This content was written by Sarah J. Maas and is the property of her and the property of Bloomsbury Publishing.
“What’s your favorite food?” Lounging on a boulder like a lizard in the sun, Celaena chucked a nut in the air and caught it in her mouth.
“Whatever keeps me alive at the moment,” Rowan said from beside her, forearms braced on his knees as he monitored the foothills and valleys of Wendlyn rippling away below.
She clicked her tongue, “could you be any more of an animal?”
He slid a glance in her direction, lifting a brow as if to say, you remember what my other form is, don’t you? When she only scowled, he sighed. “There’s a street vendor in Doranelle who sells meat on a stick.”
“Meat on a stick,” Celaena said as steadily as she could, fighting to keep her lips in a straight line.
“And I suppose yours is some confection or useless bit of sugar.”
“Sweets aren’t useless. And yes. I’d crawl over hot coals for a piece of chocolate hazelnut cake right now.” Lies. The last time she’s had it, it had been with Chaol. She wasn’t sure she could ever eat it again.
“What good could that possibly be for keeping your body strong? With your magic, you’d burn through it and be hungry within half an hour.”
She propped herself up on her elbows. “Your priorities are obscenely out of order. Not all food is for survival and strength-building. You didn’t even try one of the chocolates from that town. I guarantee the moment you do, every time I turn my back, you’ll be shoveling them down.”
The thought of Rowan doing it made her clamp her lips together again. She knew he’d make her start training the moment she started howling, so she quickly asked, “favorite color?”
“I’m surprised you actually know.”
He narrowed his eyes, but said, “what’s yours?”
“For a while, I made myself believe it was blue. But-it’s always been red. You probably know why.”
He made an affirmative sound.
Celaena lay down and raised a hand above her, threading a line of fire through her fingers. She plaited it between her knuckles, then snaked it down her palm until it curled around her wrist, twining and slithering along her skin.
“Good,” Rowan said. “Your control is improving.”
“Mmmhmm.” She lifted her other hand, and rings of flame encircled her fingers. She set to work on carving the flames, forging them into individual patterns.
“Try it on me,” Rowan said, and she turned toward him and frowned deeply. “Do it.”
He didn’t flinch when she fashioned a crown of flame for him. Right atop his head.
She sat up, kneeling before him, her own jewelry still burning on her hands and wrists, and concentrated as she fashioned the crown into a wreath, each individual leaf a flick of flame, the gold and red and blue bright as any precious stone.
Rowan’s silver hair gleamed beneath it.
“Bold move,” he said as she continued to add details to his crown. “One that doesn’t have much space for error.”
“I’m surprised you’re not encasing your head in with ice.”
“I trust you,” he said quietly enough that she looked at his face. With the crown of flame, he looked kingly indeed-a warrior-king, as brutal as the lines of his tattoo. “And now one for you,” he said, and a delightful chill went down her spine as a crown of ice formed in the space between them, its delicate spikes rising high.
Rowan lifted it between his hands and set it on her head, its weight light, the chill a balm against the heat of her fire.
Celaena smiled at him, and he gave a tiny lift of his lips in response. But then she remembered-remembered that it was a crown he had made for her. A crown.
Her flames sputtered out as she rose to her feet and strode to the edge of the boulder, wrapping her arms around herself. A moment later, the crown of ice dissolved into mist on the mountain wind.
“We’re going to have visitors tonight,” Rowan said, approaching her side. “I-need your help.”
“Ah. So that’s why you let me have an afternoon of peace.” He snarled, but she lifted a brow. “Will I finally be meeting your mysterious friends?”
“No. They’re Fae nobility, passing through the area. They requested a place to stay for the night and will arrive around sunset. Emrys is making them dinner, and I am expected to… entertain them.”
When he just looked at her, she said, “oh no. No.”
“They will not condescend to dine with the demi-Fae, and-”
“I’m even less acceptable than a demi-Fae!”
“If I have to play host to them all evening, it will likely end in bloodshed.”
She blinked. “Not favorites of yours?”
“They’re typical nobility. Not trained warriors. They expect to be treated a certain way.”
“So? You’re in Maeve’s little cabal. And you’re a prince to boot. Don’t you outrank them?”
“Technically, but there are politics to consider. Especially when they’ll be reported to Maeve.”
She groaned. “So what-I’m supposed to play hostess?”
His face was about as miserable as hers. “No. Just-help me deal with them.”
