During the five days they worked on him, she missed her riding lessons with the Thirteen. And with each passing day, the window for getting Abraxos airborne became smaller and smaller.
Manon stood with Asterin and Sorrel in the training hall, watching the tail end of the day’s sparring session. Sorrel had been working with the youngest coven of Blackbeaks—all of them under seventy, and few of them experienced.
“How bad?” Manon asked, crossing her arms.
Sorrel, small and dark-haired, crossed her arms as well. “Not as bad as we feared. But they’re still sorting out coven dynamics—and their leader is . . .” Sorrel frowned at a mousy-looking witch who had just been thrown to the ground by an inferior. “I’d suggest either having her coven decide what to do with her or picking a new leader. One weak coven in the wing and we could lose the War Games.”
The coven leader was panting on the hard stone floor, nose dripping blue blood. Manon ground her teeth. “Give her two days—let’s see if she sorts herself out.” No need to have word of unstable covens get around. “But have Vesta take her out tonight,” Manon added, glancing to the red-haired beauty leading another coven in archery drills. “To wherever she’s been going to torment the men in the Northern Fang.”
Sorrel raised her thick brows innocently, and Manon rolled her eyes. “You’re a worse liar than Vesta. You think I haven’t noticed those men grinning at her at all hours of the day? Or the bite marks on them? Just keep the death toll down. We have enough to worry about as it is—we don’t need a mutiny from the mortals.”
Asterin snorted, but when Manon gave her a sidelong look, the witch kept her gaze ahead, face all too innocent. Of course, if Vesta had been bedding and bleeding the men, then Asterin had been right there with her. Neither of them had reported anything about the men tasting strange.
“As you will it, Lady,” Sorrel said, a faint hint of color on her tan cheeks. If Manon was ice and Asterin was fire, then Sorrel was rock. Her grandmother had told her on occasion to make Sorrel her Second, as ice and stone were sometimes too similar. But without Asterin’s flame, without her Second being able to rile up a host or rip out the throat of any challenger to Manon’s dominance, Manon would not have led the Thirteen so successfully. Sorrel was grounded enough to even them both out. The perfect Third.
“The only ones having fun right now,” Asterin said, “are the green-eyed demon-twins.”
Indeed, the midnight-haired Faline and Fallon were grinning with maniacal glee as they led three covens in knife-throwing exercises, using their inferiors as target practice. Manon just shook her head. Whatever worked; whatever shook the dust off these Blackbeak warriors.
“And my Shadows?” Manon asked Asterin. “How are they doing?”
Edda and Briar, two cousins that were as close as sisters, had been trained since infancy to blend into any sliver of darkness and listen—and they were nowhere to be seen in this hall. Just as Manon had ordered.
“They’ll have a report for you tonight,” Asterin said. Distant cousins to Manon, the Shadows bore the same moon-white hair. Or they had, until they’d discovered eighty years ago that the silver hair was as good as a beacon and dyed it solid black. They rarely spoke, never laughed, and sometimes even Asterin herself couldn’t detect them until they were at her throat. It was their sole source of amusement: sneaking up on people, though they’d never dared do it to Manon. It was no surprise they’d taken two onyx wyverns.
Manon eyed her Second and Third. “I want you both in my room for their report, too.”
“I’ll have Lin and Vesta stand watch,” Asterin said. They were Manon’s fallback sentries—Vesta for the disarming smiles, and Lin because if anyone ever called her by her full name, Linnea—the name her softhearted mother had given her before Lin’s grandmother tore out her heart—that person wound up with missing teeth at best. A missing face at worst.
Manon was about to turn away when she caught her Second and Third watching her. She knew the question they didn’t dare ask, and said, “I’ll be airborne with Abraxos in a week, and then we’ll be flying as one.”
It was a lie, but they believed her anyway.
Days passed, and not all of them were awful. Out of nowhere, Rowan decided to take Celaena to the commune of healers fifteen miles away, where the finest healers in the world learned, taught, and worked. Situated on the border between the Fae and mortal world, they were accessible to anyone who could reach them. It was one of the few good things Maeve had done.
As a child, Celaena had begged her mother to bring her. But the answer had always been no, accompanied by a vague promise that they would someday take a trip to the Torre Cesme in the southern continent, where many of the teachers had been taught by the Fae. Her mother had done everything she could to keep her from Maeve’s clutches. The irony of it wasn’t wasted on her.
So Rowan took her. She could have spent all day—all month—wandering the grounds under the clever, kind eyes of the Head Healer. But her time there was halved thanks to the distance and her inability to shift, and Rowan wanted to be home before nightfall. Honestly, while she’d actually enjoyed herself at the peaceful riverside compound, she wondered whether Rowan had just brought her there to make her feel bad about the life she’d fallen into. It had made her quiet on the long hike back.
And he didn’t give her a moment’s rest: they were to set out the following dawn on an overnight trip, but he wouldn’t say where. Fantastic.
