“And you think agreeing to let those little bastards ban her from the library will prevent that? Tell me: why does our daughter love reading so much?”
“That has nothing to do with it.”
“Tell me.” When her mother didn’t respond, her father growled. “She is eight—and she has told me that her dearest friends are characters in books.”
“She has Aedion.”
“She has Aedion because he is the only child in this castle who isn’t petrified of her—who hasn’t been kept away because we have been lax with her training. She needs training, Ev—training, and friends. If she doesn’t have either, that’s when she’ll turn into what they’re afraid of.”
Silence, and then—a huff from beside her bed.
“I’m not a child,” Aedion hissed from where he sat in a chair, arms crossed. He’d slipped in here after her parents had left—to talk quietly to her, as he often did when she was upset. “And I don’t see why it’s a bad thing if I’m your only friend.”
“Quiet,” she hissed back. Though Aedion couldn’t shift, his mixed blood allowed him to hear with uncanny range and accuracy, better even than hers. And though he was five years older, he was her only friend. She loved her court, yes—loved the adults who pampered and coddled her. But the few children who lived in the castle kept away, despite their parents’ urging. Like dogs, she’d sometimes thought. The others could smell her differences.
“She needs friends her age,” her father went on. “Maybe we should send her to school. Cal and Marion have been talking about sending Elide next year—”
“No schools. And certainly not that so-called magic school, when it’s so close to the border and we don’t know what Adarlan is planning.”
Aedion loosed a breath, his legs propped on the mattress. His tan face was angled toward the cracked door, his golden hair shining faintly, but there was a crease between his brows. Neither of them took well to being separated, and the last time one of the castle boys had teased him for it, Aedion had spent a month shoveling horse dung for beating the boy into a pulp.
Her father sighed. “Ev, don’t kill me for this, but—you’re not making this easy. For us, or for her.” Her mother was quiet, and she heard a rustle of clothing and a murmur of, “I know, I know,” before her parents started speaking too quietly for even her Fae ears.
Aedion growled again, his eyes—their matching eyes—gleaming in the dark. “I don’t see what all the fuss is about. So what if you burned a few books? Those librarians deserve it. When we’re older, maybe we’ll burn it to the ground together.”
She knew he meant it. He’d burn the library, the city, or the whole world to ashes if she asked him. It was their bond, marked by blood and scent and something else she couldn’t place. A tether as strong as the one that bound her to her parents. Stronger, in some ways.
She didn’t answer him, not because she didn’t have a reply but because the door groaned, and before Aedion could hide, her bedroom flooded with light from the foyer.
Her mother crossed her arms. Her father, however, let out a soft laugh, his brown hair illuminated by the hall light, his face in shadow. “Typical,” he said, stepping aside to clear a space for Aedion to leave. “Don’t you have to be up at dawn to train with Quinn? You were five minutes late this morning. Two days in a row will earn you a week on stable duty. Again.”
In a flash, Aedion was on his feet and gone. Alone with her parents, she wished she could pretend to sleep, but she said, “I don’t want to go away to school.”
Her father walked to her bed, every inch the warrior Aedion aspired to be. A warrior-prince, she heard people call him—who would one day make a mighty king. She sometimes thought her father had no interest in being king, especially on days when he took her up into the Staghorns and let her wander through Oakwald in search of the Lord of the Forest. He never seemed happier than at those times, and always seemed a little sad to go back to Orynth.
“You’re not going away to school,” he said, looking over his broad shoulder at her mother, who lingered by the doorway, her face still in shadow. “But do you understand why the librarians acted the way they did today?”
Of course she did. She felt horrible for burning the books. It had been an accident, and she knew her father believed her. She nodded and said, “I’m sorry.”
“You have nothing to be sorry for,” her father said, a growl in his voice.
“I wish I was like the others,” she said.
Her mother remained silent, unmoving, but her father gripped her hand. “I know, love. But even if you were not gifted, you would still be our daughter—you would still be a Galathynius, and their queen one day.”
“I don’t want to be queen.”
Her father sighed. This was a conversation they’d had before. He stroked her hair. “I know,” he said again. “Sleep now—we’ll talk about it in the morning.”
They wouldn’t, though. She knew they wouldn’t, because she knew there was no escaping her fate, even though she sometimes prayed to the gods that she could. She lay down again nonetheless, letting him kiss her head and murmur good night.
Her mother still said nothing, but as her father walked out, Evalin remained, watching her for a long while. Just as she was drifting off, her mother left—and as she turned, she could have sworn that tears gleamed on her pale face.
Celaena jolted awake, hardly able to move, to think. It had to be the smell—the smell of that gods-damned body yesterday that had triggered the dream. It was agony seeing her parents’ faces, seeing Aedion. She blinked, focusing on her breathing, until she was no longer in that beautiful, jewel box–like room, until the scent of the pine and snow on the northern wind had vanished and she could see the morning mist weaving through the canopy of leaves above her. The cold, damp moss seeped through her clothes; the brine of the nearby sea hung thick in the air. She lifted her hand to examine the long scar carved on her palm.
