Rowan was a silver and white streak beside and behind her, and every time he got too close, she veered the other way, testing out the senses that told her where the trees were without seeing them—the smell of oak and moss and living things, the open coolness of the mist passing between them like a path that she followed.
They hit a plateau, the ground easy beneath her boots. Faster—she wanted to see if she could go faster, if she could outrun the wind itself.
Rowan appeared at her left, and she pumped her arms, her legs, savoring the breath in her lungs—smooth and calm, ready to see what she would do next. More—this body wanted more.
She wanted more.
And then she was going swifter than she ever had in her life, the trees a blur, her immortal body singing as she let its rhythms fall into place. Her powerful lungs gobbled down the misty air and filled with the smell and taste of the world, only instinct and reflex guiding her, telling her she could go faster still, feet eating up the loamy earth step by step by step.
Gods. Oh, gods.
She could have flown, could have soared for the sudden surge of ecstasy in her blood, the sheer freedom granted by the marvel of creation that was her body.
Rowan shot at her from the right, but she dodged a tree with such ease she let out a whoop, then threw herself between two long-hanging braches, mere hurdles that she landed with feline skill.
Rowan was at her side again, lunging with a snap of his teeth, but she whirled and leapt over a rock, letting the moves she’d honed as an assassin blend into the instincts of her Fae body.
She could die for love of this speed, this surety in her bones. How had she been afraid of this body for so long? Even her soul felt looser. As if it had been locked up and buried and was only now starting to shake free. Not joy, perhaps not ever, but a glimmer of what she had been before grief had decimated her so thoroughly.
Rowan raced beside her, but made no move to grab her. No, Rowan was . . . playing.
He threw a glance at her, breathing hard but evenly. And it might have been the sun through the canopy, but she could have sworn that she saw his eyes alight with a glimmer of that same, feral contentment. She could have sworn he was smiling.
It was the fastest twenty miles of her life. Granted, the last five were slower, and by the time Rowan brought them to a halt, they were both gulping down air. It was only then, as they stared at each other between the trees, that she realized the magic hadn’t once flared—hadn’t once tried to overpower or erupt. She could feel it waiting down in her gut, warm but calm. Slumbering.
She wiped the sweat from her brow, her neck, her face. Though she was panting, she still could have run for miles more. Gods, if she had been this fast the night Nehemia had—
It wouldn’t have made a difference. Nehemia had orchestrated every step in her own destruction, and would have found another way. And she had only done it because Celaena refused to help—refused to act. Having this glorious Fae body changed nothing.
She blinked, realizing she’d been staring at Rowan, and that whatever satisfaction she’d seen on his face had again turned to ice. He tossed something at her—the shirt he’d carried with him. “Change.” He turned and stripped off his own shirt. His back was just as tan and scarred as the rest of him. But seeing those markings didn’t make her want to show him what her own ruined back looked like, so she moved between the trees until she was sure he couldn’t see her, and swapped her shirt. When she returned to where he’d dumped the pack, he tossed her a skein of water, which she gulped down. It tasted . . . She could taste each layer of minerals in the water, and the musk of the skein itself.
By the time they strode into the red-roofed little town, Celaena could breathe again.
They quickly learned that it was almost impossible to get anyone to talk, especially to two Fae visitors. Celaena debated returning to her human form, but with her accent and ever-worsening mood, she was fairly certain a woman from Adarlan wouldn’t be much better received than a Fae. Windows were shuttered as they passed, probably because of Rowan, who looked like nothing short of death incarnate. But he was surprisingly calm with the villagers they approached. He didn’t raise his voice, didn’t snarl, didn’t threaten. He didn’t smile, but for Rowan, he was downright cheerful.
Still, it got them nowhere. No, they had not heard of a missing demi-Fae, or any other bodies. No, they had not seen any strange people lurking about. No, livestock were not disappearing, though there was a chicken thief a few towns away. No, they were perfectly safe and protected in Wendlyn, and didn’t appreciate Fae and demi-Fae poking into their business, either.
Celaena had given up on flirting with a pock-faced stable boy at the inn, who had just gawked at her ears and canines as though she were one heartbeat away from eating him alive.
She stalked down the pleasant main street, hungry and tired and annoyed that they were indeed going to need their bedrolls because the innkeeper had already informed them he had no vacancies. Rowan fell into step beside her, the storm clouds in his eyes saying enough about how his conversation with the taproom maid had gone.
“I could believe it was a half-wild creature if at least some of them knew these people had vanished,” she mused. “But consistently selecting someone who wouldn’t be missed or noticed? It must be sentient enough to know who to target. The demi-Fae has to be a message—but what? To stay away? Then why leave bodies in the first place?” She tugged at the end of her braid, stopping in front of a clothier’s window. Simple, well-cut dresses stood on display, not at all like the elegant, intricate fashions in Rifthold.
She noticed the wide-eyed, pale shopkeeper a heartbeat before the woman slashed the curtains shut. Well, then.
