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Episode  11

Celaena felt as if she’d barely closed her eyes when a hand jabbed her side. She groaned, wincing as the drapes were thrown back to welcome the morning sun.

“Wake up.” Not surprisingly, it was Chaol.

She shimmied beneath the blankets, pulling them over her head, but he grabbed the covers and threw them to the floor. Her nightgown was wrapped around her thighs. Celaena shivered.

“It’s cold,” she moaned, holding her knees to her body. She didn’t care that she had only a few months to beat the other Champions—she needed sleep. It would have been nice if the Crown Prince had considered springing her from Endovier earlier so she could have some time to regain her strength; how long had he known about this competition, anyway?

“Get up.” Chaol ripped the pillows from beneath her head. “Now you’re wasting my time.” If he noticed how much skin she was showing, he didn’t react.

Grumbling, Celaena slithered to the edge of the bed, dangling a hand over the edge to touch the floor. “Fetch my slippers,” she mumbled. “The floor’s like ice.”

He growled, but Celaena ignored him as she got to her feet. She staggered and slouched into the dining room, where an enormous breakfast lay on the table. Chaol jerked his chin toward the food. “Eat up. The competition starts in an hour.”

Whatever nerves she felt, she kept them hidden from him as she gave an exaggerated sigh and collapsed into a chair with the grace of a large beast. Celaena scanned the table. Yet again, there were no knives. She stabbed her fork into a piece of sausage.

From the doorway, Chaol asked, “Why, might I ask, are you so tired?”

She gulped down the rest of the pomegranate juice and wiped her mouth on a napkin. “I was up until four reading,” she said. “I sent a letter to your princeling, asking for permission to borrow books from the library. He granted my wish, and sent seven books from his personal library that I’m commanded to read.”

Chaol shook his head in disbelief. “It isn’t your place to write to the Crown Prince.”

She gave him a simpering smile and took a bite of ham. “He could have ignored the letter. And besides, I’m his Champion. Not everyone feels obligated to be as nasty to me as you do.”

“You’re an assassin.”

“If I say I’m a jewel thief, will you treat me with more courtesy?” She waved a hand. “Don’t answer that.” She spooned porridge into her mouth, found it to be bland, and scooped four heaping mounds of brown sugar into the gray mess.

Would the competitors actually be worthy opponents? Before she could start worrying, she examined his black clothes. “Don’t you ever wear normal clothing?”

“Hurry up,” was all he said. The competition awaited.

Suddenly not hungry, she pushed away her bowl of porridge. “I should get dressed, then.” She turned her head to call for Philippa, but paused. “Just what sort of activities might I expect at the tournament today? So I can dress accordingly, of course.”

“I don’t know—they don’t give us the details until you arrive.” The captain rose and drummed the pommel of his sword before calling to a servant as Celaena walked into her bedroom. Behind her, Chaol spoke to the servant girl. “Dress her in pants and a shirt—something loose, nothing frilly or revealing, and bring a cloak.” The girl disappeared into the dressing room. Celaena followed after her, unceremoniously stripping down to her underclothes and enjoying it far too much when Chaol’s cheeks reddened before he turned away.

A few minutes later, Celaena frowned at herself as she hurried after the captain into the foyer. “I look ridiculous! These pants are absurd, and this shirt is awful.”

“Stop whining. No one gives a damn about your clothes.” He flung open the door to the hall, the guards outside instantly at attention. “Besides, you can take them off at the barracks. I’m sure everyone will be thrilled to see you in your undergarments.” She swore violently under her breath, pulling her green velvet cloak tight around herself, and trailed after him.

The Captain of the Guard rushed through the castle, still freezing with the early-morning chill, and they soon entered the barracks. Guards in various states of armor saluted them. An open doorway revealed a large mess hall, where many of the guards were just sitting down to breakfast.

Finally, Chaol stopped somewhere on the ground floor. The giant rectangular room they entered was the size of the Grand Ballroom. Lined with pillars that supported a mezzanine, the floor was checkered black-and-white tile, and the floor-to-ceiling glass doors that made up one entire wall were open, the gossamer curtains blowing in the chilly breeze that drifted in from the garden. Most of the twenty-three other Champions were already scattered throughout the room, sparring with what could only be their sponsors’ trainers. Everyone was carefully monitored by guards. None bothered to look at her, save for that slightly handsome young man with the gray eyes, who gave her a half smile before returning to firing arrows at a target across the room with unnerving accuracy. She lifted her chin and surveyed a rack of weapons. “You expect me to use a mace an hour after sunrise?”

Six guards appeared in the doorway behind them, joining the dozens already in the chamber, swords at the ready. “If you attempt anything foolish,” Chaol said quietly, “they’ll be here.”

“I’m just a jewel thief, remember?” She approached the rack. Foolish, foolish decision to leave all those weapons out. Swords, sword-breakers, axes, bows, pikes, hunting daggers, maces, spears, throwing knives, wooden staves . . . While she generally preferred the stealth of a dagger, she was familiar with every weapon here. She glanced around the sparring room and hid her grimace. So were most of the competitors, it seemed. As she inspected them, she caught a movement in the corner of her vision.

