“I’m not going to talk about that.”

“If you took up your crown, you could free Endovier far more easily than—”

“I ­can’t talk about it.”

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“Why?”

There was a pit in the memory—­a pit she ­couldn’t climb out of if she ever fell in. It ­wasn’t her parents’ deaths. She had been able to tell others in vague terms about their murders. That pain was still staggering, still haunted her. But waking up between their corpses ­wasn’t the moment that had shattered everything Aelin Galathynius was and might have been. In the back of her mind, she heard another woman’s voice, lovely and frantic, another woman who—

She rubbed her brows again. “There is this . . . rage,” she said hoarsely. “This despair and hatred and rage that lives and breathes inside me. There is no sanity to it, no gentleness. It is a monster dwelling under my skin. For the past ten years, I have worked every day, every hour, to keep that monster locked up. And the moment I talk about those two days, and what happened before and after, that monster is going to break loose, and there will be no accounting for what I do.

“That is how I was able to stand before the King of Adarlan, how I was able to befriend his son and his captain, how I was able to live in that palace. Because I did not give that rage, those memories, one inch. And right now I am looking for the tools that might destroy my enemy, and I cannot let out the monster, because it will make me use those tools against the king, not put them back as I should—­and I might very well destroy the world for spite. So that is why I must be Celaena, not Aelin—­because being Aelin means facing those things, and unleashing that monster. Do you understand?”

“For what­ever it’s worth, I don’t think you would destroy the world from spite.” His voice turned hard. “But I also think you like to suffer. You collect scars because you want proof that you are paying for what­ever sins you’ve committed. And I know this because I’ve been doing the same damn thing for two hundred years. Tell me, do you think you will go to some blessed Afterworld, or do you expect a burning hell? You’re hoping for hell—­because how could you face them in the Afterworld? Better to suffer, to be damned for eternity and—”

“That’s enough,” she whispered. She must have sounded as miserable and small as she felt, because he turned back to the worktable. She shut her eyes, but her heart was thundering.

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She didn’t know how much time passed. After a while, the mattress shifted and groaned, and a warm body pressed against hers. Not holding her, just lying beside her. She didn’t open her eyes, but she breathed in the smell of him, the pine and snow, and her pain settled a bit.

“At least if you’re going to hell,” he said, the vibrations in his chest rumbling against her, “then we’ll be there together.”

“I feel bad for the dark god already.” He brushed a large hand down her hair, and she almost purred. She hadn’t realized just how much she missed being touched—­by anyone, friend or lover. “When I’m back to normal, can I assume you’re going to yell at me about almost burning out?”

He let out a soft laugh but continued stroking her hair. “You have no idea.”

She smiled against the pillow, and his hand stilled for a moment—­then started again.

After a long while he murmured, “I have no doubt that you’ll be able to free the slaves from the labor camps some day. No matter what name you use.”

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Her eyes burned behind their lids, but she leaned into his touch some more, even going so far as to put a hand on his broad chest, savoring the steady, assured heartbeat pounding beneath.

“Thank you for looking after me,” she said. He grunted—­acceptance or dismissal, she didn’t know. Sleep tugged at her, and she followed it into oblivion.

Rowan kept her cooped up in his room for a few more days, and even once she told him she was feeling fine, he made her spend an extra half day in bed. She supposed it was nice, having someone, even an overbearing, snarling Fae warrior, bothering to care whether she lived or died.

Her birthday arrived—­nineteen somehow felt rather dull—­and her sole present was that Rowan left her alone for a few hours. He came back with the news of another demi-­Fae corpse found near the coast. She asked him to let her see it, but he flat-­out refused (barked at her was more like it) and said he’d already gone to see it himself. It was the same pattern: a dried nosebleed, a body drained until only a husk remained, and then a careless dumping. He’d also gone back to that town—­where they had been more than happy to see him, since he’d brought gold and silver.

And he’d returned to Celaena with chocolates, since he claimed to be insulted that she considered his absence a proper birthday present. She tried to embrace him, but he would have none of that, and told her as much. Still, the next time she used the bathing room, she’d snuck behind his chair at the worktable and planted a great, smacking kiss on his cheek. He’d waved her off and wiped his face with a snarl, but she had the suspicion that he’d let her get past his defenses.

It was a mistake to think that finally going back outdoors would be delightful.

Celaena was standing across a mossy clearing from Rowan, her knees slightly bent, hands in loose fists. Rowan hadn’t told her to, but she’d gotten into a defensive position upon seeing the faint gleam in his eyes.

Rowan only looked like this when he was about to make her life a living hell. And since they hadn’t gone to the temple ruins, she assumed he thought she’d at least mastered one element of her power, despite the events of Beltane. Which meant they ­were on to mastering the next.

