“It’s Sorscha,” she said, though there was no anger in it, as there should have been. The spoiled prince and his entitled friends, too absorbed in their own lives to bother learning the name of the healer who had patched them up again and again.
She finished wrapping his hand and he said, “In case we didn’t say it often enough, thank you.”
Those green-flecked brown eyes lifted again. A tentative smile. “It’s an honor, Prince.” She began gathering up her supplies.
Taking that as his cue to leave, he stood and flexed his fingers. “Feels good.”
“They’re minor wounds, but keep an eye on them.” Sorscha dumped the bloodied water down the sink in the back of the room. “And you needn’t come all the way down here the next time. Just—just send word, Your Highness. We’re happy to attend to you.” She curtsied low, with the long-limbed grace of a dancer.
“You’ve been responsible for the southern stone wing all this time?” The question within the question was clear enough: You’ve seen everything? Every inexplicable injury?
“We keep records of our patients,” Sorscha said softly—so no one else passing by the open doorway could hear. “But sometimes we forget to write down everything.”
She hadn’t told anyone what she’d seen, the things that didn’t add up. Dorian gave her a swift bow of thanks and strode from the room. How many others, he wondered, had seen more than they let on? He didn’t want to know.
Sorscha’s fingers, thankfully, had stopped shaking by the time the Crown Prince left the catacombs. By some lingering grace of Silba, goddess of healers and bringer of peace—and gentle deaths—she’d managed to keep them from trembling while she patched up his hand, too. Sorscha leaned against the counter and loosed a long breath.
The cuts hadn’t merited a bandage, but she’d been selfish and foolish and had wanted to keep the beautiful prince in that chair for as long as she could manage.
He didn’t even know who she was.
She’d been appointed full healer a year ago, and had been called to attend to the prince, the captain, and their friend countless times. And the Crown Prince still had no idea who she was.
She hadn’t lied to him—about failing to keep records of everything. But she remembered it all. Especially that night a month ago, when the three of them had been bloodied up and filthy, the girl’s hound injured, too, with no explanation and no one raising a fuss. And the girl, their friend . . .
The King’s Champion. That’s who she was.
Lover, it seemed, of both the prince and his captain at one time or another. Sorscha had helped Amithy tend to the young woman after the brutal duel to win her title. Occasionally, she’d checked on the girl and found the prince holding her in bed.
She’d pretended it didn’t matter, because the Crown Prince was notorious where women were involved, but . . . it hadn’t stopped the sinking ache in her chest. Then things had changed, and when the girl was poisoned with gloriella, it was the captain who stayed with her. The captain who had acted like a beast in a cage, prowling the room until Sorscha’s own nerves had been frayed. Not surprisingly, several weeks later, the girl’s handmaid, Philippa, came to Sorscha for a contraceptive tonic. Philippa hadn’t said whom it was for, but Sorscha wasn’t an idiot.
When she’d attended the captain a week after that, four brutal scratches down his face and a dead look in his eyes, Sorscha had understood. And understood again the last time, when the prince, the captain, and the girl were all bloodied along with the hound, that whatever had existed between the three of them was broken.
The girl especially. Celaena, she’d heard them say accidentally when they thought she was already out of the room. Celaena Sardothien. World’s greatest assassin and now the King’s Champion. Another secret Sorscha would keep without them ever knowing.
She was invisible. And glad of it, most days.
Sorscha frowned at her table of supplies. She had half a dozen tonics and poultices to make before dinner, all of them complex, all of them dumped on her by Amithy, who pulled rank whenever she could. On top of it, she still had her weekly letter to write to her friend, who wanted every little detail about the palace. Just thinking of all the tasks gave her a headache.
Had it been anyone other than the prince, she would have told them to go find another healer.
Sorscha returned to her work. She was certain he’d forgotten her name the moment he left. Dorian was heir to the mightiest empire in the world, and Sorscha was the daughter of two dead immigrants from a village in Fenharrow that had been burned to ash—a village that no one would ever remember.
But that didn’t stop her from loving him, as she still did, invisible and secret, ever since she’d first laid eyes on him six years ago.
Nothing else approached Celaena and Rowan after that first night. He certainly didn’t say anything to her about it, or offer his cloak or any sort of protection against the chill. She slept curled on her side, turning every other minute from some root or pebble digging into her back or jolting awake at the screech of an owl—or something worse.
By the time the light had turned gray and mist drifted through the trees, Celaena felt more exhausted than she’d been the night before. After a silent breakfast of bread, cheese, and apples, she was nearly dozing atop her mare as they resumed their ride up the forested foothill road.
They passed few people—mostly humans leading wagons down to some market, all of whom glanced at Rowan and gave them the right of way. Some even muttered prayers for mercy.
She’d long heard the Fae existed peacefully with the humans in Wendlyn, so perhaps the terror they encountered was due to Rowan himself. The tattoo didn’t help. She had debated asking him what the words meant, but that would involve talking. And talking meant building some sort of . . . relationship. She’d had enough of friends. Enough of them dying, too.
