“How delightful, Your Majesty,” Kaltain said as the acrobats gathered their things.
“Yes, they were rather exciting, weren’t they?” The queen’s green eyes were bright, and she smiled at Kaltain. Just then Kaltain’s head gave a bolt of pain so strong she clenched her fists, hiding them in the folds of her tangerine-colored gown.
“I do wish Prince Dorian could have seen them,” Kaltain got out. “His Highness told me only yesterday how much he enjoyed coming here.” The lie was easy enough, and it somehow made the pain of the headache ease.
“Dorian said that?” Queen Georgina raised an auburn eyebrow.
“Does that surprise Your Majesty?”
The queen put a hand to her chest. “I thought my son had a distaste for such things.”
“Your Majesty,” she whispered, “will you swear not to say a word?”
“A word about what?” the queen whispered back.
“Well, Prince Dorian told me something.”
“What did he say?” The queen touched Kaltain’s arm.
“He said that the reason he doesn’t come to court so often is because he’s rather shy.”
The queen withdrew, the light in her eyes fading. “Oh, he’s told me that a hundred times. I was so hoping you’d tell me something interesting, Lady Kaltain. Like if he’s found a young woman he favors.”
Kaltain’s face warmed, and her head pounded mercilessly. She wished for her pipe, but hours remained of this court session, and it wouldn’t be proper to leave until Georgina departed.
“I heard,” said the queen under her breath, “that there’s a young lady, but no one knows who! Or at least when they hear her name, it’s nothing familiar. Do you know her?”
“No, Your Majesty.” Kaltain fought to keep the frustration from her face.
“What a pity. I had hoped that you of all people would know. You’re such a clever girl, Kaltain.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty. You are too kind.”
“Nonsense. I’m an excellent judge of character; I knew how extraordinary you were the moment you entered the court. Only you are suitable for a man of Perrington’s prowess. What a pity you didn’t meet my Dorian first!”
Not enough, not enough, the pain sang. This was her time. “Even if I had,” Kaltain chuckled, “Your Majesty surely would not have approved—I’m far too lowly for the attentions of your son.”
“Your beauty and wealth compensate for it.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” Kaltain’s heart pounded quickly.
If the queen approved of her . . . Kaltain could scarcely think as the queen nestled into her throne, then clapped her hands twice. The music began. Kaltain didn’t hear it.
Perrington had given her the shoes. Now was her time to dance.
“You’re not focusing.”
“Yes, I am!” Celaena said through her teeth, pulling the bowstring back even farther.
“Then go ahead,” Chaol said, pointing to a distant target along the far wall of the abandoned hallway. An outrageous distance for anyone—except her. “Let’s see you make that.”
She rolled her eyes and straightened her spine a bit. The bowstring quivered in her hand, and she lifted the tip of her arrow slightly.
“You’re going to hit the left wall,” he said, crossing his arms.
“I’m going to hit you in the head if you don’t shut up.” She turned her head to meet his gaze. His brows rose, and, still staring at him, she smiled wickedly as she blindly fired the arrow.
The whiz of the arrow’s flight filled the stone hallway before the faint, dull thud of impact. But they remained gazing at each other. His eyes were slightly purple beneath—hadn’t he gotten any sleep in the three weeks since Xavier had died?
She certainly hadn’t been sleeping well, either. Every noise woke her, and Chaol hadn’t yet discovered who might be targeting the Champions one by one. The who didn’t matter as much to her as the how—how was the killer selecting them? There was no pattern; five were dead, and they had no connection to each other, aside from the competition. She hadn’t been able to see another crime scene to determine if Wyrdmarks had been painted in blood there as well. Celaena sighed, rolling her shoulders. “Cain knows who I am,” she said quietly, lowering her bow.
His face remained blank. “How?”
“Perrington told him. And Cain told me.”
“When?” She’d never seen him look so serious. It made something within her strain.
“A few days ago,” she lied. It had been weeks since their confrontation. “I was in the garden with Nehemia—with my guards, don’t worry—and he approached us. He knows all about me—and knows that I hold back when we’re with the other Champions.”
“Did he lead you to believe that the other Champions know about you?”
“No,” she said. “I don’t think they do. Nox doesn’t have a clue.”
Chaol put a hand on the hilt of his sword. “It’s going to be fine. The element of surprise is gone, that’s all. You’ll still beat Cain in the duels.”
She half smiled. “You know, it’s starting to sound like you actually believe in me. You’d better be careful.”
He began to say something, but running footsteps sounded from around the corner, and he paused. Two guards skidded to a stop and saluted them. Chaol gave them a moment to collect their breath before he said, “Yes?”
One of the guards, an aging man with thinning hair, saluted a second time and said, “Captain—you’re needed.”
Though his features remained neutral, Chaol’s shoulders shifted, and his chin rose a bit higher. “What is it?” he said, a bit too quickly to pass for unconcerned.
“Another body,” replied the guard. “In the servant’s passages.”
