Rowan took a step toward it, nodding his greeting, but the old male looked him up and down and quietly said, “What are you doing?”
Emrys didn’t raise his voice as he said, “To that girl. What are you doing that makes her come in here with such emptiness in her eyes?”
“That’s none of your concern.”
Emrys pressed his lips into a tight line. “What do you see when you look at her, Prince?”
He didn’t know. These days, he didn’t know a damn thing. “That’s none of your concern, either.”
Emrys ran a hand over his weathered face. “I see her slipping away, bit by bit, because you shove her down when she so desperately needs someone to help her back up.”
“I don’t see why I would be of any use to—”
“Did you know that Evalin Ashryver was my friend? She spent almost a year working in this kitchen—living here with us, fighting to convince your queen that demi-Fae have a place in your realm. She fought for our rights until the very day she departed this kingdom—and the many years after, until she was murdered by those monsters across the sea. So I knew. I knew who her daughter was the moment you brought her into this kitchen. All of us who were here twenty-five years ago recognized her for what she is.”
It wasn’t often that he was surprised, but . . . Rowan just stared.
“She has no hope, Prince. She has no hope left in her heart. Help her. If not for her sake, then at least for what she represents—what she could offer all of us, you included.”
“And what is that?” he dared ask.
Emrys met his gaze unflinchingly as he whispered, “A better world.”
Celaena walked and walked, until she found herself by the tree-lined shore of a lake, glaringly bright in the midday sun. She figured it was as good a spot as any as she crumpled to the mossy bank, as her arms wrapped tight around herself and she bowed over her knees.
There was nothing that could be done to fix her. And she was . . . she was . . .
A whimpering noise came out of her, lips trembling so hard she had to clamp down to keep the sound inside.
But the sound was in her throat and her lungs and her mouth, and when she took a breath, it cracked out. Once she heard it, everything came spilling into the world, until her body ached with the force of it.
She vaguely felt the light shifting on the lake. Vaguely felt the sighing wind, warm as it brushed against her damp cheeks. And heard, so soft it was as if she dreamed it, a woman’s voice whispering, Why are you crying, Fireheart?
It had been ten years—ten long years since she had heard her mother’s voice. But she heard it then over the force of her weeping, as clear as if she knelt beside her. Fireheart—why do you cry?
“Because I am lost,” she whispered onto the earth. “And I do not know the way.”
It was what she had never been able to tell Nehemia—that for ten years, she had been unsure how to find the way home, because there was no home left.
Storm winds and ice crackled against her skin before she registered Rowan sitting down beside her, legs out, palms braced behind him in the moss. She raised her head, but didn’t bother to wipe her face as she stared across the glittering lake.
“You want to talk about it?” he asked.
“No.” Swallowing a few times, she yanked a handkerchief from her pocket and blew her nose, her head clearing with each breath.
They sat in silence, no sound but the quiet lapping of the lake on the mossy bank and the wind in the leaves. Then— “Good. Because we’re going.”
Bastard. She called him as much, and then asked, “Going where?”
He smiled grimly. “I think I’ve started to figure you out, Aelin Galathynius.”
“What in every burning ring of hell,” Celaena panted, gazing at the cave mouth nestled into the base of the craggy mountain, “are we doing here?”
It had been a five-mile hike. Uphill. With hardly anything in her stomach.
The trees butted against the gray stones, flowing up the slope for a ways and then fading into lichen-covered rock that eventually turned into the snow-capped peak that marked the barrier between Wendlyn and Doranelle beyond. For some reason, this hulking giant made the hair on her neck stand up. And it had nothing to do with the frozen wind.
Rowan strode into the gaping maw of the cave mouth, his pale-gray cloak flapping behind him. “Hurry up.”
Pulling her own cloak tighter around her, she staggered after him. This was a bad sign. A horrible sign, actually, because whatever was in that cave . . .
She walked into the dark, following Rowan by the light on his hair, letting her eyes adjust. The ground was rocky, the stones small and worn smooth. And littered with rusted weapons, armor, and—clothes. No skeletons. Gods, it was so cold that she could see her breath, see—
“Tell me I’m hallucinating.”
Rowan had stopped at the edge of an enormous frozen lake, stretching into the gloom. Sitting on a blanket in its center, the chains around his wrists anchored under the ice, was Luca.
Luca’s chains clanked as he raised a hand in greeting. “I thought you’d never show. I’m freezing,” he called, and tucked his hands back under his arms. The sound echoed throughout the chamber.
The thick sheet of ice covering the lake was so clear that she could see the water beneath—pale stones on the bottom, what looked to be old roots from trees long dead, and no sign of life whatsoever. An occasional sword or dagger or lance poked up from the stones. “What is this place?”
“Go get him,” was Rowan’s answer.
“Are you out of your mind?”
Rowan gave her a smile that suggested he was, in fact, insane. She stepped toward the ice, but he blocked her path with a muscled arm. “In your other form.”
Luca’s head was angled, as if trying to hear. “He doesn’t know what I am,” she murmured.
“You’ve been living in a fortress of demi-Fae, you know. He won’t care.”