Another bit of truth, she realized. “And what am I going to get out of it?”
He clenched his jaw, and she honestly thought he’d say, I won’t kick your ass, but he sighed. “I’ll find you a chocolate hazelnut cake.”
“No.” When he raised his brows, she threw a wicked smile at him. “You’ll just owe me a favor I can call in whenever I please.”
He sighed, lifted his gaze skyward. “Just look presentable at sundown.”
The jingling bells and merry voices reached the fortress long before the party appeared through the ward-stones.
Standing in the small courtyard, Celaena slid a glance to Rowan. “Really? You need my help with these prancing idiots?” But aside from those on watch, the demi-Fae had made themselves scarce.
He glared at her. She’d bathed and dressed in her cleanest tunic, even going so far as to plait her hair into a pleasant coronet. “Keep your voice down,” he muttered, giving a pointed glance to her ears.
She rolled her eyes but didn’t say anything else as the party arrived. Their horses were all-gods, those were all Asterion horses. Each worth its weight in gold and then some. She’s once owned one-well, she’d stolen on and kept it-but had sold it off to pay off Sam’s debts to Arobynn. It had been utterly worth it, but…she still missed Kasida. She’s never seen or ridden a finer horse.
There were five in the party now taking in the courtyard and fortress, two of them bored-looking guards whose attention fixed solely on Rowan, and the other three…the female in the front was stunning-undoubtedly the leader.
Beneath her pale blond hair, her face was a concoction of ivory and soft rose, her eyes a vibrant cerulean blue. They lit with delight as they fixed on Rowan.
She didn’t so much as spare Celaena a passing glance as she slid gracefully off her white mare. “Rowan!” She advanced, holding out her hands. Her fingers were slender and long-and as flawless as the rest of her.
“Lady Remelle,” Rowan said, his mastic hands engulfing hers as he took them. His spine was straight as a rod, and though Remelle looked at their joined hands as if expecting him to place a kiss-gods, the idea of Rowan kissing anyone’s hand-he dropped her fingers unceremoniously and turned to the other two nobles dismounting.
“Lord Benson,” he said to the tall, slender male, who just nodded at him. Benson, Celaena noted, bothered to look at her-his long nose and dark eyes sweeping over her body, then moving on. Dismissed. “Lady Essar,” Rowan said to the small, dark-haired Fae female.
Remelle might have the staggering beauty, but Essar had a set of curves that even Celaena found herself envying. Her light brown skin seemed to glow as if lit by an inner light, her chestnut eyes glinting with genuine kindness as she held out her hands to Rowan and smiled.
He took Essar’s fingers a bit more warmly than he had Remelle’s-and the blond-haired lady’s eyes slightly narrowed. But Remelle recovered swiftly, smiled prettily, and placed a proprietary hand on Rowan’s shoulder as she said, “it’s been an age, hasn’t it? You never come to our parties, and Maeve keeps you all to herself.” Rowan’s face went blank. Cold.
“There was a time,” Remelle pouted, “when I got to keep you to myself. Sometimes I miss those days.”
Rowan just flicked his eyes to the watching guards, who looked in need of a decent meal- and a break from their companions. “Stables are to the left.”
Celaena was too busy glancing from Rowan to Remelle to see if the guards obeyed the Prince’s order. Lovers.
She didn’t know why she’d thought that losing his mate meant he’s been celibate, but- but someone like Remelle-
Remembering she existed, Rowan extended an arm in her direction, Celaena honestly debated striding back into the fortress and leaving Rowan at their mercy but found herself walking to him, closer and closer until he could have tucked her into his side.
He actually seemed to relax a bit as he said, “this is-Elentiya.” She hadn’t thought of how he’d introduce her but was grateful for the anonymity he offered. “I’m training her at the queen’s request. Elentiya, this is Lady Remelle, Lord Benson, and Lady Essar.” He began rattling off house names and other nonsense, and Celaena gave a shallow nod that had Benson and Remelle pursing their lips.
Only Essar said hello, a sultry purr that made Celaena wonder why the hell Rowan hadn’t taken her to his bed instead of the bright, cold smiles of Remelle.
“So you are a half-breed, then,” Benson said, his eyes raking over her.
Rowan, to her surprise, bristled-but held in the growl she knew was rumbling in him.
Celaena smiled tightly. “My great grandmother was Fae. So if that makes me demi-Fae, I don’t know.”