The second guard, a slender, frail-looking young man, was deathly pale. “You saw the body?” Celaena asked him. The guard nodded. “How fresh?”
Chaol gave her a sharp look. The guard said, “They think it’s from last night—from the way the blood’s half-dried.”
Chaol’s eyes were unfocused. Thinking—he was figuring out what to do. He straightened. “You want to prove how good you are?” he asked her.
She put her hands on her hips. “Do I even need to?”
He motioned the guards to lead the way. “Come with me,” he said to her over his shoulder, and—despite the body—she smiled a bit and followed him.
As they departed, Celaena looked back at the target.
Chaol had been right. She’d missed the center by six inches—to the left.
Thankfully, someone had created some semblance of order before they arrived. Even still, Chaol had to push his way through a crowd of gathered guards and servants, Celaena keeping close behind him. When they reached the edge of the crowd and beheld the body, her hands slackened at her sides. Chaol cursed with impressive violence.
She didn’t know where to look first. At the body, with the gaping chest cavity and missing brain and face, at the claw marks gouged into the ground, or at the two Wyrdmarks, drawn on either side of the body in chalk. Her blood went cold. There was no denying their connection now.
The crowd continued talking as the captain approached the body, then turned to one of the guards watching him. “Who is it?”
“Verin Ysslych,” Celaena said before the guard could reply. She’d recognize Verin’s curly hair anywhere. Verin had been at the head of the pack since this competition started. Whatever had killed him . . .
“What kind of animal makes scratches like those?” she asked Chaol, but didn’t need to hear his reply to know that his guess was as good as hers. The claw marks were deep—a quarter of an inch at least. She crouched beside one and ran her finger along the interior edge. It was jagged, but cut clean into the stone floor. Her brows knotting, she scanned the other claw marks.
“There’s no blood in these claw marks,” she said, twisting her head to look over her shoulder at Chaol. He knelt beside her as she pointed to them. “They’re clean.”
She frowned, fighting the chill that ran down her arms. “Whatever did this sharpened its nails before it gutted him.”
“And why is that important?”
She stood, looking up and down the hallway, then squatted again. “It means this thing had time to do that before it attacked him.”
“It could have done it while lying in wait.”
She shook her head. “Those torches along the wall are almost burnt to stubs. There aren’t any signs of them being extinguished before the attack—there are no traces of sooty water. If Verin died last night, then those torches were still burning when he died.”
“And look at this hallway. The nearest doorway is fifty feet down, and the nearest corner is a bit farther than that. If those torches were burning—”
“Then Verin would have seen whatever it was long before he got to this spot.”
“So why get near it?” she asked, more to herself than anything. “What if it wasn’t an animal, but a person? And what if that person disabled Verin long enough for them to summon this creature?” She pointed to Verin’s legs. “Those are clean cuts around his ankles. His tendons were snapped by a knife, to keep him from running.” She moved next to the body, taking care not to disturb the Wyrdmarks etched into the ground as she lifted Verin’s rigid, cold hand. “Look at his fingernails.” She swallowed hard. “The tips are cracked and shattered.” She used her own nail to scrape out the dirt beneath his nails, and smeared it across her palm. “See?” She held out her hand out for Chaol to observe. “Dust and bits of stone.” She pulled aside Verin’s arm, revealing faint lines in the stone beneath. “Fingernail marks. He was desperate to get away—to drag himself by his fingertips, if necessary. He was alive the entire time that thing sharpened its claws on the stone while its master watched.”
“So what does that mean?”
She smiled grimly at him. “It means that you’re in a lot of trouble.”
And, as Chaol’s face paled, Celaena realized with a jolt that perhaps the Champions’ killer and Elena’s mysterious evil force might be one and the same.
Seated at the dining table, Celaena flipped through the book.
Nothing, nothing, nothing. She scanned page after page for any sign of the two Wyrdmarks that had been drawn beside Verin’s body. There had to be a connection.
She stopped as a map of Erilea appeared. Maps had always interested her; there was something bewitching in knowing one’s precise location in relation to others on the earth. She gently traced a finger along the eastern coast. She began in the south—at Banjali, the Eyllwe capital, then went up, curving and snaking, all the way to Rifthold. Her finger then traveled through Meah, then north and inland to Orynth, then back, back to the sea, to the Sorian Coast, and finally to the very tip of the continent and the North Sea beyond.
She stared at Orynth, that city of light and learning, the pearl of Erilea and capital of Terrasen. Her birthplace. Celaena slammed shut the book.
Glancing around her room, the assassin let out a long sigh. When she managed to sleep, her dreams were haunted by ancient battles, by swords with eyes, by Wyrdmarks that swirled around her head and blinded her with their bright colors. She could see the gleaming armor of Fae and mortal warriors, hear the clash of shields and the snarl of vicious beasts, and smell blood and rotting corpses all around her. Carnage trailed in her wake. Adarlan’s Assassin shuddered.
“Oh, good. I hoped you’d still be awake,” the Crown Prince said, and Celaena jumped from her seat to find Dorian approaching. He looked tired and a bit ruffled.