If she’d had any energy, she might have objected. But he carried her up the two flights of stairs, down the hall, and then—

A roaring fire, warm sheets, and a soft mattress. And a heavy quilt that was tucked in with surprising gentleness. The fire dimmed on a phantom wind, and then the mattress shifted.

In the flickering dark, he said roughly, “You’re staying with me from now on.” She found him lying as far away from her as he could get without falling off the mattress. “The bed is for to­night. Tomorrow, you’ll get a cot. You’ll clean up after yourself or you’ll be back in that room.”

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She nestled into her pillow. “Very well.” The fire dimmed, yet the room remained toasty. It was the first warm bed she’d had in months. But she said, “I don’t want your pity.”

“This is not pity. Maeve decided not to tell me what happened to you. You have to know that I—­I ­wasn’t aware you had—”

She slid an arm across the bed to grasp his hand. She knew that if she wanted to, she could strike him a wound so deep it would fracture him. “I knew. At first, I was afraid you’d mock me if I told you, and I would kill you for it. Then I didn’t want you to pity me. And more than any of that, I didn’t want you to think it was ever an excuse.”

“Like a good soldier,” he said. She had to look away for a moment to keep from letting him see just what that meant to her. He took a long breath that made his broad chest expand. “Tell me how you ­were sent there—­and how you got out.”

She was tired in her bones, but she rallied her energy one last time and told him of the years in Rifthold, of stealing Asterion ­horses and racing across the desert, of dancing until dawn with courtesans and thieves and all the beautiful, wicked creatures in the world. And then she told him about losing Sam, and of that first whipping in Endovier, when she’d spat blood in the Chief Overseer’s face, and what she had seen and endured in the following year. She spoke of the day she had snapped and sprinted for her own death. Her heart grew heavy when at last she got to the eve­ning when the Captain of the Royal Guard prowled into her life, and a tyrant’s son had offered her a shot at freedom. She told him what she could about the competition and how she’d won it, until her words slurred and her eyelids drooped.

There would be more time to tell him of what happened next—­of the Wyrdkeys and Elena and Nehemia and how she had become so broken and useless. She yawned, and Rowan rubbed his eyes, his other hand still in hers. But he didn’t let go. And when she awoke before dawn, warm and safe and rested, Rowan was still holding her hand, clasped to his chest.

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Something molten rushed through her, pouring over every crack and fracture still left gaping and open. Not to hurt or mar—­but to weld.

To forge.

43

Rowan didn’t let her get out of bed that day. He brought trays of food, going so far as to make sure she consumed every last drop of beef stew, half a loaf of crusty bread, a bowl of the first spring berries, and a mug of ginger tea. He hardly needed to offer any encouragement to eat; she was starving. But if she didn’t know better, she’d say he was fussing.

Emrys and Luca visited once to see if she was alive, took one look at Rowan’s stone-­cold face, heard the ripple of a growl, and took off, saying she was in more than competent hands and promising to come back when she was feeling better.

“You know,” Celaena said, propped in bed with her fourth mug of tea of the day, “I highly doubt anyone is going to attack me now, if they’ve already put up with my nonsense for this long.”

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Rowan, who was yet again poring over the map of the location of the bodies, didn’t even look up from his seat at his worktable. “This isn’t negotiable.”

She might have laughed had her body not given a burst of twisting, blinding pain. She bore down on it, clenching her mug, focusing on her breathing. That was why she’d allowed him to fuss. Thanks to her magical meltdown last night, every damn part of her was sore. The constant throb and stinging and twisting, the headache between her brows, the fuzziness on the edge of her vision . . . even sliding her gaze across the room sent sparks of pain through her head.

“So you mean to tell me that whenever someone comes close to burnout, she not only goes through all this misery, but if she’s female, the males around her go this berserk?”

He set down his pen and twisted to examine her. “This is hardly berserk. At least you can defend yourself by physical means when your magic is useless. For other Fae, even if they’ve had weapons and defense training, if they ­can’t touch their magic, they’re vulnerable, especially when they’re drained and in pain. That makes people—­usually males, yes—­somewhat edgy. Others have been known to kill without thought any perceived threat, real or otherwise.”

“What sort of threat? Maeve’s lands are peaceful.” She leaned over to set down her tea, but he was already moving, so swift that he intercepted her mug before it could hit the table. He took it from her with surprising gentleness, saw that she’d drained it, and poured another cup.

“Threats from anywhere—­males, females, creatures . . . You ­can’t reason against it. Even if it ­wasn’t in our culture, there would still be an instinct to protect the defenseless, regardless of whether they’re female or male, young or old.” He reached for a slice of bread and a bowl of beef broth. “Eat this.”

“It pains me to say this, but one more bite and I’ll be sick all over the place.” Oh, he was definitely fussing, and though it warmed her miserable heart, it was becoming rather irritating.

The bastard just dipped the bread into the broth and held them out to her. “You need to keep up your energy. You probably came so close to burnout because you didn’t have enough food in your stomach.”