She caught the look Remelle gave Rowan: a mix of exasperation as if to say, Really, Rowan? You brought a half-breed to meet us? How common of you.
But- Rowan hadn’t asked her to appear in her Fae form. No, he’d left her to appear in any form she wished. The thought warmed her enough that she stepped a bit closer to him, near enough now to brush his arm with her own. Remelle didn’t fail to notice that, either. What sort of visit was this, anyway?
It was Essar who said, “well, I look forward to hearing about your adventures, Rowan- and how you came to be here, Elentiya. But first, I think I should very much like a bath and something to nibble on.” She slid an apologetic look in Celaena’s direction. “I’d kill for anything chocolate right now.”
Despite herself, Celaena decided she liked the girl.
“So, you and Remelle,” Celaena said from where she lounged on Rowan’s bed, her head propped up by a hand.
At his worktable, sharpening his weapons with a bit too much interest, Rowan snarled.
They’d dumped the nobles at the baths, asked Emrys to bring food to the rooms they’d be taking over while here (there had been three demi-Fae who were more than happy to vacate their large bedrooms if it meant getting out of the path of their visitors). They had an hour until dinner-and though Celaena could have scrounged up a dress…she didn’t feel like it.
“Remelle was…a very, very big mistake,” Rowan said, his back to her.
“Seems like she doesn’t think so.”
He glared over a shoulder. “It was a hundred years ago.”
Gods, sometimes she forgot how old he was. “She acts like you cast her aside this winter.”
“Remelle just wants whatever she can’t have. A condition many immortals suffer from. Just to stave off boredom.” He turned, the hunting knife in his hands gleaming in the firelight.
“She was practically clawing at you.”
“She can claw all she wants, but I’m not making that mistake again.”
“Sounds like you made that mistake a few times.”
Rowan leveled a vicious gaze at her. “It was over the course of a season, and then I came to my senses.”
He stabbed the knife into the table and stalked to the bed until he glowered over her. Celaena lay as she was, brows high and lips pressed together.
“One laugh,” he warned. “Just one laugh and I’m going to dump you in the nearest pond.”
She shook with the effort to keep her howl inside.
“Don’t. You. Dare,” he growled, leaning low enough that his breath warmed her mouth. “If you-”
The door opened, and Rowan froze, a low snarl rumbling in him, so violent that it echoed in her bones. But the threat was just Remelle, who blinked and said, “oh!”
It took Celaena a heartbeat to realize what it looked like. She was sprawled out on the bed, Rowan braced over her, too close to be casual, but-
“What do you want?” Rowan said, straightening but not stepping away.
Remelle surveyed the room, taking in the details that suggested it was not Rowan’s space alone: the brush on the dresser, the undergarments Celaena had left tossed over a chair (oh, how that would be interpreted!), the ribbons she used to tie back her hair, the small boots beside Rowan’s massive ones, and even the various personal items they both kept on their own nightstands.
“I wanted to catch up,” Remelle said, looking everywhere but at Celaena, “but it seems you are…occupied.”
“We’ll talk at dinner,” Rowan said.
Celaena popped up from the bed. “I have to go help Emrys with the meal, actually.” She barely managed to hide her wicked grin. “Why don’t you stay, Remelle?”
Rowan could have melted her bones with the look he gave her, but Celaena was already out the door and down the hall, whistling to herself.
Rowan was going to kill her. As soon as they resumed training, he was going to murder her. And then murder her again.
Remelle was still in the doorway, frowning in the direction Aelin had gone. When she turned, a serpentine smile danced on her red lips. “Is this considered part of her training too?”
“Get out,” was all he said.
Remelle clicked her tongue. “Is that how you speak to me these days?”
“I don’t know why you bothered to stop here, or what you expect of me-”
“I heard you were here and thought I’d say hello and spare you the tedious company of half-breeds. I didn’t realize you’d taken to them so much.”
He knew exactly what it had looked like when she burst in here. Denying it would only lead to a headache, but letting Remelle assume he was sharing a bed with Aelin was equally unacceptable. He couldn’t decide how Maeve would interpret it. Unless-
“And who was it that told you I’m here?”
“Maeve, of course. I complained to her that I missed you.”
The question was whether or not Remelle was a willing or unknowing spy. Or if Maeve had sent Remelle to see just what manner of relationship Rowan had developed with the princess.
