooed finger. The shape of Wendlyn’s coastline. “They’ve been found here.” Little dots, seemingly random save for being close to the water. “We’re here,” he said, making another dot. He sat back on his heels as Celaena peered at the crude map. “And yet you and I encountered the creature lurking amongst the barrow-wights here,” he added, and drew an X where she assumed the mounds were, deep inland. “I haven’t seen any further signs of it remaining by the barrows, and the wights have returned to their usual habits.”
“Were the other bodies the same?”
“All were drained like this, with expressions of terror on their faces—not a hint of a wound, beyond dried blood at the nose and ears.” From the way his tan skin paled beneath his tattoo, the way he gritted his teeth, she knew that it rankled his immortal pride not to know what this thing was.
“All dumped in the forest, not the sea?” A nod. “But all within walking distance of the water.” Another nod. “If it were a skilled, sentient killer, it would hide the bodies better. Or, again, use the sea.” She gazed to the blinding water, the sun starting its afternoon descent. “Or maybe it doesn’t care. Maybe it wants us to know what it’s doing. There were—there were times when I left bodies so that they’d be found by a certain person, or to send a type of message.” Grave being the latest of them. “What do the victims have in common?”
“I don’t know,” he admitted. “We don’t even know their names or where they came from.” He rose and dusted his hands off. “We need to return to the fortress.”
She grabbed his elbow. “Wait. Have you seen enough of the body?”
A slow nod. Good. So had she—and she’d had enough of the smell, too. She’d committed it to memory, noting everything that she could. “Then we’ve got to bury her.”
“The ground’s too hard here.”
She stalked through the trees, leaving him behind. “Then we’ll do it the ancient way,” she called. She’d be damned if she left that woman’s body decomposing in a stream, damned if she left her there for all eternity, wet and cold.
Celaena pulled the too-light body out of the stream, laying it on the brown pine needles. Rowan didn’t say anything as she gathered kindling and branches and then knelt, trying not to look at the shriveled skin or the expression of lingering horror.
Neither did he mock her for the few times it took to get the fire started by hand, or make any snide comments once the pine needles finally crinkled and smoked, ancient incense for a rudimentary pyre. Instead, as she stepped from the rising flames, she felt him come to tower behind her, felt the surety and half wildness of him wrap around her like a phantom body. A warm breeze licked at her hair, her face. Air to help the fire; wind that helped consume the corpse.
The loathing she felt had nothing to do with her vow, or Nehemia. Celaena reached into the ageless pit inside her—just once—to see if she could pull up whatever trigger it was that caused the shift, so she could help her sad little fire burn more evenly, more proudly.
Yet Celaena remained stale and empty, stranded in her mortal body.
Still, Rowan didn’t say anything about it, and his wind fed the flames enough to make quick work of the body, burning far faster than a mortal pyre. They watched in silence, until there was nothing but ashes—until even those were carried up and away, over the trees, and toward the open sea.
Chaol hadn’t seen or heard from the general or the prince since that night in the tomb. According to his men, the prince was spending his time in the healers’ catacombs, courting one of the young women down there. He hated himself, but some part of him was relieved to hear it; at least Dorian was talking to someone.
The rift with Dorian was worth it. For Dorian, even if his friend never forgave him; for Celaena, even if she never came back; even if he wished she were still Celaena and not Aelin . . . it was worth it.
It was a week before he had time to meet with Aedion again—to get the information that he hadn’t received thanks to Dorian interrupting them. If Dorian had snuck up on them so easily, then the tomb wasn’t the best place to meet. There was one place, however, where they could gather with minimal risk. Celaena had left it to him in her will, along with the address.
The secret apartment above the warehouse was untouched, though someone had taken the time to cover the ornate furniture. Pulling the sheets off one by one was like uncovering a bit more of who Celaena had been before Endovier—proof that her lavish tastes ran deep. She’d bought this place, she’d once told him, to have somewhere to call her own, a place outside the Assassins’ Keep where she’d been raised. She’d dropped almost every copper she had into it—but it had been necessary, she said, for the bit of freedom it had granted her. He could have left the sheets on, probably should have, but . . . he was curious.
The apartment consisted of two bedrooms with their own bathing rooms, a kitchen, and a great room in which a deep-cushioned couch sprawled before a carved marble fireplace, accented by two oversized velvet armchairs. The other half of the room was occupied by an oak dining table capable of seating eight, its place settings still laid out: plates of porcelain and silver, flatware that had long since gone dull. It was the only evidence that this apartment had been untouched since whoever—Arobynn Hamel, probably—had ordered the place sealed up.
Arobynn Hamel, the King of the Assassins. Chaol gritted his teeth as he finished stuffing the last of the white sheets into the hallway closet. He’d been thinking a good deal about Celaena’s old master in the past few days. Arobynn was smart enough to have put things together when he found a washed-up orphan right after the Princess of Terrasen went missing, her body vanished into the half-frozen Florine River.
