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"ROYAL ASSASSIN" SEASON 3, EPISODE 13"


ROYAL ASSASSIN

Season 3

Episode 13


Celaena didn’t realize how exhausted she was until all sounds—­Emrys’s soft singing from the table, the thud of dough as he kneaded it, the chopping of Luca’s knife and his ceaseless chatter about everything and anything—­stopped. And she knew what she’d find when she turned toward the stairwell. Her hands ­were pruny, fingers aching, back and neck throbbing, but . . . Rowan was leaning against the archway of the stairwell, arms crossed and violence beckoning in his lifeless eyes. “Let’s go.”


Though his features remained cold, she had the distinct impression that he was somewhat annoyed at her for not sulking in a corner, bemoaning the state of her nails. As she left, Luca drew a finger across his neck as he mouthed good luck.


Rowan led her through a small courtyard, where sentries tried to pretend they ­weren’t watching their every move, and out into the forest. The ward-­magic woven between the ring of megaliths again nipped at her skin as they passed, and nausea washed through her. Without the constant heat of the kitchen, she was half-frozen by the time they strode between the moss-­coated trees, but even that was only a vague flicker of feeling.


Rowan trekked up a rocky ridge toward the highest reaches of the forest, still clouded in mist. She barely paused to take in the view of the foothills below, the plains before them, all green and fresh and safe from Adarlan. Rowan didn’t utter a single word until they reached what looked like the weather-­stained ruins of a temple.


It was now no more than a flat bed of stone blocks and columns whose carvings had been dulled by wind and rain. To her left lay Wendlyn, foothills and plains and peace. To her right arose the wall of the Cambrian Mountains, blocking any sight of the immortal lands beyond. Behind her, far down, she could make out the fortress snaking along the spine of the mountain.


Rowan crossed the cracked stones, his silver hair battered by the crisp, damp wind. She kept her arms loose at her sides, more out of reflex than anything. He was armed to the teeth, his face a mask of unyielding brutality.


She made herself give a little smile, her best attempt at a dutiful, eager expression. “Do your worst.”


He looked her over from head to toe: the mist-­damp shirt, now icy against her puckered skin, the equally stained and damp pants, the position of her feet . . .


“Wipe that smarmy, lying smile off your face.” His voice was as dead as his eyes, but it had a razor-­sharp bite behind it.


She kept her smarmy, lying smile. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”


He stepped toward her, the canines coming out this time. “Here’s your first lesson, girl: cut the ­horse­shit. I don’t feel like dealing with it, and I’m probably the only one who ­doesn’t give a damn about how angry and vicious and awful you are underneath.”


“I don’t think you particularly want to see how angry and vicious and awful I am underneath.”


“Go ahead and be as nasty as you want, Princess, because I’ve been ten times as nasty, for ten times longer than you’ve been alive.”


She didn’t let it out—­no, because he didn’t truly understand a thing about what lurked under her skin and ran claws down her insides—­but she stopped any attempt to control her features. Her lips pulled back from her teeth.


“Better. Now shift.”


She didn’t bother to sound pleasant as she said, “It’s not something I can control.”


“If I wanted excuses, I’d ask for them. Shift.”


She didn’t know how. She had never mastered it as a child, and there certainly hadn’t been any opportunities to learn in the past de­cade. “I hope you brought snacks, because ­we’re going to be ­here a long, long while if today’s lesson is dependent upon my shifting.”


“You’re really going to make me enjoy training you.” She had a feeling he could have switched out training you for eating you alive.


“I’ve already participated in a dozen versions of the master-­disciple training saga, so why don’t we cut that ­horse­shit, too?”


His smile turned quieter, more lethal. “Shut your smart-­ass mouth and shift.”


A shuddering rush went through her—­a spear of lightning in the abyss. “No.”


And then he attacked.


She’d contemplated his blows all morning, the way he’d moved, the swiftness and angles. So she dodged the first blow, sidestepping his fist, strands of her hair snapping in the wind.


She even twisted far enough in the other direction to avoid the second strike. But he was so damn fast she could barely register the movements—­so fast that she had no chance of dodging or blocking or anticipating the third blow. Not to her face but to her legs, just as he had the night before.


One sweep of his foot and she was falling, twisting to catch herself, but not fast enough to avoid thudding her brow against a weather-­smooth rock. She rolled, the gray sky looming, and tried to remember how to breathe as the impact echoed through her skull. Rowan pounced with fluid ease, his powerful thighs digging into her ribs as he straddled her. Breathless, head reeling, and muscles drained from a morning in the kitchen and weeks of hardly eating, she ­couldn’t twist and toss him—­couldn’t do anything. She was outweighed, outmuscled, and for the first time in her life, she realized she was utterly outmatched.


“Shift,” he hissed.


She laughed up at him, a dead, wretched sound even to her own ears. “Nice try.” Gods, her head throbbed, a warm trickle of blood was leaking from the right side of her brow, and he was now sitting on her chest. She laughed again, strangled by his weight. “You think you can trick me into shifting by pissing me off ?”


He snarled, his face speckled with the stars floating in her vision. Every blink shot daggers of pain through her. It would probably be the worst black eye of her life.