“As your friend, Rowan, I have to say…the girl’s rather beneath you.”
He held in his laugh. Apparently, Maeve hadn’t informed her who, exactly he was training. Remelle had been relentless in her pursuit of him a century ago, winning him over with her charm and smiles, but- he didn’t really care to think back to that time.
“One,” he said, “you’re not my friend. Two, it’s none of your business.”
Her eyes narrowed in a way that made him realize Remelle would make every minute until she left a living hell for the princess-not knowing what manner of predator she was provoking.
So rather than see Remelle’s blood splattered on the walls before dawn, he said, “there is a shortage of bedrooms here, and we’ve had to share quarters as a result.” Not quite a lie, but not the entire truth.
Remelle’s brows remained high on her moon-white skin. “Well, I supposed that’s good news for Benson.”
“He has needs that must be attended to, and he finds her attractive enough. Maeve said it was more than fine if she-”
“If Benson lays one finger on her, he’s going to find himself without his insides.”
Maeve- Maeve had suggested she was available for-
He clamped down on the blinding rage as Remelle blinked. “Honestly, Rowan, what do you think most of the half-breeds wind up doing in Doranelle?”
He had no answer-no words at all-as soon as she said that.
She shrugged. “Benson will be gentle with-”
“Benson looks twice at her, and he dies. He looks twice at any of the females in this fortress and he dies.”
The words were laced with a growl so fierce that they were barely understandable. But Remelle understood.
Did Lorcan know? He was a demi-Fae himself, had proven himself half a millennium ago. Was he aware of what went on in their city? It was disgusting-worse than disgusting. The Fae were better than that. But Maeve-
“I’ll make sure the warning is conveyed,” Remelle purred.
Celaena did indeed go to the kitchen, where she helped Emrys prepare the meal. Luca was there, prattling away, but the chatter stopped mid-sentence.
Essar was standing at the foot of the stairs, smiling faintly.
“Dinner won’t be ready for another twenty minutes,” Celaena said, wiping her hands on a dishcloth before approaching the lady. Luca was practically gaping at the small beauty, but Essar gave him a polite smile and he immediately found himself interested in whatever he was doing. “I can show you to the dining hall if you’d like to wait there.”
Gods, being polite was…strange.
“Oh no. Benson’s in there already, and he…I think I’d have more fun in here.”
She’s also made Emrys and Luca uncomfortable if their silence was any indication, but Celaena found herself saying, “it can be chaotic and loud and messy in here-”
“I know how a kitchen operates,” Essar said. “Just tell me what work needs to be done, and I’ll do it.”
Celaena looked to Emrys, who bowed and introduced himself and Luca-who went beet red-and then found herself chopping vegetables beside the lady.
Celaena said to Essar after a minute, “so, you’re just…traveling around?”
“Maeve gave us a task, which I’m not supposed to talk about, but yes-it involved us traveling for a bit. We’re on our way back to Doranelle, though, thank the Bright Lady.”
Celaena raised a brow. “Mala?”
Essar lifted a hand, and flames danced on her fingertips. “Not much of a gift, but it kept us warm on the road at least.”
Celaena swallowed. She’d never met another fire-wielder. Did Rowan know? “Is it hard-to master the fire?”
Essar shrugged. “I was very young when my training began, and I’ve had about two centuries to master what little power I have. Aside from a few burns and blisters, I’ve never really been able to do much harm, or impress anyone, really. Remelle’s got the more impressive gift-her magic lends itself toward the mastering of any language she hears, no matter how briefly. It’s why Maeve likes to send her around to places. And Benson’s got a knack for turning invisible whenever he wants to, which…” Essar winced.
“Makes him a good listener,” Celaena finished. Essar had to be a lousy spy if she was willing to talk so easily.
Essar brushed back a strand of her silky, dark hair. “You must have impressive gifts if Prince Rowan is teaching you.”
“Those vegetables done?” Emrys asked, and one glance at the male had Celaena sending him her silent thanks. She handed him a bowl of potatoes, then got to work on the next item. Essar was making neat, perfect slices-too slowly to be useful, but at least she was trying.
Essar said casually, “I can’t imagine Rowan is an easy teacher.”
“You could say that.”
“But they’re all like that-Rowan and his companions who serve the queen.”
“You know them?”
Essar blushed prettily. “I was involved with Lorcan, their leader, for a time. But-his lifestyle and mine are very different.”
