“The fool didn’t know, and neither did the beast. But the language it spoke was Fae—an archaic form of the Old Language, almost indecipherable. It could remember the gold ring he bore, but not what he looked like.”
It took every ounce of effort not to grab for her pocket and the ring she’d put in there, or to examine the sword she’d left by the door, and the ruby that might not be a ruby after all. But it was impossible—too much of a coincidence.
She might have given in to the urge to look had Rowan not reached for his glass of water. He hid it well, and she didn’t think anyone else noticed, but as the sleeve of his jacket shifted, he winced, ever so slightly. From the burns she’d given him. They’d been blistering earlier—they must be screaming in agony now.
Emrys pinned the prince with a stare. “No more adventures.”
Rowan glanced at Luca, who seemed about to explode with indignation. “Agreed.”
Emrys didn’t back down. “And no more brawling.”
Rowan met Celaena’s stare over the table. His expression yielded nothing. “We’ll try.”
Even Emrys deemed that an acceptable answer.
Despite the exhaustion that slammed into her like a wall, Celaena couldn’t sleep. She kept thinking of the creature, of the sword and the ring she’d examined for an hour without learning anything, and the control, however shaky, she’d managed to have on the ice. Yet she kept circling back to what she’d done to Rowan—how badly she’d burned him.
His pain tolerance must be tremendous, she thought as she twisted on her cot, huddled against the cold in the room. She eyed her tin of salve. He should have gone to a healer for those burns. She tossed and turned for another five minutes before she yanked on her boots, grabbed the tin, and left. She’d probably get her head bitten off again, but she wouldn’t get a wink of sleep if she were too busy feeling guilty. Gods, she felt guilty.
She knocked softly on his door, half hoping he wasn’t there. But he snapped “What?” and she winced and went in.
His room was toasty and warm, if not a little old and shabby, especially the worn rugs thrown over much of the gray stone floor. A large four-poster bed occupied much of the space, a bed that was still made—and empty. Rowan was seated at the worktable in front of the carved fireplace, shirtless and examining what looked to be a map marked with the locations of those bodies.
His eyes flashed with annoyance, but she ignored him as she studied the massive tattoo that went from his face down his neck and shoulders and covered the entirety of his left arm, straight to his fingertips. She hadn’t really looked that day in the woods, but now she marveled at its beautiful, unbroken lines—save for the manacle-like burn around his wrist. Both wrists.
“What do you want?”
She hadn’t inspected his body too closely before, either. His chest—tan enough to suggest he spent a good amount of time without a shirt—was sculpted with muscle and covered in thick scars. From fights or battles or the gods knew what. A warrior’s body that he’d had centuries to hone.
She tossed the salve to him. “I thought you might want this.”
He caught it with one hand, but his eyes remained on her. “I deserved it.”
“Doesn’t mean I can’t feel bad.”
He turned the tin over and over between his fingers. There was a particularly long and nasty scar down his right pectoral—where had it come from? “Is this a bribe?”
“Give it back, if you’re going to be a pain in my ass.” She held out her hand.
But he closed his fingers around the tin, then set it on his worktable. He said, “You could heal yourself, you know. Heal me, too. Nothing major, but you have that gift.”
She knew—sort of. Her magic had sometimes healed her injuries without conscious thought. “It’s—it’s the drop of water affinity I inherited from Mab’s line.” The fire had been the gift of her father’s bloodline. “My mother”—the words made her sick, but she said them for some reason—“told me that the drop of water in my magic was my salvation—and sense of self-preservation.” A nod from him, and she admitted, “I wanted to learn to use it like the other healers—long ago, I mean. But never was allowed to. They said . . . well, it wouldn’t be all that useful, since I didn’t have much of it, and Queens don’t become healers.” She should stop talking.
For some reason, her stomach dropped as he said, “Go to bed. Since you’re banned from the kitchen tomorrow, we’re training at dawn.” Well, she certainly deserved the dismissal after burning him like that. So she turned, and maybe she looked as pathetic as she felt, because he suddenly said, “Wait. Shut the door.”
She obeyed. He didn’t give her leave to sit, so she leaned against the wooden door and waited. He kept his back to her, and she watched the powerful muscles expand and contract as he took a deep breath. Then another. Then—
“When my mate died, it took me a very, very long time to come back.”
It took her a moment to think of what to say. “How long ago?”
“Two hundred three years, twenty-seven days ago.” He gestured to the tattoo on his face, neck, arms. “This tells the story of how it happened. Of the shame I’ll carry until my last breath.”
The warrior who had come the other day had such hollow eyes . . . “Others come to you to have their own grief and shame tattooed on them.”
“Gavriel lost three of his soldiers in an ambush in the southern mountains. They were slaughtered. He survived. For as long as he’s been a warrior, he’s tattooed himself with the names of those under his command who have fallen. But where the blame lies has little to do with the point of the markings.”
“Were you to blame?”