So she’d kept her mouth shut the entire day they rode through the woods up into the Cambrian Mountains. The forest turned lusher and denser, and the higher they rode, the mistier it became, great veils of fog drifting past to caress her face, her neck, her spine.
Another cold, miserable night camped off the road later and they were riding again before dawn. By then, the mist had seeped into her clothes and skin, and settled right along her bones.
On the third evening, she’d given up hoping for a fire. She’d even embraced the chill and the insufferable roots and the hunger whose edge she couldn’t dull no matter how much bread and cheese she ate. The aches and pains were soothing somehow.
Not comforting, but . . . distracting. Welcome. Deserved.
She didn’t want to know what that meant about her. She couldn’t let herself look that far inward. She’d come close, that day she’d seen Prince Galan. And it had been enough.
They veered from the path in the dwindling afternoon hours, cutting across mossy earth that cushioned each step. She hadn’t seen a town in days, and the granite boulders were now carved with whorls and patterns. She supposed they were markers—a warning to humans to stay the hell away.
They had to be another week from Doranelle, but Rowan was heading along the mountains, not over them, climbing higher still, the ascent broken by occasional plateaus and fields of wildflowers. She hadn’t seen a lookout, so she had no sense of where they were, or how high. Just the endless forest, and the endless climb, and the endless mist.
She smelled smoke before she saw the lights. Not campfires, but lights from a building rising up out of the trees, hugging the spine of the mountain slope. The stones were dark and ancient—hewn from something other than the abundant granite. Her eyes strained, but she didn’t fail to note the ring of towering rocks woven between the trees, surrounding the entirety of the fortress. It was hard not to notice them when they rode between two megaliths that curved toward each other like the horns of a great beast, and a zinging current snapped against her skin.
Wards—magic wards. Her stomach turned. If they didn’t keep out enemies, they certainly served as an alarm. Which meant the three figures patrolling each of the three towers, the six on the outer retaining wall, and the three at the wooden gates would now know they were approaching. Men and women in light leather armor and bearing swords, daggers, and bows monitored their approach.
“I think I’d rather stay in the woods,” she said, her first words in days. Rowan ignored her.
He didn’t even lift an arm in greeting to the sentries. He must be familiar with this place if he didn’t stoop to hellos. As they drew closer to the ancient fortress—which was little more than a few watchtowers woven together by a large connecting building, splattered with lichen and moss—she did the calculations. It had to be some border outpost, a halfway point between the mortal realm and Doranelle. Perhaps she’d finally have a warm place to sleep, even if just for the night.
The guards saluted Rowan, who didn’t spare them a passing glance. They all wore hoods, masking any signs of their heritage. Were they Fae? Rowan might not have spoken to her for most of their journey—he’d shown as much interest in her as he would in a pile of shit on the road—but if she were staying with the Fae . . . others might have questions.
She took in every detail, every exit, every weakness as they entered the large courtyard beyond the wall, two rather mortal-looking stable hands rushing to help them dismount. It was so still. As if everything, even the stones, was holding its breath. As if it had been waiting. The sensation only worsened when Rowan wordlessly led her into the dim interior of the main building, up a narrow set of stone stairs, and into what looked to be a small office.
It wasn’t the carved oak furniture, or the faded green drapes, or the warmth of the fire that made her stop dead. It was the dark-haired woman seated behind the desk. Maeve, Queen of the Fae.
And then came the words she had been dreading for ten years.
“Hello, Aelin Galathynius.”
Celaena backed away, knowing exactly how many steps it would take to get into the hall, but slammed into a hard, unyielding body just as the door shut behind them. Her hands were shaking so badly she didn’t bother going for her weapons—or Rowan’s. He’d cut her down the instant Maeve gave the order.
The blood rushed from Celaena’s head. She forced herself to take a breath. And another. Then she said in a too-quiet voice, “Aelin Galathynius is dead.” Just speaking her name aloud—the damned name she had dreaded and hated and tried to forget . . .
Maeve smiled, revealing sharp little canines. “Let us not bother with lies.”
It wasn’t a lie. That girl, that princess had died in a river a decade ago. Celaena was no more Aelin Galathynius than she was any other person.
The room was too hot—too small, Rowan a brooding force of nature behind her.
She was not to have time to gather herself, to make up excuses and half truths, as she should have been doing these past few days instead of free-falling into silence and the misty cold. She was to face the Queen of the Fae as Maeve wanted to be faced. And in some fortress that seemed far, far beneath the raven-haired beauty watching her with black, depthless eyes.
Maeve was fearsome in her perfection, utterly still, eternal and calm and radiating ancient grace. The dark sister to the fair-haired Mab.
Celaena had been fooling herself into thinking this would be easy. She was still pressed against Rowan as though he were a wall. An impenetrable wall, as old as the ward-stones surrounding the fortress. Rowan stepped away from her with his powerful, predatory ease and leaned against the door. She wasn’t getting out until Maeve allowed her.