“And what is Lorcan like?”
“A demi-Fae, like you.”
Was he now? Rowan had failed to mention that tidbit. Essar went on, “he has had to prove himself every day, every hour since he was born. Even though his power isn’t challenged-by anyone other than Rowan, that it-he…Lorcan is not an easy man to be around. Some days, I’m surprised he has friends.”
“And Rowan is his friend?”
Essar gave her an amused smile. “In a way. They frighten even us, you know. Especially when they’re together. When Rowan and Lorcan are together in a room…let’s just say that they do not leave that room intact by the time they depart. Or the city, for that matter.”
“And yet Maeve lets them work together?”
“She would be a fool to let either of them go-which is why she bound them to her with the blood oath. They’ve leveled cities for her before.”
A chill went up Celaena’s spine. “Actually leveled cities?”
Essar nodded gravely. “And yet Remelle thinks she can control Rowan-wants to possess him.”
Rowan could end Remelle with half a thought if he was provoked enough. “She’s an idiot.”
“Indeed. But power is power, and since Remelle can’t look past Lorcan’s mixed bloodline, Rowan is her only other option.”
“Would-would their children also belong to Maeve, the way Rowan does?”
Essar cocked her head. “I don’t know. None of his companions have sired offspring, so there’s no way of telling what Maeve would do.”
Celaena shuddered. “You don’t seem to speak as reverently as the other do about her.”
“Not all Fae are her willing slaves, you know. And part of-part of why my relationship with Lorcan fell apart was due to that. He is blood-sworn to her, and no matter how much I cared for him, I am most certainly not. Nor will I ever swear such an oath.”
“Why are you telling me this?”
“Because you are training with the most dangerous pure-blooded Fae male in the world, and yet he treats you like an equal. He presented you as his equal.” There was an implied question there-So who are you, really?-but Celaena couldn’t answer.
“I think Rowan just didn’t feel like dealing with Remelle alone.”
“Probably. But he’s also dealt with her on his own plenty. And since Rowan’s not one to show off a new companion just to spite an old love…”
“I’m not sure I follow what you’re getting at.”
“I find it all very interesting.”
“I think you’re reading a bit into it.”
But Essar gave her a small smile. “I’m sure I am.”
Dinner went well for about the six seconds it took to walk from the doorway to the large table in the vacant dining hall.
Since the table was so large, they’d set the five places at one end, with Rowan at the head, as his position demanded. The plan had been for Celaena to sit to his left, with Essar beside her, leaving Remelle to take the seat opposite Celaena’s, Benson across from Essar. But Remells, moving swifter than Celaena had expected, plopped herself next to Rowan, and left Celaena with the choice of sitting beside the white-blonde lady or the leering male.
She chose Benson.
Rowan followed the ordeal without comment, his attention pinned on Benson as Celaena took a seat next to the lord. But whether or not Benson noticed the lethal glare in Rowan’s eyes-gods, what was that about?-the lord revealed nothing. So Celaena had nothing better to do in the silence except to take a sip from her wine and pray that the meal would be over quickly.
The first course- a roast-chicken soup that Remelle and Benson frowned over-came out fast enough. Celaena managed all of one delectable spoonful before Remelle said to her, “So you’re from Adarlan’s empire?”
Celaena took a second, slow spoonful of soup. “I am.”
“I thought I detected the accent-Adarlan and…Terrasen, am I right? They do mangle their words over there so brutally. I doubt even years here will cure you of the boorish accent.”
Celaena took another very slow spoonful of soup.
But Essar said, “I find the accent quite charming, actually.” Benson grunted his agreement, giving her a too-long look, and Celaena fought the urge to shift her chair down a setting or two. Or take her spoon and use it to carve out his eyes.
“Well, you had such a provincial upbringing, Essar,” Remelle said brightly. “I’m not surprised that you like it.”
Essar’s round face tightened but she said nothing. However, when Remelle went to take a delicate sip of her soup, she let out a hiss and nearly dropped her spoon. The liquid was indeed steaming hot-far hotter than any of theirs. Essar gave the female an innocent, questioning look, but Remelle said, “the beastly cook boiled this soup.”
Celaena clamped down on a retort. Especially as Rowan’s face became a mask of calm. One that usually meant violence was on its way.
That had been his request, hadn’t it? To keep him from causing a brawl that would be reported to Maeve?
