Dorian walked past the black tents of the carnival, wondering for the umpteenth time if this was the greatest mistake of his life. He’d lost the nerve to come yesterday, but after yet another sleepless night, he’d decided to see the old witch and deal with the consequences later. If he wound up on the executioner’s block because of it, he’d surely kick himself for being so brash, but he had exhausted every other way of finding out why he was plagued by magic. This was his only option.
He found Baba Yellowlegs sitting on the back steps of her giant wagon, a chipped plate heaped with roast chicken parts resting on her knees, a pile of clean-licked bones littering the ground below.
She lifted her yellowed eyes to him, iron teeth glinting in the noontime sun as she bit into a chicken leg. “Carnival’s closed for lunch.” He swallowed his irritation. Getting answers relied on two things:
being on her good side, and her not knowing who he was.
“I was hoping you’d have a few moments to answer some questions.” The chicken leg cracked in two. He tried not to cringe at the slurping sounds as she sucked out the marrow. “Customers who have questions
during lunch pay double.”
He reached into his pocket and fished out the four gold coins he’d brought. “I hope this will buy me all the questions I want—and your discretion.”
She chucked the clean half of the leg onto the pile and set to work on the other, sucking and gnawing. “I bet you wipe your ass with gold.”
“I don’t think that would be very comfortable.”
Baba Yellowlegs hissed a laugh. “Very well, lordling. Let’s hear your questions.”
He leaned in close enough to set his gold on the top step beside her, keeping well away from her withered form. She smelled atrocious, like mildew and rotted blood. But he kept his face blank and bored as he pulled back. The gold vanished with a swipe of a gnarled hand.
Dorian glanced around. Workers were scattered throughout the carnival, all of them settled down for the midday meal wherever they
could find seats. None of them, he noticed, sat anywhere near the black-painted wagon. They didn’t even look this way.
“You’re truly a witch?”
She picked up a chicken wing. Crack. Crunch. “The last-born witch of the Witch Kingdom.”
“That would make you over five hundred years old.”
She gave him a smile. “It’s a marvel I’ve stayed so young, isn’t it?” “So it’s true: witches really are blessed with the long lifespans of the
She tossed another bone at the foot of the wooden steps. “Fae or Valg.
We never learned which one.”
Valg. He knew that name. “The demons who stole Fae to breed with them; which made the witches, right?” And, if he recalled correctly, the beautiful Crochan witches had taken after their Fae ancestors—while the three clans of Ironteeth witches took after the race of demons that had invaded Erilea at the dawn of time.
“Why would a lordling as pretty as you bother yourself with such wicked stories?” She peeled the skin off the breast of the chicken and guzzled it down, smacking her withered lips together.
“When we’re not wiping our asses with gold, we need to find some
way to amuse ourselves. Why not learn a little history?”
“Indeed,” the witch said. “So, are you going to dance around it all day while I bake in this miserable sun, or are you going to ask what you really came here to learn?”
“Is magic truly gone?”
She didn’t even look up from her plate. “Your kind of magic is gone, yes. But there are other, forgotten powers that work.”
“What sort of powers?”
“Powers that lordlings have no business knowing. Now ask your next question.”
He gave her a playful, wounded face that had the old woman rolling her eyes. She made him want to run in the other direction, but he had to get through this, had to keep up the charade for as long as he could.
“Could one person somehow have magic?”
“Boy, I’ve traveled from one shore of this continent to the other, across every mountain, and into the dark, shadowy places where men still fear to tread. There is no magic left anymore; even the surviving Fae can’t access their powers. Some of them remain trapped in their animal
forms. Miserable wretches. Taste like animals, too.” She laughed, a crow’s caw that made the hair on the back of his neck rise. “So, no—one person could not be the exception to the rule.”
He kept up his careful mask of idle boredom. “And if someone discovered that they suddenly had magic … ?”
“Then they’d be a damn fool, and asking for a hanging.”
He already knew that. That wasn’t what he was asking. “But if it were true—hypothetically. How would that even be possible?”
