The small things—lighting candles, putting out hearth fires, weaving a ribbon of flame through her fingers—were still the hardest. But Rowan pushed, dragging her from ruin to ruin, the only safe places for her to lose control. At least he brought food with him now, as she was constantly starving and could hardly go an hour without eating something. Magic gobbled up energy, and she was eating double or triple what she used to.
Sometimes they would talk. Well, she would make him talk, because after telling him about Aedion and her own selfish wish for freedom, she decided that talking was . . . good. Even if she wasn’t able to open up about some things, she liked hearing Rowan speak. She managed to get him to tell her about his various campaigns and adventures, each more brutal and harrowing than the next. There was a whole giant world to the south and east of Wendlyn, kingdoms and empires she’d heard of in passing but had never known much about. Rowan was a true warrior, who had walked on and off of killing fields, led men through hell, sailed on raging seas and seen distant, strange shores.
Though she envied his long life—and the gift of seeing the world that went along with it—she could still feel the undercurrent of rage and grief beneath each tale, the loss of his mate that haunted him no matter how far he rode or sailed or flew. He spoke very little of his friends, who sometimes accompanied him on his journeys. She did not envy him the battles he had fought, the wars in far-off lands, or the bloody years spent laying siege to cities of sand and stone.
She did not tell him that, of course. She only listened as he narrated while instructing her. And as she listened, she began to hate Maeve—truly hate her aunt in her core. That rage drove her to request legends about her aunt from Emrys every night. Rowan never reprimanded her when she asked for those stories, never showed any alarm.
It came as some surprise when Emrys announced one day that Beltane was two days off and they would begin preparations for their feasting and dancing and celebrating. Already Beltane, and according to Rowan, she was still far from ready to go to Doranelle, despite mastering the shift. Spring would now be in full bloom on her own continent. Maypoles would be raised, hawthorn bushes decorated—that was about as much as the king would allow. There would be no small gifts left at crossroads for the Little Folk. The king permitted the bare bones only, with the focus squarely on the gods and planting for the harvest. Not a hint or whisper of magic.
Bonfires would be ignited and a few brave souls would jump across for luck, to ward off evil, to ensure a good crop—whatever they hoped would come of it. As a child, she had run rampant through the field before the gates of Orynth, the thousand bonfires burning like the lights of the invading army that would too soon be encamped around the white city. It was her night, her mother had said—a night when a fire-bearing girl had nothing to fear, no powers to hide. Aelin Fireheart, people had whispered as she bounded past, embers streaming from her like ribbons, Aedion and a few of her more lethal court members trailing as indulgent guards. Aelin of the Wildfire.
After days of helping Emrys with the food (and devouring it when the cook wasn’t looking), she was hoping for a chance to relax on Beltane, but Rowan hauled her to a field atop the mountain plateau. Celaena bit into an apple she’d pulled from her pocket and raised her brows at Rowan, who was standing in front of a massive pile of wood for the bonfire, flanked by two small unlit fires on either side.
Around them, some of the demi-Fae were still hauling in more wood and kindling, others setting up tables to serve the food that Emrys had been laboring over without rest.
Dozens of other demi-Fae had arrived from their various outposts, with little fanfare and much embracing and good-natured teasing. Between helping Emrys and training with Rowan, Celaena hardly had time to inspect them—though a wretched part of her was somewhat pleased by the few admiring glances she caught being thrown in her direction by the visiting males.
She didn’t fail to notice how quickly they looked away when they beheld Rowan at her side. Though she did catch a few females looking at him with far warmer interest. She wanted to claw their faces off for it.
She munched on the apple as she studied him now, in his usual pale-gray tunic and wide belt, hood thrown back and leather vambraces gleaming in the late afternoon sunlight. Gods, she had no interest in him like that, and she was certain he had no inclination to take her to his bed, either. Maybe it was just from spending so much time in her Fae body that she felt . . . territorial. Territorial and grumpy and mean. Last night, she had growled at a female in the kitchen who would not stop staring at him and had actually taken a step toward him as if to say hello.
Celaena shook her head to clear away the instincts that were starting to make her see fire at all hours of the day. “I assume you brought me here so I could practice?” She chucked the apple core across the field and rubbed at her shoulder. She’d been feverish the night before thanks to Rowan making her practice all afternoon, and had awoken exhausted this morning.
“Ignite them, and keep the fires controlled and even all night.”
“All three.” Not a question.
“Keep the end ones low for the jumpers. The middle one should be scorching the clouds.”
She wished she hadn’t eaten the apple. “This could easily turn lethal.”
He lifted a hand and wind stirred around her. “I’ll be here,” he said simply, eyes shining with an arrogance he’d more than earned in his centuries of living.
“And if I somehow still manage to turn someone into a living torch?”
“Then it’s a good thing the healers are also here to celebrate.”
She gave him a dirty look and rolled her shoulders. “When do you want to start?”
Her stomach clenched as he said, “Now.”
