Celaena picked through the details and committed them to memory, trying not to think about the prince perched a few feet above her who had willingly sworn a blood oath to the immortal monster who dwelled beyond the mountains. She was about to ask for another story when she caught the motion in the trees.
She choked on the piece of blackberry pie she was in the middle of devouring as the massive mountain cat trotted from the forest and across the rain-drenched grass, heading right for their door. The rain had darkened its golden fur, and its eyes gleamed in the torches. Did the guards not see it? Malakai was listening to his mate with rapt attention. She opened her mouth to shout a warning when she paused.
The guards saw everything. And weren’t shooting. Because it wasn’t a mountain cat, but—
In a flash that could have been distant lightning, the mountain cat became a tall, broad-shouldered male walking toward the open door. Rowan surged into flight, then shifted, seamlessly landing midstride as he walked into the rain.
The two males clasped forearms and clapped each other on the back—a quick, efficient greeting. With the rain and Emrys’s narrating it was hard to hear, and she silently cursed her mortal ears as she strained to listen.
“I’ve been looking for you for six weeks,” the golden-haired stranger said, his voice sharp but hollow. Not urgent, but tired and frustrated. “Vaughan said you were at the eastern border, but Lorcan said you were on the coast, inspecting the fleet. Then the twins told me that the queen had been all the way out here with you and returned alone, so I came on a hunch . . .” He was babbling, his lack of control at odds with his hard muscles and the weapons strapped to him. A warrior, like Rowan—though his surprisingly lovely face had none of the prince’s severity.
Rowan put a hand on the male’s shoulder. “I heard what happened, Gavriel.” Was this one of Rowan’s mysterious friends? She wished Emrys were free to identify him. Rowan had told her so little about his five companions, but it was clear that Rowan and Gavriel were more than acquaintances. She sometimes forgot that Rowan had a life beyond this fortress. It hadn’t bothered her before, and she wasn’t sure why remembering it now suddenly settled in her stomach like a dead weight, or why it suddenly mattered that Rowan at least acknowledge that she was there. That she existed.
Gavriel scrubbed at his face, his heavily muscled back expanding as he took a breath. “I know you probably don’t want to—”
“Just tell me what you want and it will be done.”
Gavriel seemed to deflate, and Rowan guided him toward another door. They both moved with unearthly, powerful grace—as if the rain itself parted to let them through. Rowan didn’t even look back at her before he disappeared.
Rowan didn’t come back for the rest of the night, and curiosity, not kindness, made her realize his friend probably hadn’t had dinner. At least, no one had brought anything out of the kitchen, and Rowan hadn’t called for food. So why not bring up a tray of stew and bread?
Balancing the heavy tray on her hip, she knocked on his door. The murmuring within went silent, and for a second, she had the mortifying thought that perhaps the male was here for a far more intimate reason. Then someone snapped, “What?” and she eased open the door wide enough to glance in. “I thought you might want some stew and—”
Well, the stranger was half-naked. And lying on his back atop Rowan’s worktable. But Rowan was fully clothed, seated before him, and looking pissed as hell. Yes, she had certainly walked in on something private.
It took a heartbeat to note the flattened needles, the small cauldron-shaped vat of dark pigment, the rag soaked with ink and blood, and the tracings of a tattoo snaking from the stranger’s left pectoral down his ribs and right to his hip bone.
“Get out,” Rowan said flatly, lowering the needle. Gavriel lifted his head, the bright candles showing tawny eyes glazed with pain—and not necessarily from the markings being etched over his heart and rib cage. Words in the Old Language, just like Rowan’s. There were already so many—most of them aged and interrupted by various scars.
“Do you want the stew?” she asked, still staring at the tattoo, the blood, the little iron pot of ink, and the way Rowan seemed as much at ease with the tools in his hands as he did with his weapons. Had he made his own tattoo?
“Leave it,” he said, and she knew—just knew—that he would bite her head off later. Schooling her features into neutrality, she set the tray on the bed and walked back to the door.
“Sorry to interrupt.” Whatever the tattoos were for, however they knew each other, she had no right to be in here. The pain in the stranger’s eyes told her enough. She’d seen it in her own reflection plenty. Gavriel’s attention darted between her and Rowan, his nostrils flaring—he was smelling her.
It was definitely time to get the hell out. “Sorry,” she said again, and shut the door behind her.
She made it two steps down the hall before she had to stop and lean against the stone wall, rubbing at her face. Stupid. Stupid to even care what he did outside of training, to think he might consider sharing personal information with her, even if it was only that he was retiring to his rooms early. It hurt, though—more than she wanted to admit.
She was about to drag herself to her room when the door flung open down the hall and Rowan stormed out, practically glowing with ire. But just seeing the lividness written all over him had her riding that reckless, stupid edge again, and clinging to the anger was easier than embracing the quiet darkness that wanted to pull her down, down, down. Before he could start shouting, she asked, “Do you do it for money?”
A flicker of teeth. “One, it’s none of your business. And two, I would never stoop so low.” The look he gave her told her exactly what he thought of her profession.
“You know, it might be better if you just slapped me instead.”