Already making the day’s bread, Emrys only looked faintly amused as Celaena hurried in, stuffed her face with food and guzzled down tea, and hurried back out.
Rowan was waiting by her rooms, a small pack dangling from his hands. He held it open for her. “Clothes,” he said, and she stuffed the extra shirt and underclothes she’d laid out into the bag. He shouldered it—which she supposed meant he was in a good mood, as she’d fully expected to play pack mule on their way to wherever they were going. He didn’t say anything until they were in the mist-shrouded trees, again heading west. When the fortress walls had vanished behind them, the ward-stones zinging against her skin as they passed through, he stopped at last, throwing back the heavy hood of his jacket. She did the same, the cool air biting her warm cheeks.
“Shift, and let’s go,” he said. His second words to her this morning.
“And here I was, thinking we’d become friends.”
He raised his brows and gestured with a hand for her to shift. “It’s twenty miles,” he said by way of encouragement, and gave her a wicked grin. “We’re running. Each way.”
Her knees trembled at the thought of it. Of course he’d make this into some sort of torture session. Of course. “And where are we going?”
He clenched his jaw, the tattoo stretching. “There was another body—a demi-Fae from a neighboring fortress. Dumped in the same area, same patterns. I want to go to the nearby town to question the citizens, but . . .” His mouth twisted to the side, then he shook his head at some silent conversation with himself. “But I need your help. It’ll be easier for the mortals to talk to you.”
“Is that a compliment?” He rolled his eyes.
Perhaps yesterday’s outing to the healers’ compound hadn’t been out of spite. Maybe he’d . . . been trying to do something nice for her. “Shift, or it’ll take us twice as long.”
“I can’t. You know it doesn’t work like that.”
“Don’t you want to see how fast you can run?”
“I can’t use my other form in Adarlan anyway, so what’s the point?” Which was the start of a whole massive issue she hadn’t yet let herself contemplate.
“The point is that you’re here now, and you haven’t properly tested your limits.” It was true. She hadn’t really seen what she was capable of. “The point is, another husk of a body was found, and I consider that to be unacceptable.”
Another body—from that creature. A horrible, wretched death. It was unacceptable.
He gave her braid a sharp, painful tug. “Unless you’re still frightened.”
Her nostrils flared. “The only thing that frightens me is how very much I want to throttle you.” More than that, she wanted to find the creature and destroy it, for those it had murdered and for what it had made her walk through. She would kill it—slowly. A miserable sort of pressure and heat began building under her skin.
Rowan murmured, “Hone it—the anger.”
Was that why he’d told her about the body? Bastard—bastard for manipulating her, for making her pull double duty in the kitchen. But his face was unreadable as he said, “Let it be a blade, Aelin. If you cannot find the peace, then at least hone the anger that guides you to the shift. Embrace and control it—it is not your enemy.”
Arobynn had done everything he could to make her hate her heritage, to fear it. What he’d done to her, what she’d allowed herself to become . . . “This will not end well,” she breathed.
He didn’t back down. “See what you want, Aelin, and seize it. Don’t ask for it; don’t wish for it. Take it.”
“I’m certain the average magic instructor would not recommend this to most people.”
“You are not most people, and I think you like it that way. If it’s a darker set of emotions that will help you shift on command, then that’s what we’ll use. There might come a day when you find that anger doesn’t work, or when it is a crutch, but for now . . .” A contemplative look. “It was the common denominator those times you shifted—anger of varying kinds. So own it.”
He was right—and she didn’t want to think on it any more than that, or let herself get that enraged, not when she had been so angry for so long. For now . . .
Celaena took a long breath. Then another. She let the anger anchor her, a knife slicing past the usual hesitation and doubt and emptiness.
She brushed up against that familiar inner wall—no, a veil, shimmering with a soft light. All this time, she thought she’d been reaching down for the power, but this was more of a reach in. Not a wish, but a command. She would shift—because there was a creature prowling these lands, and it deserved to pay. With a silent growl, she punched herself through the veil, pain shooting along every inch and pore as she shifted.
A fierce, challenging grin, and Rowan moved, so fast she could hardly follow as he appeared on her other side and yanked on her braid again. When she whirled, he was already gone, and— She yelped as he pinched her side. “Stop—”
He was standing in front of her now, a wild invitation in his eyes. She’d been studying the way he moved, his tricks and tells, the way he assumed she’d react. So when she crossed her arms, feigning the tantrum he expected, she waited. Waited, and then—
He shot left to pinch or poke or hit her, and she whirled, slamming down his arm with an elbow and whacking him upside the head with her other hand. He stopped dead and blinked a few times. She smirked at him.
He bared his teeth in a feral, petrifying grin. “Oh, you’d better run now.”
When he lunged, she shot through the trees.
She had a suspicion that Rowan was letting her get ahead for the first few minutes, because though she moved faster, she could barely adjust enough to her altered body to leap over rocks and fallen trees. He’d said they were going southwest, and that was where she went, dodging between the trees, the anger simmering away, shifting into something else entirely.