She was burning, but remaining steady, even as the sun set and the field became packed with revelers. Musicians took up places by the forest edge and the world filled with their violins and fiddles and flutes and drums, such beautiful, ancient music that her flames moved with it, turning into rubies and citrines and tigereyes and deepest sapphires. Her magic didn’t manifest in only blue wildfire anymore; it had been slowly changing, growing, these past few weeks. No one really noticed her, standing on the outskirts of the fire’s light, though a few marveled at the flames that burned but did not consume the wood.
Sweat ran down every part of her—mostly thanks to the terror of people jumping over the lower-burning bonfires. Yet Rowan remained beside her, murmuring as if she were a nervous horse. She wanted to tell him to go away, to maybe indulge one of those doe-eyed females who kept silently inviting him to dance. But she focused on the flames and on maintaining that shred of control, even though her blood was starting to boil. A knot tightened in her lower back, and she shifted. Gods, she was soaked—every damn crevice was damp.
“Easy,” Rowan said as the flames danced a little higher.
“I know,” she gritted out. The music was already so inviting, the dancing around the fire so joyous, the food on the tables smelling so delicious . . . and here she was, far from it all, just burning. Her stomach grumbled. “When can I stop?” She shifted on her feet again, and the largest bonfire twisted, the flame slithering with her body. No one noticed.
“When I say so,” he said. She knew he was using the people around them, her fear for their safety, to get her to master her control, but . . .
“I’m sweating to death, I’m starving, and I want a break.”
“Resorting to whining?” But a cool breeze licked up her neck, and she closed her eyes, moaning. She could feel him watching her, and after a moment he said, “Just a little while longer.”
She almost sagged with relief, but opened her eyes to focus. She could hold out for a bit, then go eat and eat and eat. Maybe dance. She hadn’t danced in so long. Maybe she would try it out, here in the shadows. See if her body could find room for joy, even though it was currently so hot and aching that she would bet good money that the moment she stopped, she would fall asleep.
But the music was entrancing, the dancers mere shadows swirling around. Unlike in Adarlan, there were no guards monitoring the festivities, no villagers lurking to see who might cross the line into treason and earn a pretty coin for whoever they turned in. There was just the music and the dancing and the food and the fire—her fire.
She tapped a foot, bobbing her head, eyes on the three smokeless fires and the silhouettes dancing around them. She did want to dance. Not from joy, but because she felt her fire and the music meld and pulse against her bones. The music was a tapestry woven of light and dark and color, building delicate links in a chain that latched on to her heart and spread out into the world, binding her to it, connecting everything.
She understood then. The Wyrdmarks were—were a way of harnessing those threads, of weaving and binding the essence of things. Magic could do the same, and from her power, from her imagination and will and core, she could create and shape.
“Easy,” Rowan said, then added with a hint of surprise, “Music. That day on the ice, you were humming.” She registered another cool wind on her neck, but her skin was already pulsing in time with the drums. “Let the music steady you.”
Gods, to be free like this . . . The flames roiled and undulated with the melody.
“Easy.” She could barely hear him above the wave of sound filling her up, making her feel each tether binding her to the earth, each infinite thread. For a breath she wished for a shape-shifter’s heart so she could shed her skin and weave herself into something else, the music or the wind, and blow across the world. Her eyes were stinging, almost blurry from staring so long at the flames, and a muscle in her back twinged.
“Steady.” She didn’t know what he was talking about—the flames were calm, lovely. What would happen if she walked through them? The pulsing in her head seemed to say do it, do it, do it.
“That’s enough for now.” Rowan grabbed her arm, but hissed and let go. “That is enough.”
Slowly, too slowly, she looked at him. His eyes were wide, the light of the fire making them almost blaze. Fire—her fire. She returned to the flame, submitted to it. The music and the dancing continued, bright and merry.
“Look at me,” Rowan said, but didn’t touch her. “Look at me.”
She could hardly hear him, as if she were underwater. There was a pounding in her now—edged with pain. It was a knife that sliced into her mind and her body with each pulse. She couldn’t look at him—didn’t dare take her attention from the fire.
“Let the fires burn on their own,” Rowan ordered. She could have sworn she heard something like fear in his voice. It was an effort of will, and pain spiked down the tendons in her neck, but she looked at him. His nostrils flared. “Aelin, stop right now.”
She tried to speak, but her throat was raw, burning. She couldn’t move her body.
“Let go.” She tried to tell him she couldn’t, but it hurt. She was an anvil and the pain was a hammer, striking again and again. “If you don’t let go, you are going to burn out completely.”
Was this the end of her magic, then? A few hours tending fires? Such a relief—such a blessed relief, if it were true.
“You are on the verge of roasting yourself from the inside out,” Rowan snarled.
She blinked, and her eyes ached as if she had sand in them. Agony lashed down her spine, so hard she fell to the grass. Light flared—not from her or Rowan, but from the fires surging. People yelled, the music faltered. The grass hissed beneath her hands, smoking. She groaned, fumbling inside for the three tethers to the fires. But she was a maze, a labyrinth, the strings all tangled, and—