Slowly, he turned—not quite all the way, but enough to give her a sidelong glance. “Yes. When I was young, I was . . . ferocious in my efforts to win valor for myself and my bloodline. Wherever Maeve sent me on campaigns, I went. Along the way, I mated a female of our race. Lyria,” he said, almost reverently. “She sold flowers in the market in Doranelle. Maeve disapproved, but . . . when you meet your mate, there is nothing you can do to alter it. She was mine, and no one could tell me otherwise. Mating her cost me Maeve’s favor, and I still yearned so badly to prove myself. So when war came calling and Maeve offered me a chance to redeem myself, I took it. Lyria begged me not to go. But I was so arrogant, so misguided, that I left her at our mountain home and went off to war. I left her alone,” he said, and again looked at Celaena.
You left me, she had said to him. That was when he’d snapped—the wounds of centuries ago rising up to swallow him as viciously as her own past consumed her.
“I was gone for months, winning all that glory I so foolishly sought. And then we got word that our enemies had been secretly trying to gain entrance to Doranelle through the mountain passes.” Her stomach dropped to her feet. Rowan ran a hand through his hair, scratched at his face. “I flew home. As fast as I’d ever flown. When I got there, I found that . . . found she had been with child. And they had slaughtered her anyway, and burnt our house to cinders.
“When you lose a mate, you don’t . . .” A shake of the head. “I lost all sense of self, of time and place. I hunted them down, all the males who hurt her. I took a long while killing them. She was pregnant—had been pregnant since I’d left her. But I’d been so enamored with my own foolish agenda that I hadn’t scented it on her. I left my pregnant mate alone.”
Her voice broke, but she managed to say, “What did you do after you killed them?”
His face was stark and his eyes focused on some far-off sight. “For ten years, I did nothing. I vanished. I went mad. Beyond mad. I felt nothing at all. I just . . . left. I wandered the world, in and out of my forms, hardly marking the seasons, eating only when my hawk told me it needed to feed or it would die. I would have let myself die—except I . . . couldn’t bring myself . . .” He trailed off and cleared his throat. “I might have stayed that way forever, but Maeve tracked me down. She said it was enough time spent in mourning, and that I was to serve her as prince and commander—to work with a handful of other warriors to protect the realm. It was the first time I had spoken to anyone since that day I found Lyria. The first time I’d heard my name—or remembered it.”
“So you went with her?”
“I had nothing. No one. At that point, I hoped serving her might get me killed, and then I could see Lyria again. So when I returned to Doranelle, I wrote the story of my shame on my flesh. And then I bound myself to Maeve with the blood oath, and have served her since.”
“How—how did you come back from that kind of loss?”
“I didn’t. For a long while I couldn’t. I think I’m still . . . not back. I might never be.”
She nodded, lips pressed tight, and glanced toward the window.
“But maybe,” he said, quietly enough that she looked at him again. He didn’t smile, but his eyes were inquisitive. “Maybe we could find the way back together.”
He would not apologize for today, or yesterday, or for any of it. And she would not ask him to, not now that she understood that in the weeks she had been looking at him it had been like gazing at a reflection. No wonder she had loathed him.
“I think,” she said, barely more than a whisper, “I would like that very much.”
He held out a hand. “Together, then.”
She studied the scarred, callused palm, then the tattooed face, full of a grim sort of hope. Someone who might—who did understand what it was like to be crippled at your very core, someone who was still climbing inch by inch out of that abyss.
Perhaps they would never get out of it, perhaps they would never be whole again, but . . . “Together,” she said, and took his outstretched hand.
And somewhere far and deep inside her, an ember began to glow.
Heir of Fire
“Things are ready for your meeting tonight with Captain Westfall?” Aedion could have sworn Ren Allsbrook bristled as he bit out the name.
Seated beside the young lord on the ledge of the roof of the warehouse apartment, Aedion considered Ren’s tone, decided it wasn’t enough of a challenge to warrant a verbal slap, and gave a nod as he went back to cleaning his nails with one of his fighting knives.
Ren had been recovering for days now, after the captain had set him up in the guest room of the apartment. The old man had refused to take the main bedroom, saying he’d prefer the couch, but Aedion wondered what exactly Murtaugh had observed when they arrived in the apartment. If he suspected who the owner was—Celaena or Aelin or both—he revealed nothing.
Aedion hadn’t seen Ren since the opium den, and didn’t really know why he’d bothered to come tonight. He said, “You’ve managed to build yourself a network of lowlifes here. That’s a far cry from the lofty towers of Allsbrook Castle.”
Ren’s jaw tightened. “You’re a far cry from the white towers of Orynth, too. We all are.” A breeze ruffled Ren’s shaggy hair. “Thank you. For—helping that night.”
“It was nothing,” Aedion said coolly, giving him a lazy smile.
“You killed for me, then hid me. That isn’t nothing. I owe you.”
Aedion was plenty used to accepting gratitude from other men, from his men, but this . . . “You should have told me,” he said, dropping the grin as he watched the golden lights twinkling across the city, “that you and your grandfather had no home.” Or money. No wonder Ren’s clothes were so shabby. The shame Aedion had felt that night had almost overwhelmed him—and had haunted him for the past few days, honing his temper to a near-lethal edge. He’d tried working it off with the castle guards, but sparring with the men who protected the king had only sharpened it.