So Celaena swallowed her own rage and said to Essar, “you grew up in the countryside?”
Remelle rolled her eyes, but Essar smiled. “My father owns a vineyard in the Southeast of our territory. I spent my youth roaming the olive orchards and the cypress groves. But I moved to Doranelle when it was deemed time for me to enter society.”
“Alas, Essar has been rather unlucky when it comes to fulfilling her parent’s wishes to find a proper husband,” Remelle said.
“Husband,” Celaena found herself saying. “Not-mate?"
Remelle clicked her tongue. “Of course not. A mate is rare-most Fae don’t find them.” Celaena couldn’t bring herself to look at Rowan, though her heart strained. Remelle raised an idle hand. “So, we marry.”
“What if you marry, then find your mate?”
“Wars have been started for that,” Benson finally said, his dark eyes seeming to swallow her whole. “But if that is the case, it is treated very delicately.”
“It’s a mess, is what he means,” Essar clarified. “A male will feel the need to kill any challenger to his mate, even if that challenger is already wed to her. Even if they’re in love. For all our refinements, there are still instincts that can’t be controlled.”
Celaena nodded, finishing off her soup.
Remelle, however, smiled at her. “But as a half-breed, you won’t have to worry about such things. Finding a mate is even rarer for those with diluted blood-and none of us would marry you, anyway.”
Celaena stared at the female for a long moment, even as she could have sworn she felt reverberations in the table as Rowan snarled softly.
Remelle refused to break the stare, and Celaena settled in, willing calm to her veins. She could feel Essar’s attention, and could almost hear the puzzle pieces snap together in Essar’s mind as she recognized the coloring of Celaena’s eyes and murmured, “Remelle.”
But Remelle looked to Rowan and began saying something in the Old Language, smiling sweetly.
When Rowan didn’t respond, Remelle turned to Benson, saying something else, to which the Lord replied in the same elegant, lovely language.
Remelle put a hand on her chest in a mockery of an apology. “Sometimes I forget-it’s not every day I’m in the company of half-breeds.”
Essar swallowed hard, her brown skin going a bit wan as she surveyed Celaena and Remelle. Oh, yes. The lady had figured out that it wasn’t some common by-blow seated across from them.
Emrys and Luca entered, clearing the soup away and bringing out the next course-platters of roast meats and vegetables. Emrys tottered by the doorway, and Celaena took one bite of the rabbit, moaned, and turned in her seat to nod her enthusiasm to the ancient cook. He grinned, his face flushing.
Then Remelle said, “Rowan, it must be a trial for you to have to eat this day in and day out.” She pushed her meat around her plate, then set the fork down. Celaena couldn’t look back at Emrys-didn’t allow herself to glimpse his face.
Rowan said, “I eat better here than I do in Doranelle.”
“There’s no need to be nice on account of the help,” Remelle said. “If they don’t learn what we like, whatever will they do in the capital?”
Footsteps scuffed behind them, and Celaena knew Emrys had gone back downstairs.
Celaena said softly, “the next time you insult my friend, I’m going to shove your face into whatever plate is in front of you.”
Remelle blinked. “Well, I never-”
“Remelle,” Essar whispered.
But Remelle put a hand on Rowan’s forearm, gripped with such possessiveness that Celaena saw red as the lady hissed at him, “you mean to let her insult me like that? To make threats against a member of the royal household?”
“Get your hand off me,” Rowan said too quietly.
But Remelle didn’t let go of Rowan as she snapped at Celaena, “you are dismissed from this table. Get out.”
Celaena looked at the white hand gripping Rowan. “Take your hand off him.”
“I can do as I please, and if you have any sense, you’ll vacate this hall before I have you whipped for your-”
Fire erupted, and Remelle’s scream echoed off the stones.
Living flame wrapped around the lady, not burning, not singing, just-encasing. Even the hand on Rowan was aflame, and through the column of gold-and red fire, Remelle’s eyes were wide as she turned to Essar and said, “Release me.”
But Essar only looked at Celaena. “It’s not my magic.”
Rowan went perfectly still as Celaena willed the flame to allow a lick of heat through. Not enough to burn, but enough to make Remelle start sweating. And then Celaena said, “if you ever raise a whip to anyone, I will find you, and I will make sure these flames burn.”
She had to admit; Remelle had no small amount of courage, especially as the woman seethed, “how dare you threaten a lady of Doranelle.”