If Arobynn had known, and done those things to her . . . The scar on Celaena’s wrist flashed before him. He’d made her break her own hand. There must have been countless other brutalities that Celaena didn’t even tell him about. And the worst of them, the absolute worst . . .
He’d never asked Celaena why, when she was appointed Champion, her first priority wasn’t hunting down her master and cutting him into pieces for what he’d done to her lover, Sam Cortland. Arobynn had ordered Sam tortured and killed, and then devised a trap for Celaena that got her hauled off to Endovier. Arobynn must have expected to retrieve her someday, if he’d left this apartment untouched. He must have wanted to let her rot in Endovier—until he decided to free her and she crawled back to him, his eternally loyal servant.
It was her right, Chaol told himself. Her right to decide when and how to kill Arobynn. It was Aedion’s right, too. Even the two lords of Terrasen had more of a claim on Arobynn’s head than he did. But if Chaol ever saw him, he wasn’t sure he would be able to restrain himself.
The rickety wooden staircase beyond the front door groaned, and Chaol had his sword drawn in a heartbeat. Then there was a low, two-note whistle and he relaxed, just slightly, and whistled back. He kept his sword drawn until Aedion strode through the door, sword out.
“I was wondering whether you’d be here alone, or with a gaggle of men waiting in the shadows,” Aedion said by way of greeting, sheathing his sword.
Chaol glared at him. “Likewise.”
Aedion moved farther into the apartment, the fierceness on his face shifting among wariness, wonder, and sorrow. And it occurred to Chaol that this apartment was the first time Aedion was seeing a piece of his lost cousin. These were her things. She had selected everything, from the figurines atop the mantel to the green napkins to the old farm table in the kitchen, flecked and marred by what seemed like countless knives.
Aedion paused in the center of the room, scanning everything. Perhaps to see if there were indeed any hidden forces lying in wait, but . . . Chaol muttered something about using the bathing room and gave Aedion the privacy he needed.
This was her apartment. Whether she accepted or hated her past, she’d decorated the dining table in Terrasen’s royal colors—green and silver. The table and the stag figurine atop the mantel were the only shreds of proof that she might remember. Might care.
Everything else was comfortable, tasteful, as if the apartment were for lounging and nights by the fire. And there were so many books—on shelves, on the tables by the couch, stacked beside the large armchair before the curtained floor-to-ceiling window spanning the entire length of the great room.
Smart. Educated. Cultured, if the knickknacks were any indication. There were things from across the kingdoms, as if she’d picked up something everywhere she went. The room was a map of her adventures, a map of a whole different person. Aelin had lived. She’d lived, and seen and done things.
The kitchen was small but cozy—and . . . Gods. She had a cooling box. The captain had mentioned her being notorious as an assassin, but he hadn’t mentioned that she was rich. All that blood money—all these things just proof of what she’d lost. What he’d failed to protect.
She’d become a killer. A damn good one, if this apartment was any indication. Her bedroom was even more outrageous. It had a massive four-poster bed with a mattress that looked like a cloud, and an attached marble-tiled bathing room that possessed its own plumbing system.
Well, her closet hadn’t changed. His cousin had always loved pretty clothes. Aedion pulled out a deep blue tunic, gold embroidery around the lapels and buttons glimmering in the light from the sconces. These were clothes for a woman’s body. And the scent still clinging to the entire apartment belonged to a woman—so similar to what he remembered from childhood, but wrapped in mystery and secret smiles. It was impossible for his Fae senses not to notice, to react.
Aedion leaned against the wall of the dressing room, staring at the gowns and the displays of jewelry, now coated in dust. He didn’t let himself care about what had been done to him in the past, the people he’d ruined, the battlefields he’d walked off covered in blood and gore that wasn’t his own. As far as he was concerned, he’d lost everything the day Aelin died. He had deserved the punishment for how badly he’d failed. But Aelin . . .
Aedion ran his hands through his hair before stepping into the great room. Aelin would come back from Wendlyn, no matter what the captain believed. Aelin would come back, and when she did . . . With every breath, Aedion felt that lingering scent wrapping tighter around his heart and soul. When she came back, he was never letting her go.
Aedion sank onto one of the armchairs before the fire as Chaol said, “Well, I think I’ve waited long enough to hear what you have to say about magic. I hope it’s worthwhile.”
“Regardless of what I know, magic shouldn’t be your main plan of defense—or action.”
“I saw your queen cleave the earth in two with her power,” Chaol said. “Tell me that wouldn’t turn the tide on a battlefield—tell me that you wouldn’t need that, and others like her.”
“She won’t be anywhere near those battlefields,” Aedion snarled softly.