“I do not break my promises. And I have the feeling that you are unlike your mother in that regard, too.”
Bitch. Bitch, she wanted to hiss. But then Maeve’s eyes flicked to Celaena’s right palm. She knew everything. Through whatever spies or power or guesswork, Maeve knew everything about her and the vow to Nehemia.
“To what end?” Celaena asked softly, the anger and the fear dragging her down into an inescapable exhaustion. “You want me to train only so I can make a spectacle of my talents?”
Maeve ran a moon-white finger down the owl’s head. “I wish you to become who you were born to be. To become queen.”
The words haunted Celaena that night—kept her from sleeping, even though she was so exhausted she could have wept for the dark-eyed Silba to put her out of her misery. Queen. The word throbbed right along with the fresh split lip that also made sleeping very uncomfortable.
She could thank Rowan for that.
After Maeve’s command, Celaena hadn’t bothered with good-byes before walking out. Rowan had only cleared the way because Maeve gave him a nod, and he followed Celaena into a narrow hallway that smelled of roasting meat and garlic. Her stomach grumbled, but she’d probably hurl her guts up the second she swallowed anything. So she trailed Rowan down the corridor, down the stairs, each footstep alternating between iron-willed control and growing rage.
Right. You made a vow, and you will keep it, by whatever means necessary.
Left. Training. Queen.
Right. Bitch. Manipulative, cold-blooded, sadistic bitch.
Ahead of her, Rowan’s own steps were silent on the dark stones of the hallway. The torches hadn’t been lit yet, and in the murky interior, she could hardly tell he was there. But she knew—if only because she could almost feel the ire radiating off him. Good. At least one other person wasn’t particularly thrilled about this bargain.
Her whole life had been training, from the moment she was born. Rowan could train her until he was blue in the face, and as long as it got her the answers about the Wyrdkeys, she’d play along. But it didn’t mean that, when the time came, she had to do anything. Certainly not take up her throne.
She didn’t even have a throne, or a crown, or a court. Didn’t want them. And she could bring down the king as Celaena Sardothien, thank you very much.
She tightened her fingers into fists.
They encountered no one as they descended a winding staircase and started down another corridor. Did the residents of this fortress—Mistward, Maeve had called it—know who was in that study upstairs? Maeve probably got off on terrifying them. Maybe she had all of them—half-breeds, she’d called them—enslaved through some bargain or another. Disgusting. It was disgusting, to keep them here just for having a mixed heritage that was no fault of theirs.
Celaena finally opened up her mouth.
“You must be very important to Her Immortal Majesty if she put you on nurse duty.”
“Given your history, she didn’t trust anyone but her best to keep you in line.”
Oh, the prince wanted to tangle. Whatever self-control he’d had on their trek to the fortress was hanging by a thread. Good.
“Playing warrior in the woods doesn’t seem like the greatest indicator of talent.”
“I fought on killing fields long before you, your parents, or your grand-uncle were even born.”
She bristled—exactly like he wanted. “Who’s to fight here except birds and beasts?”
Silence. Then—“The world is a far bigger and more dangerous place than you can imagine, girl. Consider yourself blessed to receive any training—to have the chance to prove yourself.”
“I’ve seen plenty of this big and dangerous world, princeling.”
A soft, harsh laugh. “Just wait, Aelin.”
Another jab. And she let herself fall for it. “Don’t call me that.”
“It’s your name. I’m not going to call you anything different.”
She stepped in his path, getting right near those too-sharp canines. “No one here can know who I am. Do you understand?”
His green eyes gleamed, animal-bright in the dark. “My aunt has given me a harder task than she realizes, I think.” My aunt. Not our aunt.
And then she said one of the foulest things she’d ever uttered in her life, bathing in the pure hate of it. “Fae like you make me understand the King of Adarlan’s actions a bit more, I think.”
Faster than she could sense, faster than anything had a right to be, he punched her.
She shifted enough to keep her nose from shattering but took the blow on her mouth. She hit the wall, whacked her head, and tasted blood. Good.
He struck again with that immortal speed—or would have. But with equally unnerving swiftness, he halted his second blow before it fractured her jaw and snarled in her face, low and vicious.
Her breathing turned ragged as she purred, “Do it.”
He looked more interested in ripping out her throat than in talking, but he held the line he’d drawn. “Why should I give you what you want?”
“You’re just as useless as the rest of your brethren.”
He let out a soft, lethal laugh that raked claws down her temper. “If you’re that desperate to eat stone, go ahead: I’ll let you try to land the next punch.”
She knew better than to listen. But there was such a roar in her blood that she could no longer see right, think right, breathe right. So she damned the consequences to hell as she swung.
Celaena hit nothing but air—air, and then his foot hooked behind hers in an efficient maneuver that sent her careening into the wall once more. Impossible—he’d tripped her as if she was nothing more than a trembling novice.