She paused her eating, cocking her head. Her silver hair gleamed like fresh snow, offsetting her tanned face. “We don’t know how or why magic vanished. I hear rumors every now and then that the power still exists on other continents, but not here. So that’s the real question: why did magic vanish only here, and not across the whole of Erilea? What crimes did we commit to make the gods curse us like that, to take away what they had once given us?” She tossed the rib cage of the chicken onto the ground. “Hypothetically, if someone had magic and I wanted to learn why, I’d start by figuring out why magic left in the first place. Maybe that would explain how there could be an exception to the rule.” She licked the grease off her deadly fingers. “Strange questions from a lordling dwelling in the glass castle. Strange, strange questions.”
He gave her a half grin. “Stranger still that the last-born witch of the Witch Kingdom would stoop low enough to spend her life doing carnival tricks.”
“The gods that cursed these lands ten years ago damned the witches centuries before that.”
It might have been the clouds that passed over the sun, but he could have sworn that he saw a darkness gleaming in her eyes—a darkness that made him wonder if she was even older than she let on. Perhaps her “last-born witch” title was a lie. A fabrication to conceal a history so violent that he couldn’t imagine the horrors she’d committed during those long-ago witch wars.
Against his will, he found himself reaching for the ancient force slumbering inside him, wondering if it would somehow shield him from Yellowlegs the way it had from the shattering window. The thought made him queasy.
“Any other questions?” she said, licking her iron nails. “No. Thank you for your time.”
“Bah,” she spat, and waved him off.
He walked away, and got no farther than the nearest tent when he saw the sun glinting off a golden head, and Roland walked toward him, away from the table where he’d been talking to that stunning blond musician who’d played the lute the other night. Had he followed him here? Dorian frowned, but gave his cousin a nod in greeting as Roland fell into step beside him.
“Getting your fortune read?” Dorian shrugged. “I was bored.”
Roland looked over his shoulder to where Baba Yellowlegs’s caravan wagon was parked. “That woman makes my blood run cold.”
Dorian snorted. “I think that’s one of her talents.”
Roland glanced at him sidelong. “Did she tell you anything interesting?”
“Just the normal nonsense: I’ll soon meet my true love, a glorious destiny awaits me, and I’ll be rich beyond imagining. I don’t think she knew who she was talking to.” He surveyed the Lord of Meah. “And what are you doing here?”
“I saw you heading out and thought you might want company. But then I saw where you were going and decided to keep well away.”
Either Roland was spying on him, or he was telling the truth; Dorian honestly couldn’t tell. But he’d made a point to be pleasant to his cousin during the past few days—and at every council meeting, Roland had backed whatever decision Dorian made without hesitation. The irritation on Perrington and his father’s faces was an unexpected delight, too.
So Dorian didn’t question Roland about why he’d followed him, but when he glanced back at Baba Yellowlegs, he could have sworn the old woman was grinning at him.
It had been a few days since Celaena had tracked her targets. Cloaked in darkness, she stood in the shadows of the docks, not quite believing what she was seeing. All the men on her list, all the ones she’d been following, the ones who might know what the king was up to—were leaving. She’d seen one of them sneak into an unmarked carriage and had followed him here, where he’d boarded a ship set to depart at the midnight tide. And then, to her dismay, the other three had shown up, too, their families in tow, before they were quickly ushered belowdecks.
All those men, all that information she’d been gathering, just—
“I’m sorry,” a familiar voice said behind her, and she whirled to find Archer approaching. How was he so stealthy? She hadn’t even heard him getting close. “I had to warn them,” he said, his eyes on the ship getting ready to depart. “I couldn’t live with their blood on my hands. They have children; what would become of them if you handed over their parents to the king?”
She hissed, “Did you organize this?”
“No,” he said softly, the words barely audible above the shouts of the sailors untying the ropes and readying the oars. “A member of the organization did. I mentioned that their lives might be in jeopardy, and he had his men get them on the next ship out of Rifthold.”
She put a hand on her dagger. “Part of this bargain relies on you giving me useful information.”
“I know. I’m sorry.”
“Would you rather I just faked your death now and put you on that ship as well?” Perhaps she’d find another way to convince the king to release her earlier.
“No. This won’t happen again.”
She highly doubted that, but she leaned back against the wall of the building and crossed her arms, watching Archer observe the ship. After a moment, he turned to her. “Say something.”
“I don’t have anything to say. I’m too busy debating whether I should just kill you and drag your carcass before the king.” She wasn’t bluffing. After last night with Chaol, she was starting to wonder whether simplicity would be best. Anything to keep Chaol from getting ensnared in a potential mess.