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“Your magic lacks shape,” Rowan said at last, standing so still that she envied him for it. “And because it has no shape, you have little control. As a form of attack, a fireball or wave of flame is useful, yes. But if you are engaging a skilled combatant—­if you want to be able to use your power—­then you have to learn to fight with it.” She groaned. “But,” he added sharply, “you have one advantage that many magic-­wielders do not: you already know how to fight with weapons.”

“First chocolates on my birthday, now an actual compliment?”

His eyes narrowed, and they had yet another of their wordless conversations. The more you talk, the more I’m going to make you pay in a moment.

She smiled slightly. Apologies, master. I am yours to instruct.

Brat. He jerked his chin at her. “Your fire can take what­ever form you wish—­the only limit being your imagination. And considering your upbringing, should you go on the offensive—”

“You want me to make a sword out of fire?”

“Arrows, daggers—­you direct the power. Visualize it, and use it as you would a mortal weapon.”

She swallowed.

He smirked. Afraid to play with fire, Princess?

You won’t be happy if I singe your eyebrows off.

Try me. “When you trained as an assassin, what was the first thing you learned?”

“How to defend myself.”

She understood why he’d looked so amused for the past few minutes when he said, “Good.”

Not surprisingly, having ice daggers thrown at her was miserable.

Rowan hurled dagger after magical dagger at her—­and every damn time, the shield of fire that she tried (and failed) to imagine did nothing. If it appeared at all, it always manifested too far to the left or right.

Rowan didn’t want a wall of flame. No—­he wanted a small, controlled shield. And it didn’t matter how many times he nicked her hands or arms or face, it didn’t matter that dried blood was now itching down her cheeks. One shield—­that was all she had to craft and he would stop.

Sweating and panting, Celaena was beginning to wonder if she should step directly into the path of his next dagger and put herself out of her suffering when Rowan growled. “Try harder.”

“I am trying,” she snapped, rolling aside as he sent two gleaming ice daggers at her head.

“You’re acting like you’re on the verge of a burnout.”

“Maybe I am.”

“If you believe for one moment that you’re close to a burnout after an hour of practicing—”

“It happened that quickly on Beltane.”

“That was not the end of your power.” His next ice dagger hovered in the air beside his head. “You fell into the lure of the magic and let it do what it wanted—­let it consume you. Had you kept your head, you could have had those fires burning for weeks—­months.”

“No.” She didn’t have any better answer than that.

His nostrils flared slightly. “I knew it. You wanted your power to be insignificant—­you ­were relieved when you thought that was all you had.”

Without warning, he sent the dagger, then the next, then the next at her. She raised her left arm as she would raise a shield, picturing the flame surrounding her arm, blocking those daggers, obliterating them, but—

She cursed so loudly that the birds stopped their chatter. She clutched her forearm as blood welled and soaked into her tunic. “Stop hitting me! I get the point!”

But another dagger came. And another.

Ducking and dodging, raising her bloodied arm again and again, she gritted her teeth and swore at him. He sent a dagger twirling with deadly efficiency—­and she ­couldn’t move fast enough to avoid the thin scratch along her cheekbone. She hissed.

He was right—­he was always right, and she hated that. Almost as much as she hated the power that flooded her and did what it wanted. It was hers to command—­not the other way around. She was not its slave. She was no one’s slave anymore. And if Rowan threw one more damned dagger at her face—

He did.

The ice crystal didn’t make it past her upraised forearm before it vanished in a hiss of steam.

Celaena gazed over the flickering edge of the compact red-­burning flame before her arm. Shaped like—­a shield.

Rowan smiled slowly. “We’re done for today. Go eat something.”

The circular shield did not burn her, though its flames swirled and sizzled. As she’d commanded. It had . . . worked.

So she raised her eyes to Rowan. “No. Again.”

After a week of making shields of various sizes and temperatures, Celaena could have multiple defenses burning at once, and encircle the entire glen with half a thought to protect it from outside assault. And when she awoke one morning before dawn, she ­couldn’t say why she did it, but she slipped from the room she shared with Rowan and went down to the ward-­stones.

She shivered from more than the early morning cold as the power of the curving gate-­stones zinged against her skin when she passed through. But none of the sentries on the battlements ordered her to stop as she walked along the line of towering, carved rocks until she found a bit of even ground and began to practice.

44

As one the Thirteen flew; as one the Thirteen led the other Blackbeak covens in the skies. Drill after drill, through rain and sun and wind, until they ­were all tanned and freckled. Even though Abraxos had yet to make the Crossing, the Spidersilk patching on his wings improved his flying significantly.

It was all going beautifully. Abraxos had gotten into a brawl for dominance with Lin’s bull and emerged victorious, and after that, none in her coven or any other challenged him. The War Games ­were fast approaching, and though Iskra hadn’t been any trouble since the night Manon had half killed her, they watched their backs: in the baths, around every dark corner, double-­checking every rein and strap before they mounted their wyverns.

Yes, it was all going beautifully, until Manon was summoned to her grandmother’s room.

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