By this time tomorrow, she’d be confined within those walls. But tonight—tonight it was so quiet, like the calm before a storm.
She imagined that the whole world was asleep, enchanted by the sea-green light of the castle. Time came and went, mountains rising and falling, vines creeping over the slumbering city, concealing it with layers of thorns and leaves. She was the only one awake.
She pulled her cloak around her. She would win. She’d win, and serve the king, and then vanish into nothing, and think no more of castles or kings or assassins. She didn’t wish to reign over this city again. Magic was dead, the Fae were banished or executed, and she would never again have anything to do with the rise and fall of kingdoms.
She wasn’t fated for anything. Not anymore.
A hand upon his sword, Dorian Havilliard watched the assassin from his spot on the other side of the sleeping company. There was something sad about her—sitting so still with her legs against her chest, the moonlight coloring her hair silver. No bold, swaggering expressions strutted across her face as the glow of the castle rippled in her eyes.
He found her beautiful, if a bit strange and sour. It was something in the way that her eyes sparked when she looked at something lovely in the landscape. He couldn’t understand it.
She stared at the castle unflinchingly, her form silhouetted against the blazing brightness that sat on the edge of the Avery River. Clouds gathered above them and she raised her head. Through a clearing in the swirling mass, a cluster of stars could be seen. He couldn’t help thinking that they gazed down at her.
No, he had to remember she was an assassin with the blessing of a pretty face and sharp wits. She washed her hands with blood, and was just as likely to slit his throat as offer him a kind word. And she was his Champion. She was here to fight for him—and for her freedom. And nothing more. He lay down, his hand still upon his sword, and fell asleep.
Still, the image haunted his dreams throughout the night: a lovely girl gazing at the stars, and the stars who gazed back.
Trumpeters signaled their arrival as they passed through the looming alabaster walls of Rifthold. Crimson flags depicting gold wyverns flapped in the wind above the capital city, the cobblestone streets were cleared of traffic, and Celaena, unchained, dressed, painted, and seated in front of Chaol, frowned as the odor of the city met her nose.
Beneath the smell of spices and horses lay a foundation of filth, blood, and spoiled milk. The air held a hint of the salty waters of the Avery—different from the salt of Endovier. This brought with it warships from every ocean in Erilea, merchant vessels crammed with goods and slaves, and fishing boats with half-rotted, scale-covered flesh that people somehow managed to eat. From bearded peddlers to servant girls carrying armfuls of hatboxes, everyone paused as the flag-bearers trotted proudly ahead, and Dorian Havilliard waved.
They followed the Crown Prince, who, like Chaol, was swathed in a red cape, pinned over the left breast with a brooch fashioned after the royal seal. The prince wore a golden crown upon his neat hair, and she had to concede that he looked rather regal.
Young women flocked to them, waving. Dorian winked and grinned. Celaena couldn’t help but notice the sharp stares from the same women when they beheld her in the prince’s retinue. She knew how she appeared, seated atop a horse like some prize lady being brought to the castle. So Celaena only smiled at them, tossed her hair, and batted her eyelashes at the prince’s back.
Her arm stung. “What?” she hissed at the Captain of the Guard as he pinched her.
“You look ridiculous,” he said through his teeth, smiling at the crowd.
She mirrored his expression. “They’re ridiculous.”
“Be quiet and act normally.” His breath was hot on her neck.
“I should jump from the horse and run,” she said, waving at a young man, who gaped at what he thought was a court lady’s attention. “I’d vanish in an instant.”
“Yes,” he said, “you’d vanish with three arrows buried in your spine.”
“Such pleasant talk.”
They entered the shopping district, where the crowd swelled between the trees lining the broad avenues of white stone. The glass storefronts were nearly invisible beyond the crowd, but a ravenous sort of hunger arose in her as they passed shop after shop. Each window displayed dresses and tunics, which stood proudly behind lines of sparkling jewelry and broad-rimmed hats clumped together like bouquets of flowers. Above it all, the glass castle loomed, so high she had to tilt her head back to see the uppermost towers. Why had they chosen such a long and inconvenient route? Did they really wish to parade about?
Celaena swallowed. There was a break in the buildings, and sails spread like moth’s wings greeted them as they turned onto the avenue along the Avery. Ships sat docked along the pier, a mess of rope and netting with sailors calling to each other, too busy to notice the royal procession. At the sound of a whip, her head snapped to the side.
Slaves staggered down the gangplank of a merchant ship. A mix of conquered nations bound together, each of them had the hollow, raging face she’d seen so many times before. Most of the slaves were prisoners of war—rebels who survived the butchering blocks and endless lines of Adarlan’s armies. Some were probably people who had been caught or accused of trying to practice magic. But others were just ordinary folk, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now that she noticed, there were countless chained slaves working the docks, lifting and sweating, holding parasols and pouring water, eyes on the ground or the sky—never on what was before them.
She wanted to leap from her horse and run to them, or to simply scream that she wasn’t a part of this prince’s court, that she had no hand in bringing them here, chained and starved and beaten, that she had worked and bled with them, with their families and friends—she was not like these monsters that destroyed everything. That she had done something, nearly two years ago, when she had freed almost two hundred slaves from the Pirate Lord. Even that, though, wasn’t enough.
The city was suddenly separate, ripped from her. People still waved and bowed, cheering and laughing, throwing flowers and other nonsense before their horses. She had difficulty breathing.