“I’m sorry,” Archer said again, but she waved him off and watched the readying ship.
It was impressive that they’d organized an escape so quickly. Perhaps they weren’t all fools like Davis. “The person you mentioned this to,” she said after a while. “He’s a leader of the group?”
“I think so,” Archer said quietly. “Or high up enough that when I dropped the hint about these men, he was able to organize an escape immediately.”
She chewed on the inside of her cheek. Perhaps Davis had been a fluke. And maybe Archer was right. Maybe these men just wanted a ruler who would better suit their tastes. But whatever their financial and political motives might be, when innocent people had been threatened,
they’d mobilized and gotten them to safety. Few people in the empire dared to do that—and fewer still were getting away with it.
“I want new names and more information by tomorrow night,” she told Archer as she turned away from the docks, heading back toward the castle. “Or else I’ll toss your head at the king’s feet and let him decide whether he wants me to dump it in the sewer or spike it on the front gates.” She didn’t wait for Archer’s reply before she faded into the shadows and fog.
She took her time going back to the castle, thinking about what she’d seen. There was never absolute good or absolute evil (though the king was definitely the exception). And even if these men were corrupt in some ways, they were also saving lives.
While it was absurd that they claimed to have contact with Aelin Galathynius, she couldn’t help but wonder if there really were forces gathering in the heir’s name. If somewhere, in the past decade, members of the powerful royal court of Terrasen had managed to hide. Thanks to the King of Adarlan, Terrasen no longer had a standing army—just whatever forces were camped throughout the kingdom. But those men did have some resources. And Nehemia had said that if Terrasen ever got to its feet again, it would pose a real threat to Adarlan.
So maybe she wouldn’t even have to do anything. Maybe she wouldn’t have to risk her life, or Chaol’s. Maybe, just maybe, whatever their motives, these people could find a way to stop the king—and free all of Erilea as well.
A slow, reluctant smile spread across her face, and it only grew wider as she walked to the glowing glass castle, and to the Captain of the Guard who awaited her there.
It had been four days since Chaol’s birthday, and he’d spent every night since then with Celaena. And afternoons, and mornings. And every moment they could spare from their individual obligations. Unfortunately, this meeting with his chief guards wasn’t optional, but as he listened to the men’s reports, his thoughts kept drifting back to her.
He’d barely breathed during that first time, and he’d done his best to be gentle, to make it as painless for her as possible. She’d still winced, and her eyes had gleamed with tears, but when he’d asked if she needed to stop, she’d just kissed him. Again and again. All through that first
night he’d held her and allowed himself to imagine that this was how every night for the rest of his life would be.
And every night since then, he’d traced the scars down her back, silently swearing oath after oath that someday, he’d go back to Endovier and rip that place down stone by stone.
Chaol blinked, realizing someone had asked him a question, and shifted in his chair. “Say that again,” he ordered, refusing to let himself blush.
“Do we need extra guards at the carnival?”
Hell, he didn’t even know why they were asking that. Had there been some incident? If he asked, then they’d definitely know he hadn’t been listening.
He was spared from looking like a fool when someone knocked on the door to the small meeting room in the barracks, and then a golden head popped in.
Just seeing her made him forget the world around them. Everyone in the room shifted to look at the door, and as she smiled, he fought the urge to smash in the faces of the guards who looked at her so appreciatively. These were his men, he told himself. And she was beautiful—and she scared them half to death. Of course they would look, and appreciate.
“Captain,” she said, remaining on the threshold. There was color high on her cheeks that set her eyes sparkling, making him think of how she looked when they were tangled up with each other. She inclined her head toward the hall. “The king wants to see you.”
He would have felt a jolt of nerves, would have started to think the worst, had he not caught that glimmer of mischief in her eyes.
He stood from his seat, bowing his head to his men. “Decide among yourselves about the carnival, and report back to me later,” he said, and quickly left the room.
He kept a respectable distance until they rounded a corner into an empty hallway and he stepped closer, needing to touch her.
“Philippa and the servants are gone until dinner,” she said huskily.