“Here’s an idea: I’m rich as hell,” she said over the pounding in her head. “How about we pretend to do this training for a week or so, and then you tell Maeve I’m good and ready to enter her territory, and I’ll give you all the gods-­damned gold you want.”


He brought his canines so close to her neck that one movement would have him ripping out her throat. “Here’s an idea,” he growled. “I don’t know what the hell you’ve been doing for ten years, other than flouncing around and calling yourself an assassin. But I think you’re used to getting your way. I think you have no control over yourself. No control, and no discipline—­not the kind that counts, deep down. You are a child, and a spoiled one at that. And,” he said, those green eyes holding nothing but distaste, “you are a coward.”


Had her arms not been pinned, she would have clawed his face off right then. She struggled, trying every technique she’d ever learned to dislodge him, but he didn’t move an inch.


A low, nasty laugh. “Don’t like that word?” He leaned closer still, that tattoo of his swimming in her muddled vision. “Coward. You’re a coward who has run for ten years while innocent people ­were burned and butchered and—”


She stopped hearing him.


She just—­stopped.


It was like being underwater again. Like charging into Nehemia’s room and finding that beautiful body mutilated on the bed. Like seeing Galan Ashryver, beloved and brave, riding off into the sunset to the cheers of his people.


She lay still, watching the churning clouds above. Waiting for him to finish the words she ­couldn’t hear, waiting for a blow she was fairly certain she ­wouldn’t feel.


“Get up,” he said suddenly, and the world was bright and wide as he stood. “Get up.”


Get up. Chaol had said that to her once, when pain and fear and grief had shoved her over an edge. But the edge she’d gone over the night Nehemia had died, the night she’d gutted Archer, the day she’d told Chaol the horrible truth . . . Chaol had helped shove her over that edge. She was still on the fall down. There was no getting up, because there was no bottom.


Powerful, rough hands under her shoulders, the world tilting and spinning, then that tattooed, snarling face in hers. Let him take her head between those massive hands and snap her neck.


“Pathetic,” he spat, releasing her. “Spineless and pathetic.”


For Nehemia, she had to try, had to try—


But when she reached in, toward the place in her chest where that monster dwelled, she found only cobwebs and ashes.


Celaena’s head was still reeling, and dried blood now itched down the side of her face. She didn’t bother to wipe it off, or to really care about the black eye that she was positive had blossomed during the miles they’d hiked from the temple ruins and into the forested foothills. But not back to Mistward.


She was swaying on her feet when Rowan drew a sword and a dagger and stopped at the edge of a grassy plateau, speckled with small hills. Not hills—­barrows, the ancient tombs of lords and princes long dead, rolling to the other edge of trees. There ­were dozens, each marked with a stone threshold and sealed iron door. And through the murky vision, the pounding headache, the hair on the back of her neck ­rose.


The grassy mounds seemed to . . . breathe. To sleep. Iron doors—­to keep the wights inside, locked with the trea­sure they’d stolen. They infiltrated the barrows and lurked there for eons, feeding on what­ever unwitting fools dared seek the gold within.




Rowan inclined his head toward the barrows. “I had planned to wait until you had some handle on your power—­planned to make you come at night, when the barrow-­wights are really something to behold, but consider this a favor, as there are few that will dare come out in the day. Walk through the mounds—­face the wights and make it to the other side of the field, Aelin, and we can go to Doranelle whenever you wish.”


It was a trap. She knew that well enough. He had the gift of endless time, and could play games that lasted centuries. Her impatience, her mortality, the fact that every heartbeat brought her closer to death, was being used against her. To face the wights . . .


Rowan’s weapons gleamed, close enough to grab. He shrugged those powerful shoulders as he said, “You can either wait to earn back your steel, or you can enter as you are now.”


The flash of temper snapped her out of it long enough to say, “My bare hands are weapon enough.” He just gave a taunting grin and sauntered into the maze of hills.


She trailed him closely, following him around each mound, knowing that if she fell too far behind, he’d leave her out of spite.


Steady breathing and the yawns of awakening things arose beyond those iron doors. They ­were unadorned, bolted into the stone lintels with spikes and nails that ­were so old they probably predated Wendlyn itself.


Her footsteps crunched in the grass. Even the birds and insects did not utter a too-­loud sound ­here. The hills parted to reveal an inner circle of dead grass around the most crumbling barrow of all. Where the others ­were rounded, this one looked as if some ancient god had stepped on it. Its flattened top had been overrun with the gnarled roots of bushes; the three massive stones of the threshold ­were beaten, stained, and askew. The iron door was gone.


There was only blackness within. Ageless, breathing blackness.


Her heartbeat pounded in her ears as the darkness reached for her.


“I leave you ­here,” Rowan said. He hadn’t set one foot inside the circle, his boots just an inch shy of the dead grass. His smile turned feral. “I’ll meet you on the other side of the field.”


He expected her to bolt like a hare. And she wanted to. Gods, this place, that damned barrow only a hundred yards away, made her want to run and run and not stop until she found a place where the sun shone day and night. But if she did this, then she could go to Doranelle tomorrow. And those wights waiting in the other half of the field . . . they ­couldn’t be worse than what she’d already seen, and fought, and found dwelling in the world and inside of herself.


So she inclined her head to Rowan, and walked onto the dead field.

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