Sooner than she would have liked, the iron and glass gate of the castle appeared, latticework doors opened, and a dozen guards flanked the cobblestone path that led through the archway. Spears erect, they held rectangular shields, and their eyes were dark beneath bronze helmets. Each wore a red cape. Their armor, while tarnished, was well crafted from copper and leather.
Beyond the archway sloped a road, lined with trees of gold and silver. Glass lampposts sprouted up between the hedges bordering the path. The sounds of the city vanished as they passed under another arch, this one made of sparkling glass, and then the castle rose before them.
Chaol sighed as he dismounted in the open courtyard. Hands pulled Celaena from the saddle and set her on wobbly legs. Glass gleamed everywhere, and a hand clamped on her shoulder. Stableboys quietly and quickly led her horse away.
Chaol pulled her to his side, keeping a firm grip on her cloak as the Crown Prince approached. “Six hundred rooms, military and servant’s quarters, three gardens, a game park, and stables on either side,” said Dorian, staring at his home. “Who could ever need so much space?”
She managed a weak smile, a bit baffled by his sudden charm. “I don’t know how you can sleep at night with only a wall of glass keeping you from death.” She glanced up, but quickly lowered her focus to the ground. She wasn’t afraid of heights, but the thought of being so high up with nothing but glass to protect her made her stomach clench.
“Then you’re like me.” Dorian chuckled. “Thank the gods I gave you rooms in the stone castle. I’d hate for you to be uncomfortable.”
Deciding that scowling at him wouldn’t be the wisest decision, Celaena looked instead toward the massive castle gates. The doors were made of cloudy red glass, gaping at her like the mouth of a giant. But she could see the interior was made of stone, and it seemed to her that the glass castle had been dropped on top of the original building. What a ridiculous idea: a castle made of glass.
“Well,” said Dorian. “You’ve fattened up a bit, and your skin has some color now. Welcome to my home, Celaena Sardothien.” He nodded at a few passing nobles, who scraped and bowed. “The competition begins tomorrow. Captain Westfall will show you to your chambers.”
She rolled her shoulders and searched for any sign of her competitors. No one else seemed to be arriving, though.
The prince nodded to another flock of cooing courtiers, and didn’t look at either the assassin or the Captain of the Guard as he spoke again. “I have to meet with my father,” he said, running his gaze along the body of a particularly pretty lady. He winked at her, and she hid her face behind a lace fan as she continued her walk. Dorian nodded to Chaol. “I’ll see you later tonight.” Without saying a word to Celaena, he strode up the steps to the palace, his red cape blowing in the wind.
The Crown Prince lived up to his word. Her chambers were in a wing of the stone castle, and much bigger than she anticipated. They consisted of a bedroom with an attached bathing chamber and a dressing room, a small dining room, and a music and gaming room. Each room was furnished in gold and crimson, her bedroom also decorated with a giant tapestry along one wall, with couches and deep-cushioned chairs scattered in a tasteful manner. Her balcony overlooked a fountain in one of the gardens, and whichever it was, it was beautiful—never mind the guards she spotted posted beneath.
Chaol left her, and Celaena didn’t wait to hear the door shut before closing herself in her bedroom. Between her murmurs of appreciation during Chaol’s brief tour of her rooms, she’d counted the windows—twelve—the exits—one—and the guards posted outside her door, windows, and balcony—nine. They were each armed with a sword, knife, and crossbow, and though they’d been alert while their captain passed by, she knew a crossbow wasn’t exactly a light weight to bear for hours on end.
Celaena crept to her bedroom window, pressing herself against the marble wall, and glanced down. Sure enough, the guards had already strapped the crossbows across their backs. It would waste precious seconds to grab the weapon and load it—seconds when she could take their swords, cut their throats, and vanish into the gardens. She smiled as she stepped fully in front of the window to study the garden. Its far border ended in the trees of a game park. She knew enough about the castle to know that she was on the southern side, and if she went through the game park, she’d reach a stone wall and the Avery River beyond.
Celaena opened and closed the doors of her armoire, dresser, and vanity. Of course, there weren’t any weapons, not even a fire poker, but she grabbed the few bone hairpins left in the back of a dresser drawer, and some string she found in a mending basket in her giant dressing room. No needles. She knelt on the carpeted floor of the dressing room—which was void of clothes—and, one eye on the door behind her, she made quick work of the hairpins, snapping their heads off before binding them all together with the string. When she finished, she held up the object and frowned.
Well, it wasn’t a knife, but clustered together like that, the jagged points of the broken pins could do some damage. She tested the tips with a finger, and winced as a shard of bone pricked her calloused skin. Yes, it would certainly hurt if she jammed it into a guard’s neck. And disable him long enough for her to grab his weapons.
Celaena reentered the bedroom, yawning, and stood on the edge of the mattress to tuck the makeshift weapon into one of the folds of the partial canopy over the bed. When she’d concealed it, she glanced around the room again. Something about the dimensions seemed a little off—something with the height of the walls, but she couldn’t be sure. Regardless, the canopy provided plenty of hiding places. What else could she take without them noticing? Chaol had probably had the room looked over before they arrived. She listened at the bedroom door for any signs of activity. When she was certain no one was in her chambers, she entered the foyer and strode through it to the gaming room. She beheld the billiards cues along the far wall, and the heavy colored balls stacked on the green felt table, and grinned. Chaol wasn’t nearly as smart as he thought he was.