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Fine; it smelled too good to resist, anyway. She took the bread and the broth. While she ate, he made sure the room passed inspection: the fire was still high (suffocatingly hot, as it had been since morning, thanks to the chills that had racked her), only one window was cracked (to allow in the slightest of breezes when she had hot flashes), the door was shut (and locked), and yet another pot of tea was waiting (currently steeping on his worktable). When he was done ensuring all was accounted for and no threats lurked in the shadows, he looked her over with the same scrutiny: skin (wan and gleaming from the remnants of those hot flashes), lips (pale and cracked), posture (limp and useless), eyes (pain-­dimmed and increasingly full of irritation). Rowan frowned again.

After handing the empty bowl to him, she rubbed her thumb and forefinger against the per­sis­tent headache between her eyebrows. “So when the magic runs out,” she said, “that’s it—­either you stop or you burn out?”

Rowan leaned back in his chair. “Well, there’s the carranam.” The Old Language word was beautiful on his tongue—­and if she’d had a death wish, she might have begged him to speak only in the ancient language, just to savor the exquisite sounds.

“It’s hard to explain,” Rowan went on. “I’ve only ever seen it used a handful of times on killing fields. When you’re drained, your carranam can yield their power to you, as long as you’re compatible and actively sharing a blood connection.”

She tilted her head to the side. “If we ­were carranam, and I gave you my power, would you still only be using wind and ice—­not my fire?” He nodded gravely. “How do you know if you’re compatible with someone?”

“There’s no way of telling until you try. And the bond is so rare that the majority of Fae never meet someone who is compatible, or whom they trust enough to test it out. There’s always a threat that they could take too much—­and if they’re unskilled, they could shatter your mind. Or you could both burn out completely.”

Interesting. “Could you ever just steal magic from someone?”

“Less savory Fae once attempted to do so—­to win battles and add to their own power—­but it never worked. And if it did, it was because the person they held hostage was coincidentally compatible. Maeve outlawed any forced bonds long before I was born, but . . . I’ve been sent a few times to hunt down corrupt Fae who keep their carranam as slaves. Usually, the slaves are so broken there’s no way to rehabilitate them. Putting them down is the only mercy I can offer.”

His face and voice didn’t change, but she said softly, “Doing that must be harder than all the wars and sieges you’ve ever waged.”

A shadow darted across his harsh face. “Immortality is not as much of a gift as mortals would believe. It can breed monsters that even you would be sick to learn about. Imagine the sadists you’ve encountered—­and then imagine them with millennia to hone their craft and warped desires.”

Celaena shuddered. “This conversation’s become too awful to have after eating,” she said, slumping against the pillows. “Tell me which one of your little cadre is the handsomest, and if he would fancy me.”

Rowan choked. “The thought of you with any of my companions makes my blood run cold.”

“They’re that awful? Your kitty-­cat friend looked decent enough.”

Rowan’s brows ­rose high. “I don’t think my kitty-­cat friend would know what to do with you—­nor would any of the others. It would likely end in bloodshed.” She kept grinning, and he crossed his arms. “They would likely have very little interest in you, as you’ll be old and decrepit soon enough and thus not worth the effort it would take to win you.”

She rolled her eyes. “Killjoy.”

Silence fell, and he looked her over again (lucid, if drained and moody), and she ­wasn’t that surprised when he glanced at her bare wrists—one of the few bits of skin showing thanks to all the blankets he’d piled on top of her. They hadn’t discussed it last night, but she knew he’d been working up to it.

There was no judgment in his eyes as he said, “A skilled healer could probably get rid of those scars—­definitely the ones on your wrist, and most on your back.”

She clenched her jaw, but after a moment loosed a long breath. Even though she knew he would understand without much explanation, she said, “There ­were cells in the bowels of the mines that they used to punish slaves. Cells so dark you would wake up in them and think you’d been blinded. They locked me in there sometimes—­once for three weeks straight. And the only thing that got me through it was reminding myself of my name, over and over and over—I am Celaena Sardothien.”

Rowan’s face was drawn, but she went on. “When they would let me out, so much of my mind had shut down in the darkness that the only thing I could remember was that my name was Celaena. Celaena Sardothien, arrogant and brave and skilled, Celaena who did not know fear or despair, Celaena who was a weapon honed by Death.” She ran a shaking hand through her hair. “I don’t usually let myself think about that part of Endovier,” she admitted. “After I got out, there ­were nights when I would wake up and think I was back in those cells, and I would have to light every candle in my room to prove I ­wasn’t. They don’t just kill you in the mines—­they break you.

“There are thousands of slaves in Endovier, and a good number are from Terrasen. Regardless of what I do with my birthright, I’m going to find a way to free them someday. I will free them. Them, and all the slaves in Calaculla, too. So my scars serve as a reminder of that.”

She’d never said it, but there it was. Once she dealt with the King of Adarlan, if destroying him somehow didn’t put an end to the labor camps, she would. Stone by stone, if necessary.

Rowan asked, “What happened ten years ago, Aelin?”

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