“We will begin in a moment,” the king said. “Prepare your weapons.” With that, he turned to Perrington and began speaking too quietly for anyone else to hear in the blustering wind.
Celaena turned to Chaol. But instead of handing her the plain-as-porridge sword she usually wielded in practice, he drew his own blade. The eagle-shaped pommel glinted in the midday sun. “Here,” he said.
She blinked at the blade, and slowly raised her face to look at him. She found the rolling earthen hills of the north in his eyes. It was a sense of loyalty to his country that went beyond the man seated at the table. Far inside of her, she found a golden chain that bound them together.
“Take it,” he said.
Her heartbeat thundered in her ears. She lifted a hand to grab the blade, but someone touched her elbow.
“If I may,” Nehemia said in Eyllwe, “I’d like to offer this to you instead.” The princess held out her beautifully carved iron-tipped staff. Celaena glanced between Chaol’s sword and her friend’s weapon. The sword, obviously, was the wiser choice—and for Chaol to offer his own weapon made her feel strangely lightheaded—but the staff . . .
Nehemia leaned in to whisper in Celaena’s ear. “Let it be with an Eyllwe weapon that you take them down.” Her voice hitched. “Let wood from the forests of Eyllwe defeat steel from Adarlan. Let the King’s Champion be someone who understands how the innocents suffer.”
Hadn’t Elena said almost the same thing, all those months ago? Celaena swallowed hard, and Chaol lowered his sword, taking a step back from them. Nehemia didn’t break her stare.
She knew what the princess was asking of her. As the King’s Champion, she might find ways to save countless lives—ways to undermine the king’s authority.
And that, Celaena realized, was what Elena, the king’s own ancestor, might want, too.
Though a bolt of fear went through her at the thought, though standing against the king was the one thing Celaena had thought she’d never be brave enough to do, she couldn’t forget the three scars on her back, or the slaves she’d left in Endovier, or the five hundred butchered Eyllwe rebels.
Celaena took the staff from Nehemia’s hands. The princess gave her a fierce grin.
Chaol, surprisingly enough, didn’t object. He only sheathed his sword and bowed his head to Nehemia as she clapped Celaena on the shoulder before she walked off.
Celaena gave the staff a few experimental sweeps in the space around her. Balanced, solid, strong. The rounded iron tip could knock a man out cold.
She could feel the lingering oil from Nehemia’s hands and smell her friend’s lotus-blossom scent on the engraved wood. Yes, the staff would do just fine. She’d taken down Verin with her bare hands. She could defeat Grave and Cain with this.
She glanced at the king, who was still speaking with Perrington, and found Dorian watching her instead. His sapphire eyes reflected the brilliance of the sky, though they darkened slightly as he flicked them toward Nehemia. Dorian was many things, but he wasn’t stupid; had he realized the symbolism in Nehemia’s offer? She quickly dropped his stare.
She’d worry about that later. Across the ring, Grave began pacing, waiting for the king to return his attention to the duel and give the order to begin.
She loosed a shuddering breath. Here she was, at long last. She gripped the staff in her left hand, taking in the strength of the wood, the strength of her friend. A lot could happen in a few minutes—a lot could change.
She faced Chaol. The wind ripped a few strands of hair from her braid, and she tucked them behind her ears.
“No matter what happens,” she said quietly, “I want to thank you.”
Chaol tilted his head to the side. “For what?”
Her eyes stung, but she blamed it on the fierce wind and blinked away the dampness. “For making my freedom mean something.”
He didn’t say anything; he just took the fingers of her right hand and held them in his, his thumb brushing the ring she wore.
“Let the second duel commence,” the king boomed, waving a hand toward the veranda.
Chaol squeezed her hand, his skin warm in the frigid air. “Give him hell,” he said. Grave entered the ring and drew his sword.
Pulling her hand from Chaol’s, Celaena straightened her spine as she stepped into the ring. She quickly bowed to the king, then to her opponent.
She met Grave’s stare and smiled as she bent her knees, holding the staff in two hands.
You have no idea what you’re getting yourself into, little man.
As she expected, Grave launched himself at her, going straight for the center of the staff in his hope to break it.
But Celaena whirled away. As Grave struck nothing but air, she slammed the butt of the staff into his spine. He staggered, but kept upright, turning on one foot as he charged after her again.
She took the blow this time, angling her staff so he hit the bottom half. His blade wedged in the wood, and she jumped toward him, letting the force of his own blow snap the upper part of the staff straight into his face. He stumbled, but her fist was waiting. As it met with his nose, she savored the rush of pain through her hand and the crunch of his bones beneath her knuckles. She leapt back before he had a chance to strike. Blood gleamed as it trickled from his nose. “Bitch!” he hissed, and swung.
She met his blade, holding the staff with both hands, pushing the wood shaft into his sword, even when it let out a splintering groan.
She shoved him, grunting, and spun. She whacked the back of his head with the top of the staff, and he teetered, but regained his footing. He wiped at his bloody nose, eyes gleaming as he panted. His pockmarked face became feral, and he charged, aiming a direct blow to her heart. Too fast, too wild for him to stop.
She dropped into a crouch. As the blade sailed overhead, she lashed out at his legs. He didn’t even have time to cry out as she swept his feet out from under him, nor did he have time to raise his weapon before she crouched over his chest, the iron-coated tip of the staff at his throat.