That was the least of her concerns, anyway. “How dare you drag him into this?”
“You dragged him in yourself when you insulted him—and Emrys. The least you can do is retrieve him.” He blew out a breath toward the lake, and the ice thawed by the shore, then hardened. Holy gods. He’d frozen the whole damn lake. He was that powerful?
“I hope you brought snacks!” Luca said. “I’m starving. Hurry up, Elentiya. Rowan said you had to do this as part of your training, and . . .” He prattled on and on.
“What is the gods-damned point of this? Just punishment for acting like an ass?”
“You can control your power in human form—keep it dormant. But the moment you switch, the moment you get agitated or angry or afraid, the moment you remember how much your power scares you, your magic rises up to protect you. It doesn’t understand that you are the source of those feelings, not some external threat. When there is an outside threat, when you forget to fear your power long enough, you have control. Or some control.” He pointed again to the sheet of ice between her and Luca. “So free him.”
If she lost control, if her fire got out of her . . . well, fire and ice certainly went well together, didn’t they? “What happens to Luca if I fail?”
“He’ll be very cold and very wet. And possibly die.” From the smile on his face, she knew he was enough of a sadist to let the boy go under with her.
“Were the chains really necessary? He’ll go right to the bottom.” A stupid, bleating kind of panic was starting to fill her veins.
When she held out her hand for the key to Luca’s chains, Rowan shook his head. “Control is your key. And focus. Cross the lake, then figure out how to free him without drowning the both of you.”
“Don’t give me a lesson like you’re some mystical-nonsense master! This is the stupidest thing I have ever had to—”
“Hurry,” Rowan said with a wolfish grin, and the ice gave a collective groan. As if it was melting. Though some small voice in her head told her he wouldn’t let the boy drown, she couldn’t trust him, not after last night.
She took one step closer to the ice. “You are a bastard.” When Luca was safely home, she would start finding ways to make Rowan’s life a living hell. She punched through her inner veil, the pain barely registering as her features shifted.
“I was waiting to see your Fae form!” Luca said. “We were all taking bets on when—” And on and on.
She scowled at Rowan, his tattoo even more detailed now that she was seeing it with Fae eyes. “It gives me comfort to know that people like you have a special place in hell waiting for them.”
“Tell me something I don’t already know.”
She gave him a particularly vulgar gesture as she stepped onto the ice.
As she took each tentative step—small ones at first—she could see the lake bottom sloping away into darkness, swallowing the spread of lost weapons. Luca had finally shut up.
It was only when she stepped past the visible edge of the rocky shelf and hovered over the dark depths that her breath hitched. She slid her foot, and the ice groaned.
Groaned, and cracked, spiderwebbing under her foot. She froze, gaping like a fool as the cracks spread wider and wider, and then—she kept moving. There was another crack beneath her boots. Did the ice move? “Stop it,” she hissed at Rowan, but didn’t dare look behind her.
Her magic shuddered awake, and she went still as death. No.
But there it was, filling up the spaces in her.
The ice emitted a deep groan that could only mean something cold and wet was coming her way really damn soon, and she took another step, if only because the way back seemed like it would shatter. She was sweating now—the magic, the fire was warming her from the inside out.
“Elentiya?” Luca asked, and she held out a hand toward him—a silent gesture to shut his stupid mouth as she closed her eyes and breathed, imagining the cold air around them filling her lungs, freezing over the well of power. Magic—it was magic. In Adarlan it was a death trap.
She clenched her hands into fists. Here it was not a death trap. In this land, she could have it, could wear whatever form she wished.
The ice stopped groaning, but it had clouded and thinned around her. She started sliding her feet, keeping as balanced and fluid as she could, humming a melody—a bit of a symphony that used to calm her. She let the beat anchor her, dull the edge of her panic.
The magic simmered to embers, pulsing with each breath. I am safe, she told it. Relatively safe. If Rowan was right, and it was just a reaction to protect her from some enemy . . .
Fire was the reason she’d been banned from the Library of Orynth when she was eight, after accidentally incinerating an entire bookcase of ancient manuscripts when she grew irritated with the Master Scholar lecturing her about decorum. It had been a beautiful, horrible relief to wake up one day not too many months after that and know magic was gone. That she could hold a book—hold what she adored most—and not worry about turning it to ash if she became upset or tired or excited.
Celaena Sardothien, gloriously mortal Celaena, never had to worry about accidentally scorching a playmate, or having a nightmare that might incinerate her bedroom. Or burning all of Orynth to the ground. Celaena had been everything Aelin wasn’t. She had embraced that life, even if Celaena’s accomplishments were death and torture and pain.
“Elentiya?” She’d been staring at the ice. Her magic flickered again.
Burning a city to the ground. That was the fear she overheard Melisande’s emissary hiss at her parents and uncle. She’d been told he had come to see about an alliance, but she later understood he’d really come to gather information on her. Melisande had a young queen on its throne, and she wanted to assess the threat she might face from the heir of Terrasen one day. Wanted to know if Aelin Galathynius would become a weapon of war.