“Instead of what?”
“Instead of reminding me again and again how rutting worthless and awful and cowardly I am. Believe me, I can do the job well enough on my own. So just hit me, because I’m damned tired of trading insults. And you know what? You didn’t even bother to tell me you’d be unavailable. If you’d said something, I never would have come. I’m sorry I did. But you just left me downstairs.”
Saying those last words made a sharp, quick panic rise up in her, an aching pain that had her throat closing. “You left me,” she repeated. Maybe it was only out of blind terror at the abyss opening up again around her, but she whispered, “I have no one left. No one.”
She hadn’t realized how much she meant it, how much she needed it not to be true, until now.
His features remained impassive, turning vicious, even, as he said, “There is nothing that I can give you. Nothing I want to give you. You are not owed an explanation for what I do outside of training. I don’t care what you have been through or what you want to do with your life. The sooner you can sort out your whining and self-pity, the sooner I can be rid of you. You are nothing to me, and I do not care.”
There was a faint ringing in her ears that turned into a roar. And beneath it, a sudden wave of numbness, a too-familiar lack of sight or sound or feeling. She didn’t know why it happened, because she had been so dead set on hating him, but . . . it would have been nice, she supposed. It would have been nice to have one person who knew the absolute truth about her—and didn’t hate her for it.
It would have been really, really nice.
She walked away without another word. With each step she took back to her room, that flickering light inside of her guttered.
And went out.
Celaena did not remember curling up in her bed, boots still on. She did not remember her dreams, or feel the pangs of hunger or thirst when she awoke, and she could barely respond to anyone as she trudged down to the kitchen and set about helping with breakfast. Everything swirled past in dull colors and whispers of sound. But she was still. A bit of rock in a stream.
Breakfast passed, and when it was done, in the quiet of the kitchen, the sounds sorted out into voices. A murmur—Malakai. A laugh—Emrys.
“Look,” Emrys said, coming up to where Celaena stood at the kitchen sink, still staring out at the field. “Look what Malakai bought me.”
She caught the flash of the golden hilt before she understood Emrys was holding out a new knife. It was a joke. The gods had to be playing a joke. Or they just truly, truly hated her.
The hilt was engraved with lotus blossoms, a ripple of lapis lazuli edging the bottom like a river wave. Emrys was smiling, eyes bright. But that knife, the gold polished and bright . . .
“I got it from a merchant from the southern continent,” Malakai said from the table, his satisfied tone enough to tell her that he was beaming. “It came all the way from Eyllwe.”
The numbness snapped.
Snapped with such a violent crack that she was surprised they didn’t hear it.
And in its place was a screaming, high-pitched and keening, loud as a teakettle, loud as a storm wind, loud as the sound the maid had emitted the morning she’d walked into Celaena’s parents’ bedroom and seen the child lying between their corpses.
It was so loud that she could hardly hear herself as she said, “I do not care.” She couldn’t hear anything over that silent screaming, so she raised her own voice, breath coming fast, too fast, as she repeated, “I. Do. Not. Care.”
Silence. Then Luca warily said from across the room, “Elentiya, don’t be rude.”
Elentiya. Elentiya. Spirit that cannot be broken.
Lies, lies, lies. Nehemia had lied about everything. About her stupid name, about her plans, about every damn thing. And she was gone. All that Celaena would have left of her were reminders like this—weapons similar to the ones the princess had worn with such pride. Nehemia was gone, and she had nothing left.
Trembling so hard she thought her body would fall apart at the seams, she turned. “I do not care about you,” she hissed to Emrys and Malakai and Luca. “I do not care about your knife. I do not care about your stories or your little kingdom.” She pinned Emrys with a stare. Luca and Malakai were across the room in an instant, stepping in front of the old man—teeth bared. Good. They should feel threatened. “So leave me alone. Keep your gods-damned lives to yourselves and leave me alone.”
She was shouting now, but she couldn’t stop hearing the screaming, couldn’t hone the anger into anything, couldn’t tell which way was up or down, only that Nehemia had lied about everything, and her friend once had sworn an oath not to—sworn an oath and broken it, just as she’d broken Celaena’s own heart the day she let herself die.
She saw the tears in Emrys’s eyes then. Sorrow or pity or anger, she didn’t care. Luca and Malakai were still between them, growling softly. A family—they were a family, and they stuck together. They would rip her apart if she hurt one of them.
Celaena let out a low, joyless laugh as she took in the three of them. Emrys opened his mouth to say whatever it was he thought would help.
But Celaena let out another dead laugh and walked out the door.
After an entire night of tattooing the names of the fallen onto Gavriel’s flesh and listening to the warrior talk about the men he’d lost, Rowan sent him on his way and headed for the kitchen. He found it empty save for the ancient male, who sat at the empty worktable, hands wrapped around a mug. Emrys looked up, his eyes bright and . . . grieving.
The girl was nowhere to be seen, and for a heartbeat, he hoped she’d left again, if only so he didn’t have to face what he’d said yesterday. The door to the outside was open—as if someone had thrown it wide. She’d probably gone that way.