“Lillian,” Nox said, gasping for breath. He pressed his face onto her hair. “Gods above.” But cheers erupted from below and drowned out his words. Celaena’s limbs trembled so violently that she had to focus on gripping Nox, and her stomach turned over and over and over.
But they were still in the middle of the Test—still expected to complete it, and Celaena looked up. All the Champions had stopped to see her save the falling thief. All except one, who perched high, high above them.
Celaena could only gape as the flag was ripped down, and Cain howled his triumph. More cheers rose up to meet them as Cain waved the flag for everyone to see. She seethed.
She would have won if she’d taken the easy route—she would have gotten there in half the time it took Cain. But Chaol told her to stay in the middle, anyway. And her path had been far more impressive and demonstrative of her skills. Cain just had to jump and swing—amateur scaling. Besides, if she had won, if she’d gone the easy way, she wouldn’t have saved Nox.
She clenched her jaw. Could she get back up there in time? Perhaps Nox could take the rope, and she’d just scale the wall with her bare hands. There was nothing worse than second place. But even as she thought it, Verin, Grave, Pelor, and Renault climbed the last few feet to the spot, tapping it with a hand before descending.
“Lillian. Nox. Hurry up,” Brullo called, and she peered down at the Weapons Master.
Celaena scowled, and started sliding her feet along the cracks in the stone, looking for a foothold. Her skin, raw and bleeding in spots, stung as she found a crevice for her toes to squeeze into. Carefully, carefully, she pulled herself up.
“I’m sorry,” Nox breathed, his legs knocking into hers as he also sought out a foothold.
“It’s fine,” she told him. Shaking, numb, Celaena climbed back up the wall, leaving Nox to figure out the way on his own. Foolish. It’d been so foolish to save him. What had she been thinking?
“Cheer up,” Chaol said, drinking from his glass of water. “Eighteenth place is fine. At least Nox placed behind you.”
Celaena said nothing and pushed her carrots around on her plate. It had taken two baths and an entire bar of soap to get the tar off her aching hands and feet, and Philippa had spent thirty minutes cleaning out and binding the wounds on each. And though Celaena had stopped shaking, she could still hear the shriek and thump of Ned Clement hitting the ground. They’d carried his body away before she finished the test. Only his death had saved Nox from elimination. Grave hadn’t even been scolded. There had been no rules against playing dirty.
“You’re doing exactly like we planned,” Chaol went on. “Though I’d hardly consider your valiant rescue to be entirely discreet.”
She glared at him. “Well, I still lost.” While Dorian had congratulated her for saving Nox, and while the thief had hugged and thanked her again and again, only Chaol had frowned when the Test was over. Apparently, daring rescues weren’t part of a jewel thief’s repertoire.
Chaol’s brown eyes shone golden in the midday sun. “Wasn’t learning to lose gracefully part of your training?”
“No,” she said sourly. “Arobynn told me that second place was just a nice title for the first loser.”
“Arobynn Hamel?” Chaol asked, setting down his glass. “The King of the Assassins?”
She looked toward the window, and the glittering expanse of Rifthold barely visible beyond it. It was strange to think that Arobynn was in the same city—that he was so close to her now. “You know he was my master, don’t you?”
“I’d forgotten,” Chaol said. Arobynn would have flogged her for saving Nox, jeopardizing her own safety and place in this competition. “He oversaw your training personally?”
“He trained me himself, and then brought in tutors from all over Erilea. The fighting masters from the rice fields of the southern continent, poison experts from the Bogdano Jungle . . . Once he sent me to the Silent Assassins in the Red Desert. No price was too high for him. Or me,” she added, fingering the fine thread on her bathrobe. “He didn’t bother to tell me until I was fourteen that I was expected to pay him back for all of it.”
“He trained you and then made you pay for it?”
She shrugged, but was unable to hide the flash of anger. “Courtesans go through the same experience: they’re taken in at a young age, and are bound to their brothels until they can earn back every coin that went into their training, upkeep, and wardrobe.”
“That’s despicable,” he spat, and she blinked at the anger in his voice—anger that, for once, was not directed at her. “Did you pay it back?”
A cold smile that didn’t reach her eyes spread across her face. “Oh, down to the last copper. And he then went out and spent all of it. Over five hundred thousand gold coins. Gone in three hours.” Chaol started from his seat. She shoved the memory down so deep that it stopped hurting. “You still haven’t apologized,” she said, changing the subject before Chaol could inquire further.
“Apologized? For what?”
“For all the horrid things you said yesterday afternoon when I was sparring with Nehemia.”
He narrowed his eyes, taking the bait. “I won’t apologize for speaking the truth.”
“The truth? You treated me like I’m a crazed criminal!”
“And you said that you hated me more than anyone alive.”
“I meant every word of it.” However, a smile began to tug at her lips—and she soon found it reflected on his face. He tossed a piece of bread at her, which she caught in one hand and threw back at him. He caught it with ease. “Idiot,” she said, grinning now.
“Crazed criminal,” he returned, grinning, too.
“I really do hate you.”