Celaena laughed under her breath. “The next time you touch Rowan without his permission, I will burn you into ashes.” She turned her head to Benson. “And if you look at me or any female like that again, I will melt your bones before you have a chance to scream.”
Benson, wisely, nodded and averted his gaze.
Essar was pale when Celaena pulled back her teeth in a snarl and said to her, “you keep everything you learned here to yourself.”
Celaena, at last, faced Rowan, who seemed like he was trying his best not to smirk, though the amusement still danced in his eyes as she said, “I defer judgment to you, Prince.”
He studied Remelle, who was barely moving, hardly breathing, then jerked his chin. “Release her and let’s eat.”
The flames winked out so fast it was as if they’d never existed.
In the silence that fell, Remelle leaned over the arm of her chair and vomited on the floor.
Celaena picked up her fork, took a bite of rabbit, and smiled.
“If I never see them again, it’ll be too soon,” Celaena said into the darkness of their room.
Rowan let out a low laugh. “I thought you liked Essar.”
“I do, but…you should have heard her in the kitchen trying to get me to talk.”
“About you. About our-relationship. I think you’ll go home to a host of unpleasant rumors.”
“I think the status of our relationship will be the least of the rumors after tonight.”
“Essar said that you-you and Lorcan once decimated a city together.”
He hissed. “Ah. Sollemere.”
“I’ve never heard of it.”
“That’s because it doesn’t exist anymore.”
She turned over, staring at him in the moonlight that slipped through the curtains. “You wiped it off the map-literally?”
He pinned her with a long look. “Sollemere was a place so wicked, full of monstrous people who did such unspeakable things, that…even Maeve was disgusted by them. She gave them a warning to stop their ways and said if they…” He clenched his jaw. “There are some acts that are unforgivable-and I won’t stain this room by mentioning them. But she swore to them that if they continued to do it, she would obliterate them.”
“Let me guess: they didn’t listen.”
“No. We got as many children out as we could with our legion. And when they were safely away, Lorcan and I leveled it to dust.”
“You’re that powerful.”
“You don’t seem shocked by it.”
“You’ve told me plenty of harrowing stories. If what these people did was so awful that even you won’t repeat it, then I’ll say they had it coming.”
“Is that a problem for you?”
“I find it endearing.” She gave him a playful shove, but he caught her hand and held it, his calluses brushing her own. “You could do that, you know. Make an entire city burn.”
“I hope I never have to.”
“So do I.” He threaded his fingers through hers and held them up to examine the scars along the back of her hand, her fingers. “But I’ll never forget the look on Remelle’s face when you shot fire out of your mouth and eyes.”
“I did not.”
He laughed, a low rumbling sound that echoed in her chest. “Part woman, part dragon.”
“I didn’t spit flames.”
“Your eyes were living gold.”
Celaena narrowed those same eyes at him. “Are you going to reprimand me?”
He lowered their joined hands to the bed but didn’t let go. “Why should I? She was given fair warning, she ignored it, and you followed through. It follows the Old Ways, and you had every right to show her how serious you were.”
She considered it, then after a moment said, “it scared me-how in control I was. How much I meant it. It scared me that I wasn’t scared. It scared me that…” She made herself look at him. His face was unreadable in the dim light. “It scared me that…”
It scared me that I’ve come to care so much about you that I’d rather draw that sort of line in the sand. It scared me that I would burn and maim and kill for you, and yet-and yet at the end of the day, you still belong to Maeve, and there is nothing I can do, no amount of burning and maiming and killing, to keep you with me.
He released her hand-only to slide his own against her cheek, the gesture so unexpected that she closed her eyes and leaned into it, hearing the unspoken words in the touch.
The party departed the next morning, and Rowan didn’t bother to bring the princes down to see them off. It was for the best, given that Remelle still appeared jumpy and furious, Benson refused to look at anyone, and even Essar was wide-eyed.
Rowan waited until they were all mounted on their fine horses in the courtyard before he approached. It was to Essar he spoke, grabbing hold of her Asterion mare’s bridle. “Let’s hope last night was the most eventful of your journey.”
Remelle sniffled from her saddle but said nothing.
Essar, however, looked up at the fortress, as if she could see through the moss and stone to the princess sleeping within.
Essar was a beautiful female-soft and inviting and clever-and he’s never understood why Lorcan hadn’t tried harder to keep her. She had been good for him. But Lorcan’s ruthlessness and cold ambition were his best tools and his worst enemies. He had only seen the female for what she offered inside his bedroom.
