“As quiet as the grave,” she said sweetly.
A smile tugged on Dorian’s lips, but he kept his face straight. “Yes.”
To work for the King of Adarlan as his loyal servant. She raised her chin. To kill for him—to be a fang in the mouth of the beast that had already consumed half of Erilea . . . “And if I accept?”
“Then, after six years, he’ll grant you your freedom.”
“Six years!” But the word “freedom” echoed through her once more.
“If you decline,” Dorian said, anticipating her next question, “you’ll remain in Endovier.” His sapphire eyes became hard, and she swallowed. And die here was what he didn’t need to add.
Six years as the king’s crooked dagger . . . or a lifetime in Endovier.
“However,” the prince said, “there’s a catch.” She kept her face neutral as he toyed with a ring on his finger. “The position isn’t being offered to you. Yet. My father thought to have a bit of fun. He’s hosting a competition. He invited twenty-three members of his council to each sponsor a would-be Champion to train in the glass castle and ultimately compete in a duel. Were you to win,” he said with a half smile, “you’d officially be Adarlan’s Assassin.”
She didn’t return his smile. “Who, exactly, are my competitors?”
Seeing her expression, the prince’s grin faded. “Thieves and assassins and warriors from across Erilea.” She opened her mouth, but he cut her off. “If you win, and prove yourself both skilled and trustworthy, my father has sworn to grant you your freedom. And, while you’re his Champion, you’ll receive a considerable salary.”
She barely heard his last few words. A competition! Against some nobody men from the-gods-knew-where! And assassins! “What other assassins?” she demanded.
“None that I’ve heard of. None as famous as you. And that reminds me—you won’t be competing as Celaena Sardothien.”
“You’ll compete under an alias. I don’t suppose you heard about what happened after your trial.”
“News is rather hard to come by when you’re slaving in a mine.”
Dorian chuckled, shaking his head. “No one knows that Celaena Sardothien is just a young woman—they all thought you were far older.”
“What?” she asked again, her face flushing. “How is that possible?” She should be proud that she’d kept it hidden from most of the world, but . . .
“You kept your identity a secret all the years you were running around killing everyone. After your trial, my father thought it would be . . . wise not to inform Erilea who you are. He wants to keep it that way. What would our enemies say if they knew we’d all been petrified of a girl?”
“So I’m slaving in this miserable place for a name and title that don’t even belong to me? Who does everyone think Adarlan’s Assassin really is?”
“I don’t know, nor do I entirely care. But I do know that you were the best, and that people still whisper when they mention your name.” He fixed her with a stare. “If you’re willing to fight for me, to be my Champion during the months the competition will go on, I’ll see to it that my father frees you after five years.”
Though he tried to conceal it, she could see the tension in his body. He wanted her to say yes. Needed her to say yes so badly he was willing to bargain with her. Her eyes began glittering. “What do you mean, ‘were the best’?”
“You’ve been in Endovier for a year. Who knows what you’re still capable of?”
“I’m capable of quite a lot, thank you,” she said, picking at her jagged nails. She tried not to cringe at all the dirt beneath them. When was the last time her hands had been clean?
“That remains to be seen,” Dorian said. “You’ll be told the details of the competition when we arrive in Rifthold.”
“Despite the amount of fun you nobles will have betting on us, this competition seems unnecessary. Why not just hire me already?”
“As I just said, you must prove yourself worthy.”
She put a hand on her hip, and her chains rattled loudly through the room. “Well, I think being Adarlan’s Assassin exceeds any sort of proof you might need.”
“Yes,” Chaol said, his bronze eyes flashing. “It proves that you’re a criminal, and that we shouldn’t immediately trust you with the king’s private business.”
“I give my solemn oa—”
“I doubt that the king would take the word of Adarlan’s Assassin as bond.”
“Yes, but I don’t see why I have to go through the training and the competition. I mean, I’m bound to be a bit . . . out of shape, but . . . what else do you expect when I have to make do with rocks and pickaxes in this place?” She gave Chaol a spiteful glance.
Dorian frowned. “So, you won’t take the offer?”
“Of course I’m going to take the offer,” she snapped. Her wrists chafed against her shackles badly enough that her eyes watered. “I’ll be your absurd Champion if you agree to free me in three years, not five.”
“Fine,” she said. “It’s a bargain. I might be trading one form of slavery for another, but I’m not a fool.”
She could win back her freedom. Freedom. She felt the cold air of the wide-open world, the breeze that swept from the mountains and carried her away. She could live far from Rifthold, the capital that had once been her realm.
“Hopefully you’re right,” Dorian replied. “And hopefully, you’ll live up to your reputation. I anticipate winning, and I won’t be pleased if you make me look foolish.”
“And what if I lose?”
The gleam vanished from his eyes as he said: “You’ll be sent back here, to serve out the remainder of your sentence.”
Celaena’s lovely visions exploded like dust from a slammed book. “Then I might as well leap from the window. A year in this place has worn me through—imagine what will happen if I return. I’d be dead by my second year.” She tossed her head. “Your offer seems fair enough.”