She brought her mouth close to his ear. “My name is Celaena Sardothien,” she whispered. “But it makes no difference if my name’s Celaena or Lillian or Bitch, because I’d still beat you, no matter what you call me.” She smiled at him as she stood. He just stared up at her, his bloody nose leaking down the side of his cheek. She took the handkerchief from her pocket and dropped it on his chest. “You can keep that,” she said before she walked off the veranda.
She intercepted Chaol as soon as she crossed the line of chalk. “How long did that take?” she asked. She found Nehemia beaming at her, and Celaena lifted her staff a little in salute.
She grinned at the captain. She was hardly winded. “Better than Cain’s time.”
“And certainly more dramatic,” Chaol said. “Was the handkerchief really necessary?”
She bit down on her lip and was about to reply when the king stood, the crowd quieting. “Wine for the winners,” he said, and Cain stalked from his place on the sidelines to stand before the king’s table. Celaena remained with Chaol.
The king gestured at Kaltain, who obediently picked up a silver tray containing two goblets. She gave one to Cain, then walked over to Celaena and handed the other to her before pausing in front of the king’s table.
“Out of good faith, and honor to the Great Goddess,” Kaltain said in a dramatic voice. Celaena wanted to punch her. “May it be your offering to the Mother who bore us all. Drink, and let Her bless you, and replenish your strength.” Who had written that little script? Kaltain bowed to them, and Celaena raised the goblet to her lips. The king smiled at her, and she tried not to flinch as she drank. Kaltain took the goblet when she finished, and curtsied to Cain as she accepted his and slunk away.
Win. Win. Win. Take him down quickly.
“Ready yourselves,” the king ordered. “And begin on my mark.”
Celaena looked to Chaol. Wasn’t she to be allowed a moment to rest? Even Dorian raised his brows at his father, but the king refused to acknowledge his son’s silent questioning.
Cain drew his sword, a crooked grin on his face as he crouched in a defensive stance in the center of the ring.
Insults would have risen to her lips if Chaol hadn’t touched her shoulder, his chestnut eyes filled with some emotion she couldn’t yet understand. There was strength in his face that she found to be achingly beautiful.
“Don’t lose,” he whispered so only she could hear. “I don’t feel like having to escort you all the way back to Endovier.” The world became foggy around the edges as he stepped away, his head held high as he ignored the white-hot glare of the king.
Cain edged closer, his broadsword gleaming. Celaena took a deep breath and entered the ring.
The conqueror of Erilea raised his hands. “Begin!” he roared, and Celaena shook her head, trying to clear her blurry vision. She steadied herself, wielding the staff like a sword as Cain began circling. Nausea flashed through her as his muscles flexed. For some reason, the world was still hazy. She clenched her teeth, blinking. She’d use his strength against him.
Cain charged faster than she anticipated. She caught his sword on the broad side with the staff, avoiding the sharp edges, and leapt back as she heard the wood groan.
He struck so quickly that she had to concede to the edge of his blade. It sank deep into the staff. Her arms ached from the impact. Before she could recover, Cain yanked his sword from her weapon and surged toward her. She could only bound back, deflecting the blow with the iron tip of the staff. Her blood felt slow and thick, and her head spun. Was she ill? The nausea would not ease.
Grunting, Celaena pulled away with an effort of skill and force. If she were truly ill, she must finish this as quickly as possible. It was not a showcase of her abilities, especially if that book had been right and Cain had been granted the strength of all those dead Champions.
Switching onto the offensive, she nimbly swept toward him. He parried Celaena’s attack with a brush of his blade. She brought the staff down upon his sword, splinters flying into the air.
Her heart pounded in her ears, and the sound of wood against steel became almost unbearable. Why were things slowing down?
She attacked—faster and faster, stronger and stronger. Cain laughed, and she almost screamed in anger. Each time she moved a foot to trip him, each time they came too close, she either became clumsy or he stepped away, as if he knew what she planned all along. She had the infuriating feeling that he was toying with her, that there was some joke she didn’t understand.
Celaena whipped the staff through the air, hoping to catch him upon his unprotected neck. But he deflected, and though she spun and tried to knock him in his stomach, he blocked her again.
“Not feeling well?” he said, showing his white, gleaming teeth. “Perhaps you shouldn’t have been holding back all those—”
She grinned as the shaft of her staff slammed into his side. He bent over, and her leg lashed out and swept him off his feet, sending him crashing to the ground. She raised her staff, but a sick feeling rushed through her so powerful that her muscles slackened. She had no strength.
He knocked aside her blow as if it was nothing, and she retreated while he rose. And that’s when she heard the laugh—soft, feminine, and vicious. Kaltain. Celaena’s feet stumbled, but she stayed upright as she dared a glance at the lady, and the goblets on the table before her. And that’s when she knew that it hadn’t been wine in that glass, but bloodbane, the very drug she’d missed in the Test. At best, it caused hallucinations and disorientation. At worst . . .
She had difficulty holding the staff. Cain came at her, and she had no choice but to meet his blows, barely having the strength to raise the weapon each time. How much bloodbane had they given her? The staff cracked, splintered, and groaned. If it were a lethal dose, she’d be dead by now. They must have given her enough to disorient her, but not enough that it would be easy to prove. She couldn’t focus, and her body became hot and cold. Cain was so large—he was a mountain, and his blows . . . they made Chaol seem like a child . . .