Rowan snorted, and Celaena turned to him. “You’re used to this, I assume?”
“A lot of the Fae who venture into mortal lands have earned themselves a reputation for . . . taking what they want. It went unchecked for too many years, but even though our laws are stricter now, the fear remains.” A criticism of Maeve?
“Who enforces these laws?”
A dark smile. “I do. When I’m not off campaigning, my aunt has me hunt down the rogues.”
“And kill them?”
The smile remained. “If the situation calls for it. Or I just haul them back to Doranelle and let Maeve decide what to do with them.”
“I think I’d prefer death at your hands to death at Maeve’s.”
“That might be the first wise thing you’ve said to me.”
“The demi-Fae said you have five other warrior friends. Do they hunt with you? How often do you see them?”
“I see them whenever the situation calls for it. Maeve has them serve her as she sees fit, as she does with me.” Every word was clipped. “It is an honor to be a warrior serving in her inner circle.” Celaena hadn’t suggested otherwise, but she wondered why he felt the need to add it.
The street around them was empty; even food carts had been abandoned. She took a long breath, sniffing, and—was that chocolate? “Did you bring any money?”
A hesitant lift of his brow. “Yes. They won’t take your bribes, though.”
“Good. More for me, then.” She pointed out the pretty sign swaying in the sea breeze. Confectionery. “If we can’t win them with charm, we might as well win them with our business.”
“Did you somehow not hear what I just—” But she had already reached the shop, which smelled divine and was stocked with chocolates and candies and oh gods, hazelnut truffles. Even though the confectioner blanched as the two of them overpowered the space, Celaena gave the woman her best smile.
Over her rotting corpse was she letting these people get away with shutting curtains in her face—or letting them think that she was here to plunder. Nehemia had never once let the preening, bigoted idiots in Rifthold shut her out of any store, dining room, or household.
And she had the sense that her friend might have been proud of the way she went from shop to shop that afternoon, head held high, and charmed the ever-loving hell out of those villagers.
Once word spread that the two Fae strangers were spending silver on chocolates, then a few books, then some fresh bread and meat, the streets filled again. Vendors bearing everything from apples to spices to pocket watches were suddenly eager to chat, so long as they sold something. When Celaena popped in to the cramped messenger’s guild to mail a letter, she managed to ask a few novices if they’d been hired by anyone of interest. They hadn’t, but she still tipped them handsomely.
Rowan dutifully carried every bag and box Celaena bought save the chocolates, which she ate as she strolled around, one after another after another. When she offered one to him, he claimed he didn’t eat sweets. Ever. Not surprising.
The villagers wound up not knowing anything, which she supposed was good, because it meant that they hadn’t been lying, but the crab-monger did say he’d found a few discarded knives—small, sharp-as-death knives—in his nets recently. He tossed them all back into the water as gifts for the Sea God. The creature had sucked these people dry, not cut them up. So it was likely that Wendlynite soldiers had somehow lost a trunk of their blades in some storm.
At sunset, the innkeeper even approached them about a suddenly vacant suite. The very best suite in town, he claimed, but Celaena was starting to wonder whether they might attract the wrong sort of attention, and she wasn’t particularly in the mood to see Rowan disembowel a would-be thief. So she politely refused, and they set out down the street, the light turning thick and golden as they entered the forest once more.
Not a bad day, she realized as she nodded off under the forest canopy. Not bad at all.
Her mother had called her Fireheart.
But to her court, to her people, she would one day be Queen. To them, she was the heir to two mighty bloodlines, and to a tremendous power that would keep them safe and raise their kingdom to even greater heights. A power that was a gift—or a weapon.
That had been the near-constant debate for the first eight years of her life. As she grew older and it became apparent that while she’d inherited most of her mother’s looks, she’d received her father’s volatile temper and wildness, the wary questions became more frequent, asked by rulers in kingdoms far from their own.
And on days like this, she knew that everyone would hear of the event, for better or worse.
She was supposed to be asleep, and was wearing her favorite silk nightgown, her parents having tucked her in minutes ago. Though they had told her they weren’t, she knew they were exhausted, and frustrated. She’d seen the way the court was acting, and how her uncle had put a gentle hand on her father’s shoulder and told him to take her up to bed.
But she couldn’t sleep, not when her door was cracked open, and she could hear her parents from their bedroom in the suite they shared in the upper levels of the white castle. They thought they were speaking quietly, but it was with an immortal’s ears that she listened in the near-dark.
“I don’t know what you expect me to do, Evalin,” her father said. She could almost hear him prowling before the giant bed on which she had been born. “What’s done is done.”
“Tell them it was exaggerated, tell them the librarians were making a fuss over nothing,” her mother hissed. “Start a rumor that someone else did it, trying to pin the blame on her—”
“This is all because of Maeve?”
“This is because she is going to be hunted, Rhoe. For her whole life, Maeve and others will hunt her for this power—”