He ground his teeth at the effect her voice had on him, like someone dragging an invisible finger down his spine. “I’ve got meetings for the rest of the day,” he managed to say. It was true. “I’ve got another one in twenty minutes.” Which he’d surely be late for if he followed her, considering how long it would take to walk to her rooms.
She paused, frowning at him. But his eyes drifted to the small wooden door just a few feet away. A broom closet. She followed his attention, and a slow smile spread across her face. She turned toward it, but he grabbed her hand, bringing his face close to hers. “You’re going to have to be very quiet.”
She reached the knob and opened the door, tugging him inside. “I have a feeling that I’m going to be telling you that in a few moments,” she purred, eyes gleaming with the challenge.
Chaol’s blood roared through him, and he followed her into the closet and wedged a broom beneath the handle.
“A broom closet?” Nehemia said, grinning like a fiend. “Really?” Celaena lay sprawled on Nehemia’s bed and tossed a chocolate-
covered raisin into her mouth. “I swear it on my life.”
Nehemia leapt onto the mattress. Fleetfoot jumped up beside her and practically sat on Celaena’s face as she wagged her tail at the princess.
Celaena gently shoved the dog aside, and smiled so broadly that her face hurt. “Who knew I’d been missing out on such fun?” And gods above, Chaol was … well, she blushed to think about just how much she enjoyed him after her body had adjusted. Just the touch of his fingers on her skin could turn her into a feral beast.
“I could have told you that,” Nehemia said, reaching over Celaena to grab a chocolate from the dish on the nightstand. “Though I think the real question is, who would have guessed that the solemn Captain of the Guard could be so passionate?” She lay down beside Celaena, also smiling. “I’m happy for you, my friend.”
Celaena smiled back. “I think … I think I’m happy for me, too.”
And she was. For the first time in years, she was truly happy. The feeling curled around every thought, a tendril of hope that grew with each breath. She was afraid to look at it for too long, as though acknowledging it would somehow cause it to disappear. Perhaps the world would never be perfect, perhaps some things would never be right, but maybe she stood a chance of finding her own sort of peace and freedom.
She felt the shift in Nehemia before the princess even said a word, like a current in the air somehow chilled. Celaena looked over to find Nehemia staring up at the ceiling. “What’s wrong?”
Nehemia ran a hand over her face, letting out a deep breath. “The king has asked me to speak to the rebel forces. To convince them to back down. Or else he’ll butcher them all.”
“He threatened to do that?”
“Not directly, but it was implied. At the end of the month, he’s sending Perrington to the duke’s keep in Morath. I don’t doubt for one minute that he wants Perrington at the southern border so he can monitor things. Perrington is his right hand. So if the duke decides the rebels need to be dealt with, he has permission to use whatever force is necessary to put them down.”
Celaena sat up, folding her legs beneath her. “So you’re going back to Eyllwe?”
Nehemia shook her head. “I don’t know. I need to be here. There are
… there are things that I need to do here. In this castle and in this city. But I cannot abandon my people to another massacre.”
“Can your parents or your brothers deal with the rebels?”
“My brothers are too young and untried, and my parents have enough on their hands in Banjali.” The princess sat up, and Fleetfoot rested her head on Nehemia’s lap, stretching out between them—and giving Celaena a few kicks with her hind legs in the process. “I have grown up knowing the weight of my crown. When the king invaded Eyllwe all those years ago, I knew that I would someday have to make choices that would haunt me.” She cupped her forehead in a palm. “I didn’t think it would be this hard. I cannot be in two places at once.”
Celaena’s chest tightened, and she put a hand on Nehemia’s back. No wonder Nehemia had been so slow about looking into the eye riddle. Shame colored her cheeks.
“What will I do, Elentiya, if he kills another five hundred people? What will I do if he decides to set an example by butchering everyone in Calaculla? How can I turn my back on them?”
Celaena had no answer. She’d spent the week lost in thoughts of Chaol. Nehemia had spent her week trying to balance the fate of her kingdom. And Celaena had clues littering the ground at her feet—clues that might help Nehemia in her cause against the king, and a command from Elena that she’d practically ignored.
Nehemia took her hand. “Promise me,” she said, her dark eyes shining. “Promise me that you’ll help me free Eyllwe from him.”
Ice shot through Celaena’s veins. “Free Eyllwe?”