“Fair enough indeed,” Dorian said, and waved a hand at Chaol. “Take her to her rooms and clean her up.” He fixed her with a stare. “We depart for Rifthold in the morning. Don’t disappoint me, Sardothien.”
It was nonsense, of course. How difficult could it be to outshine, outsmart, and then obliterate her competitors? She didn’t smile, for she knew that if she did, it would open her to a realm of hope that had long been closed. But still, she felt like seizing the prince and dancing. She tried to think of music, tried to think of a celebratory tune, but could only recall a solitary line from the mournful bellowing of the Eyllwe work songs, deep and slow like honey poured from a jar: “And go home at last . . .”
She didn’t notice when Captain Westfall led her away, nor did she notice when they walked down hall after hall.
Yes, she would go—to Rifthold, to anywhere, even through the Gates of the Wyrd and into Hell itself, if it meant freedom.
After all, you aren’t Adarlan’s Assassin for nothing.
When Celaena finally collapsed onto a bed after her meeting in the throne room, she couldn’t fall asleep, despite the exhaustion in every inch of her body. After being roughly bathed by brutish servants, the wounds on her back throbbed and her face felt like it had been scrubbed to the bone. Shifting to lie on her side to ease the pain in her dressed and bound back, she ran her hand down the mattress, and blinked at the freeness of movement. Before she’d gotten into the bath, Chaol had removed her shackles. She’d felt everything—the reverberations of the key turning in the lock of her irons, then again as they loosened and fell to the floor. She could still feel the ghost chains hovering just above her skin. Looking up at the ceiling, she rotated her raw, burning joints and gave a sigh of contentment.
But it was too strange to lie on a mattress, to have silk caress her skin and a pillow cradle her cheek. She had forgotten what food other than soggy oats and hard bread tasted like, what a clean body and clothes could do to a person. Now it was utterly foreign.
Though her dinner hadn’t been that wonderful. Not only was the roast chicken unimpressive, but after a few forkfuls, she’d dashed into the bathroom to deposit the contents of her stomach. She wanted to eat, to put a hand to a swollen belly, to wish that she’d never eaten a morsel and swear that she’d never eat again. She’d eat well in Rifthold, wouldn’t she? And, more importantly, her stomach would adjust.
She’d wasted away to nothing. Beneath her nightgown, her ribs reached out from inside of her, showing bones where flesh and meat should have been. And her br**sts! Once well-formed, they were now no larger than they’d been in the midst of puberty. A lump clogged her throat, which she promptly swallowed down. The softness of the mattress smothered her, and she shifted again, lying on her back, despite the pain it gave her.
Her face hadn’t been much better when she glimpsed it in the washroom mirror. It was haggard: her cheekbones were sharp, her jaw pronounced, and her eyes slightly, but ever so disturbingly, sunken in. She took steadying breaths, savoring the hope. She’d eat. A lot. And exercise. She could be healthy again. Imagining outrageous feasts and regaining her former glory, she finally fell asleep.
When Chaol came to fetch her the next morning, he found her sleeping on the floor, wrapped in a blanket. “Sardothien,” he said. She made a mumbling noise, burying her face farther into the pillow. “Why are you sleeping on the ground?” She opened an eye. Of course, he didn’t mention how different she looked now that she was clean.
She didn’t bother concealing herself with the blanket as she stood. The yards of fabric they called a nightgown covered her enough. “The bed was uncomfortable,” she said simply, but quickly forgot the captain as she beheld the sunlight.
Pure, fresh, warm sunlight. Sunlight that she could bask in day after day if she got her freedom, sunlight to drown out the endless dark of the mines. It leaked in through the heavy drapes, smearing itself across the room in thick lines. Gingerly, Celaena stretched out a hand.
Her hand was pale, almost skeletal, but there was something about it, something beyond the bruises and cuts and scars, that seemed beautiful and new in the morning light.
She ran to the window and nearly ripped the curtains from their hangings as she opened them to the gray mountains and bleakness of Endovier. The guards positioned beneath the window didn’t glance upward, and she gaped at the bluish-gray sky, at the clouds slipping on their shoes and shuffling toward the horizon.
I will not be afraid. For the first time in a while, the words felt true.
Her lips peeled into a smile. The captain raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
She was cheerful—jubilant, really—and her mood improved when the servants coiled her braided hair onto the back of her head and dressed her in a surprisingly fine riding habit that concealed her miserably thin form. She loved clothes—loved the feeling of silk, of velvet, of satin, of suede and chiffon—and was fascinated by the grace of seams, the intricate perfection of an embossed surface. And when she won this ridiculous competition, when she was free . . . she could buy all the clothes she wanted.
She laughed when Chaol, irked at how Celaena stood in front of the mirror for five minutes, admiring herself, half-dragged her out of the room. The budding sky made her want to dance and skip down the halls before they entered the main yard. However, she faltered as she beheld the mounds of bone-colored rock at the far end of the compound, and the small figures going in and out of the many mouthlike holes cut into the mountains.
Work had already begun for the day, work that would continue without her when she left them all to this miserable fate. Her stomach clenching, Celaena averted her eyes from the prisoners, keeping up with the captain as they headed to a caravan of horses near the towering wall.