“Emrys’s stories said destroyed, not abandoned.”
“Again, what are you getting at?”
But she didn’t know, not yet, so she just shook her head and said, “The Fae on my continent—in Terrasen . . . they weren’t like you. At least, I don’t remember them being that way. There weren’t many, but . . .” She swallowed hard. “The King of Adarlan hunted and killed them, so easily. Yet when I look at you, I don’t understand how he did it.” Even with the Wyrdkeys, the Fae had been stronger, faster. More should have survived, even if some had been trapped in their animal forms when magic vanished.
She looked over her shoulder at him, one hand still pressed against the warm carving. A muscle flickered in Rowan’s jaw before he said, “I’ve never been to your continent, but I heard that the Fae there were gentler—less aggressive, very few trained in combat—and they relied heavily on magic. Once magic was gone from your lands, many of them might not have known what to do against trained soldiers.”
“And yet Maeve wouldn’t send aid.”
“The Fae of your continent long ago severed ties with Maeve.” He paused again. “But there were some in Doranelle who argued in favor of helping. My queen wound up offering sanctuary to any who could make it here.”
She didn’t want to know more—didn’t want to know how many had made it, and whether he had been one of the few who argued to save their western brethren. So she moved away from the carving of the mythical stag, instantly cold as she severed contact with the delightful heat living within the stone. Part of her could have sworn that ancient, strange power was sad to see her go.
The next day, Celaena finished her breakfast shift in the kitchens achy and more drained than usual, as Luca hadn’t been there to help, which meant she’d spent the morning chopping, washing, and then running the food upstairs.
Celaena passed a sentry she’d marked as Luca’s friend and a frequent listener to Emrys’s stories—young, leanly muscled, with no evidence of Fae ears or grace. Bas, the leader of the fortress scouts. Luca prattled about him endlessly. Celaena gave him a small smile and nod. Bas blinked a few times, gave a tentative smile back, and sauntered on, probably to his watch on the wall. She frowned. She’d said a civilized hello to plenty of them by now, but . . . She was still puzzling over his reaction when she reached her room and shrugged on her jacket.
“You’re already late,” Rowan said from the doorway.
“There were extra dishes this morning,” she said, rebraiding her hair as she turned to where he lounged in the doorway. “Can I expect to do something useful with you today, or will it be more sitting and growling and glaring? Or will I just wind up chopping wood for hours on end?”
He merely started into the hall and she followed, still braiding her hair. They passed another two sentries. This time, she looked them both in the eye and smiled her greeting. Again, that blink, and a shared look between them, and a returned grin. Had she really become so unpleasant that a mere smile was surprising? Gods—when had she smiled last, at anyone or anything?
They were well away from the fortress, headed south and up into the mountains, when Rowan said, “They’ve all been keeping their distance because of the scent you put out.”
“Excuse me?” She didn’t want to know how he’d read her thoughts.
Rowan stalked through the trees, not even out of breath as he said, “There are more males than females here—and they’re fairly isolated from the world. Haven’t you wondered why they haven’t approached you?”
“They stayed away because I . . . smell?” She didn’t think she would have cared enough to be embarrassed, but her face was burning.
“Your scent says that you don’t want to be approached. The males smell it more than the females, and have been staying the hell away. They don’t want their faces clawed off.”
She had forgotten how primal the Fae were, with their scents and mating and territorial nature. Such a strange contrast to the civilized world beyond the wall of the mountains. “Good,” she wound up saying, though the idea of her having her emotions so easily identifiable was unsettling. It made lying and pretending almost worthless. “I’m not interested in men . . . males.”
His tattoo was vivid in the dappled sunlight that streamed through the canopy as he stared pointedly at her ring. “What happens if you become queen? Will you refuse a potential alliance through marriage?”
An invisible hand seemed to wrap around her throat. She had not let herself consider that possibility, because the weight of a crown and a throne were enough to make her feel like she was in a coffin. The thought of marrying like that, of someone else’s body on hers, someone who was not Chaol . . . She shoved the thought away.
Rowan was baiting her, as he always did. And she still had no plans to take up her uncle’s throne. Her only plan was to do what she’d promised Nehemia. “Nice try,” she said.
His canines gleamed as he smirked. “You’re learning.”
“You get baited by me every now and then, too, you know.”
He gave her a look that said, I let you bait me, in case you haven’t noticed. I’m not some mortal fool.
She wanted to ask why, but being cordial with him—with anyone—was already odd enough. “Where the hell are we going today? We never head west.”
The smirk vanished. “You want to do something useful. So here’s your chance.”
With Celaena in her human form, the bells of some nearby town were heralding three o’clock by the time they reached the pine wood.
She didn’t ask what they were doing here. He’d tell her if he wanted to. Slowing to a prowl, Rowan tracked markers left on trees and stones, and she quietly trailed him, thirsty and hungry and a bit light-headed.
The terrain had shifted: pine needles crunched beneath her boots, and gulls, not songbirds, cried overhead. The sea had to be close. Celaena groaned as a cool breeze kissed her sweaty face, scented with salt and fish and sun-warmed rock. It wasn’t until Rowan halted by a stream that she noticed the reek—and the silence.
The ground had been churned up across the stream, the brush broken and trampled. But Rowan’s attention was fixed on the stream itself, on what had been wedged between the rocks.
Celaena swore. A body. A woman, by the shape of what was left of her, and—
As if she had been drained of life, of substance. No wounds, no lacerations or signs of harm, save for a trickle of dried blood from her nose and ears. Her skin was leached of color, withered and dried, her hollowed-out face still stuck in an expression of horror—and sorrow. And the smell—not just the rotting body, but around it . . . the smell . . .