“Promise me that you’ll see my father’s crown restored to him. That you’ll see my people returned from Endovier and Calaculla.”
“I’m just an assassin.” Celaena pulled her hand out of Nehemia’s. “And the kind of thing you’re talking about, Nehemia …” She got off the bed, trying to control her rapid heartbeat. “That would be madness.”
“There is no other way. Eyllwe must be freed. And with you helping me, we could start to gather a host to—”
“No.” Nehemia blinked, but Celaena shook her head. “No,” she repeated. “Not for all the world would I help you muster an army against him. Eyllwe has been hit hard by the king, but you barely got a taste of the kind of brutality he unleashed elsewhere. You raise a force against him, and he’ll butcher you. I won’t be a part of that.”
“So what will you be a part of, Celaena?” Nehemia stood, jostling Fleetfoot from her lap. “What will you stand for? Or will you only stand for yourself?”
Her throat ached, but Celaena forced the words out. “You have no idea what sort of things he can do to you, Nehemia. To your people.”
“He massacred five hundred rebels and their families!”
“And he destroyed my entire kingdom! You daydream about the power and honor of Terrasen’s royal court, yet you don’t realize what it means that the king was able to destroy them. They were the strongest court on the continent—they were the strongest court on any continent, and he killed them all.”
“He had the element of surprise,” Nehemia countered.
“And now he has an army that numbers in the millions. There is nothing that can be done.”
“When will you say enough, Celaena? What will make you stop running and face what is before you? If Endovier and the plight of my people cannot move you, what will?”
“I am one person.”
“One person chosen by Queen Elena—one person whose brow burned with a sacred mark on the day of that duel! One person who, despite the odds, is still breathing. Our paths crossed for a reason. If you are not gods-blessed, then who is?”
“This is ridiculous. This is folly.”
“Folly? Folly to fight for what is right, for people who cannot stand up for themselves? You think soldiers are the worst he can send?” Nehemia’s tone softened. “There are far darker things gathering on the horizon. My dreams have been filled with shadows and wings—the
booming of wings soaring between mountain passes. And every scout and spy we send into the White Fang Mountains, into the Ferian Gap, does not come back. Do you know what the people say in the valleys below? They say they can hear wings, too, riding the winds through the Gap.”
“I don’t understand a word you’re saying.” But Celaena had seen that thing outside the library.
Nehemia stalked to her, grabbing her by the wrists. “You do understand. When you look at him, you sense that there is a greater, twisted power around him. How did such a man conquer so much of the continent so quickly? With military might alone? How is it that Terrasen’s court fell so quickly, when its retainers had been trained for generations to be warriors? How did the most powerful court in the world get wiped out within a matter of days?”
“You’re tired and upset,” Celaena said as calmly as she could, trying not to think of how similar Nehemia’s and Elena’s words were. She shook off the princess’s grip. “Maybe we should talk about this later—”
“I don’t want to talk about this later!”
Fleetfoot whined, wedging herself between them.
“If we do not strike now,” Nehemia went on, “then whatever he is brewing will only grow more powerful. And then we will be beyond any chance of hope.”
“There is no hope,” Celaena said. “There is no hope in standing against him. Not now, not ever.” That was a truth she’d slowly been realizing. If Nehemia and Elena were right about this mysterious power source, then how could they ever overthrow him? “And I will not be a part of whatever plan you have. I will not help you get yourself killed, and bring down even more innocent people in the process.”
“You will not help because all you care about is yourself.”
“And so what if I do?” Celaena splayed her arms. “So what if I want to spend the rest of my life in peace?”
“There can never be any peace—not while he reigns. When you said you weren’t killing the men on his list, I thought you were finally taking a step toward making a stand. I thought that when the time came, I could count on you to help me start planning. I didn’t realize that you were doing it just to keep your own conscience clean!”
Celaena began storming toward the door.
Nehemia clicked her tongue. “I didn’t realize that you’re just a coward.”
Celaena looked over her shoulder. “Say that again.”
Nehemia didn’t flinch. “You’re a coward. You are nothing more than a coward.”
Celaena’s fingers clenched into fists. “When your people are lying dead around you,” she hissed, “don’t come crying to me.”
She didn’t give the princess the chance to reply before she stalked out of the room, Fleetfoot close on her heels.