“At least I didn’t come in eighteenth place,” he said. Celaena felt her nostrils flare, and it was all Chaol could do to duck the apple she chucked at his head.
It wasn’t until later that Philippa brought the news. The Champion who hadn’t shown up for the Test had been found dead in a servant’s stairwell, brutally mauled and dismembered.
The new murder cast a pall over the next two weeks, and the two Tests they brought with them. Celaena passed the Tests—stealth and tracking—without drawing much attention to herself or risking her neck to save anyone. No other Champions were murdered, thankfully, but Celaena still found herself looking over her shoulder constantly, even though Chaol seemed to consider the two murders to be just unfortunate incidents.
Every day, she got better at running, going farther and faster, and managed to keep from killing Cain when he taunted her at training. The Crown Prince didn’t bother to show his face in her rooms again, and she only saw him during the Tests, when he usually just grinned and winked at her and made her feel ridiculously tingly and warm.
But she had more important things to worry about. There were only nine weeks left until the final duel, and some of the others, including Nox, were doing well enough that those four spots were starting to seem rather precious. Cain would definitely be there, but who would the other final three be? She’d always been so sure she’d make it.
But, if she were honest with herself, Celaena wasn’t so sure anymore.
Celaena gaped at the ground. She knew these sharp, gray rocks—knew how they crunched beneath her feet, how they smelled after the rain, how they could so easily cut into her skin when she was thrown down. The rocks stretched for miles, rising into jagged, fang-like mountains that pierced the cloudy sky. In the frigid wind, she had little clothing to protect her from its stinging gusts. As she touched the dirty rags, her stomach rose in her throat. What had happened?
She pivoted, shackles clanking, and took in the desolate waste that was Endovier.
She had failed, failed and been sent back here. There was no chance of escape. She had tasted freedom, come so close to it, and now—
Celaena screamed as excruciating pain shot down her back, barely heralded by the crack of the whip. She fell onto the ground, stone slicing into her raw knees.
“Get on your feet,” someone barked.
Tears stung her eyes, and the whip creaked as it rose again. She would be killed this time. She would die from the pain of it.
The whip fell, slicing into bone, reverberating through her body, making everything collapse and explode in agony, shifting her body into a graveyard, a dead—
Celaena’s eyes flew open. She panted.
“Are you . . . ,” someone said beside her, and she jerked.
Where was she?
“It was a dream,” said Chaol.
She stared at him, then looked around the room, running a hand through her hair. Rifthold. Rifthold—that’s where she was. In the glass castle—no, in the stone castle beneath.
She was sweating, and the sweat on her back felt uncomfortably like blood. She felt dizzy, nauseated, too small and too large all at once. Though her windows were shut, an odd draft from somewhere in her room kissed her face, smelling strangely of roses.
“Celaena. It was a dream,” the Captain of the Guard said again. “You were screaming.” He gave her a shaky smile. “I thought you were being murdered.”
Celaena reached around to touch her back, beneath her nightshirt. She could feel the three ridges—and some smaller ones, but nothing, nothing—
“I was being whipped.” She shook her head to remove the memory from her mind. “What are you doing here? It’s not even dawn.” She crossed her arms, flushing slightly.
“It’s Samhuinn. I’m canceling our training today, but I wanted to see if you planned to attend the service.”
“Today’s—what? It’s Samhuinn today? Why has no one mentioned it? Is there a feast tonight?” Could she have become so enmeshed in the competition that she’d lost track of time?
He frowned. “Of course, but you’re not invited.”
“Of course. And will you be summoning the dead to you this haunted night or lighting a bonfire with your companions?”
“I don’t partake in such superstitious nonsense.”
“Be careful, my cynical friend!” she warned, putting a hand in the air. “The gods and the dead are closest to the earth this day—they can hear every nasty comment you make!”
He rolled his eyes. “It’s a silly holiday to celebrate the coming of winter. The bonfires just produce ash to cover the fields.”
“As an offering to the gods to keep them safe!”
“As a way to fertilize them.”
Celaena pushed back the covers. “So says you,” she said as she stood. She adjusted her drenched nightgown. She reeked of sweat.
He snorted, following after her as she walked. “I never took you for a superstitious person. How does that fit into your career?”
She glared at him over her shoulder before she strode into the bathing chamber, Chaol close behind. She paused on the threshold. “Are you going to join me?” she said, and Chaol stiffened, realizing his error. He slammed the door in response.
Celaena found him waiting in her dining room when she emerged, her hair dripping water onto the floor. “Don’t you have your own breakfast?”
“You still haven’t given me an answer.”
“An answer to what?” She sat down across the table and spooned porridge into a bowl. All that was needed was a heap—no, three heaps—of sugar, and some hot cream and—
“Are you going to temple?”
“I’m allowed to go to temple, but not to the feast?” She took a spoonful of the porridge.
“Religious observances shouldn’t be denied to anyone.”
“And the feast is . . . ”
“A show of debauchery.”
“Ah, I see.” She swallowed another bite. Oh, she loved porridge! But perhaps it needed another spoonful of sugar.