“Do you want breakfast?” Rowan asked from where he crouched over unlit logs—the first fire she’d seen him assemble. She nodded, then rubbed her eyes with the heels of her palms. “Then start the fire,” he said.
“You can’t be serious.” He didn’t deign to respond. Groaning, she rotated on her sleeping roll until she sat cross-legged facing the logs. She held a hand toward the wood.
“Pointing is a crutch. Your mind can direct the flames just fine.”
“Perhaps I like the dramatics.”
He gave her a look she interpreted to mean Light the fire. Now.
She rubbed her eyes again and concentrated on the logs.
“Easy,” Rowan said, and she wondered if that was approval in his voice as the wood began to smoke. “A knife, remember. You are in control.”
A knife, carving out a small bit of magic. She could master this. Light one single fire.
Gods, she was so heavy again. That stupid dream—memory, whatever it was. Today would be an effort.
A pit yawned open inside her, the magic rupturing out before she could shout a warning.
She incinerated the entire surrounding area.
When the smoke and flames cleared thanks to Rowan’s wind, he merely sighed. “At least you didn’t panic and shift back into your human form.”
She supposed that was a compliment. The magic had felt like a release—a thrown punch. The pressure under her skin had lessened.
So Celaena just nodded. But shifting, it seemed, was to be the least of her problems.
It had just been a kiss, Sorscha told herself every day afterward. A quick, breathless kiss that made the world spin. The iron in the treacle had worked, though it bothered Dorian enough that they started to toy with the dosage . . . and ways to mask it. If he were caught ingesting powders at all hours of the day, it would lead to questions.
So it became a daily contraceptive tonic. Because no one would bat an eye at that—not with his reputation. Sorscha was still reassuring herself that the kiss had meant nothing more than a thank-you as she reached the door to Dorian’s tower room, his daily dose in hand.
She knocked, and the prince called her inside. The assassin’s hound was sprawled on his bed, and the prince himself was lounging on his shabby couch. He sat up, however, and smiled at her in that way of his.
“I think I found a better combination—the mint might go down better than the sage,” she said, holding up the glass of reddish liquid. He came toward her, but there was something in his gait—a kind of prowl—that made her straighten. Especially as he set down the glass and stared at her, long and deep. “What?” she breathed, backing up a step.
He gripped her hand—not hard enough to hurt, but enough to stop her retreat. “You understand the risks, and yet you’re still helping me,” he said. “Why?”
“It’s the right thing.”
“My father’s laws say otherwise.”
Her face heated. “I don’t know what you want me to say.”
His hands were cool as he brushed her cheeks, his calluses scraping gently. “I just want to thank you,” he murmured, leaning in. “For seeing me and not running.”
“I—” She was burning up from the inside out, and she pulled back, hard enough that he let go. Amithy was right, even if she was vicious. There were plenty of beautiful women here, and anything more than a flirtation would end poorly. He was Crown Prince, and she was nobody. She gestured to the goblet. “If it’s not too much trouble, Your Highness”—he cringed at the title—“send word about how this one works for you.”
She didn’t dare a by-your-leave or farewell or anything that would keep her in that room a moment longer. And he didn’t try to stop her as she walked out and shut the door behind her.
She leaned against the stone wall of the narrow landing, a hand on her thundering heart. It was the smart thing to do, the right thing to do. She had survived this long, and would only survive the road ahead if she continued to be unnoticed, reliable, quiet.
But she didn’t want to be unnoticed—not with him, not forever.
He made her want to laugh and sing and shake the world with her voice.
The door swung open, and she found him standing in the doorway, solemn and wary.
Maybe there could be no future, no hope of anything more, but just looking at him standing there, in this moment, she wanted to be selfish and stupid and wild.
It could all go to hell tomorrow, but she had to know what it was like, just for a little while, to belong to someone, to be wanted and cherished.
He did not move, didn’t do anything but stare—seeing her exactly how she saw him—as she grabbed the lapels of his tunic, pulled his face down to hers, and kissed him fiercely.
Chaol had been barely able to concentrate for the past few days thanks to the meeting he was moments away from having. It had taken longer than he had anticipated before Ren and Murtaugh were finally ready to meet him—their first encounter since that night in the slums. Chaol had to wait for his next night off, Aedion had to find a secure location, and then they had to coordinate with the two lords from Terrasen. He and the general had left the castle separately, and Chaol had hated himself when he lied to his men about where he was going—hated that they wished him fun, hated that they trusted him, the man who was meeting with their mortal enemies.
Chaol shoved those thoughts aside as he approached the dim alley a few blocks from the decrepit boarding house where they were to meet. Under his heavy-hooded cloak he was armed more heavily than he usually bothered. Every breath he took felt too shallow. A two-note whistle sounded down the alley, and he echoed it. Aedion stalked through the low-lying mist coming off the Avery, his face concealed in the cowl of his own cloak.