He was now a few feet away, arms crossed. She spat blood and swore. He smirked. It was enough to send her hurtling for him again, to tackle or pummel or strangle him, she didn’t know.
She caught his feint left, but when she dove right, he moved so swiftly that despite her lifetime of training, she crashed into a darkened brazier behind him. The clatter echoed through the too-quiet hall as she landed face-first on the stone floor, her teeth singing.
“Like I said,” Rowan sneered down at her, “you have a lot to learn. About everything.”
Her lip already aching and swollen, she told him exactly what he could go do to himself.
He sauntered down the hall. “Next time you say anything like that,” he said without looking over his shoulder, “I’ll have you chopping wood for a month.”
Fuming, hatred and shame already burning her face, Celaena got to her feet. He dumped her in a very small, very cold room that looked like little more than a prison cell, letting her take all of two steps inside before he said, “Give me your weapons.”
“Why? And no.” Like hell she’d give him her daggers.
In a swift movement, he grabbed a bucket of water from beside her door and tossed the contents onto the hall floor before holding it out. “Give me your weapons.”
Training with him would be absolutely wonderful. “Tell me why.”
“I don’t have to explain myself to you.”
“Then we’re going to have another brawl.”
His tattoo seeming impossibly darker in the dim hall, he stared at her beneath lowered brows as if to say, You call that a brawl? But instead he growled, “Starting at dawn, you’ll earn your keep by helping in the kitchen. Unless you plan to murder everyone in the fortress, there is no need for you to be armed. Or to be armed while we train. So I’ll keep your daggers until you’ve earned them back.”
Well, that felt familiar. “The kitchen?”
He bared his teeth in a wicked grin. “Everyone pulls their weight here. Princesses included. No one’s above some hard labor, least of all you.”
And didn’t she have the scars to prove it. Not that she’d tell him that. She didn’t know what she’d do if he learned about Endovier and mocked her for it—or pitied her. “So my training includes being a scullery maid?”
“Part of it.” Again, she could have sworn she could read the unspoken words in his eyes: And I’m going to savor every damn second of your misery.
“For an old bastard, you certainly haven’t bothered to learn manners at any point in your long existence.” Never mind that he looked to be in his late twenties.
“Why should I waste flattery on a child who’s already in love with herself ?”
“We’re related, you know.”
“We’ve as much blood in common as I do with the fortress pig-boy.”
She felt her nostrils flare, and he shoved the bucket in her face. She almost knocked it right back into his, but decided that she didn’t want a broken nose and began disarming herself.
Rowan counted every weapon she put in the bucket as though he’d already learned how many she’d been carrying, even the hidden ones. Then he tucked the bucket against his side and slammed the door without so much of a good-bye beyond “Be ready at dawn.”
“Bastard. Old stinking bastard,” she muttered, surveying the room.
A bed, a chamber pot, and a washbasin with icy water. She’d debated a bath, but opted to use the water to clean out her mouth and tend to her lip. She was starving, but going to find food involved meeting people. So once she’d mended her lip as best she could with the supplies in her satchel, she tumbled into bed, reeking vagrant clothes and all, and lay there for several hours.
There was one small window with no coverings in her room. Celaena turned over in bed to look through it to the patch of stars above the trees surrounding the fortress.
Lashing out at Rowan like that, saying the things she did, trying to fight with him . . . She’d deserved that punch. More than deserved it. If she was being honest with herself, she was barely passable as a human being these days. She fingered her split lip and winced.
She scanned the night sky until she located the Stag, the Lord of the North. The unmoving star atop the stag’s head—the eternal crown—pointed the way to Terrasen. She’d been told that the great rulers of Terrasen turned into those bright stars so their people would never be alone—and would always know the way home. She hadn’t set foot there in ten years. While he’d been her master, Arobynn hadn’t let her, and afterward she hadn’t dared.
She had whispered the truth that day at Nehemia’s grave. She’d been running for so long that she didn’t know what it was to stand and fight. Celaena loosed a breath and rubbed her eyes.
What Maeve didn’t understand, what she could never understand, was just how much that little princess in Terrasen had damned them a decade ago, even worse than Maeve herself had. She had damned them all, and then left the world to burn into ash and dust.
So Celaena turned away from the stars, nestling under the threadbare blanket against the frigid cold, and closed her eyes, trying to dream of a different world.
A world where she was no one at all.
Manon Blackbeak stood on a cliff beside the snow-swollen river, eyes closed as the damp wind bit her face. There were few sounds she enjoyed more than the groans of dying men, but the wind was one of them.
Leaning into the breeze was the closest she came to flying these days—save in rare dreams, when she was again in the clouds, her ironwood broom still functioning, not the scrap of useless wood it was now, chucked into the closet of her room at Blackbeak Keep.
It had been ten years since she’d tasted mist and cloud and ridden on the back of the wind. Today would have been a flawless flying day, the wind wicked and fast. Today, she would have soared.