Essar said, “I do not think any of us will forget last night any time soon.”
Neither would he. When Aelin had engulfed Remelle in flame, he’d been stunned stupid. She hadn’t demonstrated skills of that level, hadn’t practiced that sort of thing. And if Remelle had tried to fight back, if Remelle had hurt him or anyone in that fortress…the lady would be ash on the wind right now.
A threat had been made against those Aelin saw as hers. Such things were to be dealt with swiftly and brutally. Interesting-so interesting for that side of the princess to have come to the surface.
And she had claimed him.
Essar knew. She’d figured out what kind of magic smoldered in Aelin’s veins, and that last night, the Queen of Terrasen had made a claim on him. If Essar told Maeve about it…
The others in the party moved out, Remelle stiff-backed, but Rowan remained with Essar.
“Name the price for your silence,” Rowan said.
Essar’s dark brows rose. “You think I would run to the nearest gossip and tell them that Aelin Galathynius is training here?”
“You know what I’m talking about.”
Essar’s dark eyes narrowed. “I would not run to Maeve either. Remelle will tell her that the girl threw a tantrum and attacked her without provocation-she’d never admit to any of the truth behind it. Or figure out who she really was. And Benson…leave him to me.”
“And your price?”
“There is no price, Prince.”
He gripped the bridle harder. “Why?”
Essar studied the disappearing part, then the fortress. “We have known each other for a while now. Through all the centuries, I have never seen you present another female as your equal- as your friend. And I do not think you did it because of who she is.” Rowan opened his mouth, but she said, “I would not take that gift away from you Rowan. Because it is a gift. She is a gift- to the world, and to you.”
His fingers slackened on the reins, and Essar motioned her mount into a walk.
“She is going to fight for you, Rowan,” Essar said, looking over a shoulder. “And you deserve it, after all this time. You deserve to have someone who will burn the earth to ash for you.” His heart was pounding wildly, but he kept his face blank, his will ice, and steel. “If you see him,” Essar added with a sad smile, “tell Lorcan I send my regards.”
And then she was gone.
Things fell back into their usual rhythm in the two days that followed, though Rowan couldn’t stop thinking about what Essar had said. Because he knew it was true, because…because he wanted it to be true.
Aelin said nothing about it, though he’d sometimes catch her frowning at him as if trying to decipher some puzzle.
He was pouring over a report Vaughan had sent him when she walked into his room that night. The smell of chocolate and nuts hit him, and when he twisted in his seat, he discovered her carrying a small, misshapen cake, and a sheepish smile on her face.
“It took me hours to make this damn thing, so you better say it’s good.”
She set it in front of him, along with a plate, fork, and knife. The blade she used to slice into the chocolate-frosted lump, cutting a large piece. It was layered with lighter frosting- some kind of creamy-looking filling between the layers of dark cake.
She plopped the piece on the plate for him and took his hand to press the fork into it. “You have no idea how hard it was to get the ingredients. Or to find some sort of recipe. I haven’t even tasted it yet. Emrys looked at it like he was going to faint with horror.” When Rowan just stared at the cake, she clicked her tongue. “This is the favor you owe me, just try it.”
He gave her a long stare that usually sent men running, but she bit her lip and glanced at the cake. It was enough that he adjusted his grip on the fork, picked up a piece, and brought it to his mouth.
While he chewed and swallowed, she was practically hopping from foot to foot and wringing her hands. So he let out a grunt of pleasure, took another bite, then another, until the entire piece was cleaned off his plate.
Then he took another piece. And another. Until his stomach was protesting and all but a sliver was left of the platter.
“I told you it was delicious,” she preened, giving him a triumphant smile as he set down his fork. She ruffled his hair, but he caught her wrist, squeezing gently while he rose from the seat and brought his face dangerously close to hers.
He knew every fleck of those remarkable eyes- knew how her very blood tasted. And this near to her, their breath mingling… “Now, we’re even,” he said, and stalked out of the room.
He was about three steps down the hall when Aelin’s fork scraped against the platter, no doubt scooping up the sliver of cake he’d left. A moment after, her curse barked off the stones of the fortress, followed by spitting and coughing.
Despite himself, Rowan was smiling when he shouldered open the bathing room- and quickly cast up the contents of his stomach.