Cain entered the hall, flanked by two guards and a scarred, burly man who must have been his trainer. She squared her shoulders as Cain strode straight toward her, his thick lips parting in a grin.

“Good morning,” he said, his voice raspy and deep. His dark eyes snaked along her body, then found her face again. “I’d have thought you’d be running home by now.”

She gave him a close-lipped smile. “The fun’s just starting, isn’t it?” Cain returned her smile and stalked off.

It would have been so, so easy. So easy to whirl and grab him by the neck and slam his face into the ground. She didn’t even realize she was trembling with rage until Chaol stepped into her line of vision. “Save it for the competition,” he said softly, but not weakly.

“I’m going to kill him,” she breathed.

“No, you’re not. If you want to shut him up, then beat him. He’s just a brute from the king’s army—don’t waste your strength on hating him.”

She rolled her eyes. “Thank you so much for interfering on my behalf.”

“You don’t need me to rescue you.”

“It still would have been nice.”

“You can fight your own battles.” He pointed with his sword to the weapons rack. “Pick one.” His eyes shone with the challenge as she untied her cloak and tossed it behind her. “Let’s see if you can actually back up your swaggering.”

She’d shut Cain up—in an unmarked grave for all eternity. But for now . . . Now, she’d make Chaol eat his words.

All the weapons were finely made, and glistened in the sunlight. Celaena eliminated her options one by one, seeing each weapon for what sort of damage she might do to the captain’s face.

Her heart beat rapidly as she ran a finger across the blades and handles of each. She found herself torn between the hunting daggers and a lovely rapier with an ornate bell-guard. She could cut out his heart from a safe distance with that.

The sword whined as she drew it from the stand and held it in her hands. It was a good blade—strong, smooth, light. They wouldn’t let her have a butter knife on her table, but they gave her access to this?

Why not wear him down a bit?

Chaol tossed his cape on top of hers, his toned body flexing through the dark threads of his shirt. He drew his sword. “On your guard!” He moved into defensive position, and Celaena looked at him dully.

Who do you think you are? What sort of person says “On your guard”?

“Aren’t you first going to show me the basics?” she said quietly enough for only him to hear, her sword dangling from one hand. She rubbed the hilt, her fingers contracting on the cool surface. “I was in Endovier for a year, you realize. I could have easily forgotten.”

“From the amount of killing that went on in your section of the mines, I highly doubt you’ve forgotten a thing.”

“That was with a pickax,” she said, her smile growing feral. “All I had to do was crack a man’s head open or hurl the ax into his stomach.” Thankfully, none of the other Champions paid them any heed. “If you consider that sort of gracelessness equal to swordsmanship . . . what sort of fighting do you do, Captain Westfall?” She put a spare hand over her heart and closed her eyes for emphasis.

With a growl, the Captain of the Guard lunged.

But she had been waiting for some time now, and her eyes flew open as soon as his boots scraped against the ground. With a turn of her arm she brought the sword into blocking position, her legs bracing for the impact as steel struck steel. The noise was strange, somehow more painful than receiving the blow, but Celaena thought little of it when he charged again and she met his weapon, parrying with ease. Her arms ached as they were shaken from their slumber, but she continued to deflect and parry.

Swordplay was like dancing—certain steps must be followed or else it would fall apart. Once she heard the beat, it all came rushing back. The other competitors faded away into shadows and sunlight.

“Good,” he said through his teeth, blocking her thrust as she forced him to take a defensive stance. Her thighs burned. “Very good,” he breathed. He was pretty good himself—better than good, actually. Not that she’d tell him that.

With a clang, the two swords met, and they pressed each other’s blades. He was stronger, and she grunted at the force required to hold her sword against his. But, strong as he might be, he was not as quick.

She withdrew and feinted, her feet jabbing and flexing on the floor with birdlike grace. Caught off-guard, he only had time to deflect, his parry lost in his size.

She surged forward, her arm coming down again and again, twisting and turning, loving the smooth ache within her shoulder as the blade slammed against his. She was moving fast—fast like a dancer in a temple ritual, fast like a snake in the Red Desert, fast like water down the side of a mountain.

He kept up, and she allowed him to advance before reclaiming the position. He tried to catch her unawares with a blow to the face, but her anger awoke as her elbow snapped up and deflected, slamming into his fist and forcing it down.

“Something to remember when fighting me, Sardothien,” he panted. The sun caught in his golden-brown eyes.

“Hmm?” she grunted, lunging to deflect his newest attack.

“I don’t lose.” He grinned at her, and before she could comprehend the words, something cut into her feet and—

She had the sickening feeling of falling. She gasped as her spine collided with marble, the rapier flying from her hand. Chaol pointed his blade at her heart. “I win,” he breathed.

She pushed herself onto her elbows. “You had to resort to tripping me. That’s hardly winning at all.”

“I’m not the one with the sword at my heart.”

The sound of clashing weapons and labored breathing filled the air. She flicked her eyes to the other Champions, who were all in the middle of sparring. All, of course, except Cain. He grinned broadly at her, and Celaena bared her teeth.

“You have the skills,” Chaol said, “but some of your moves are still undisciplined.”

She broke her stare with Cain and glared up into Chaol’s face. “That’s never stopped me from killing before,” she spat.

Chaol chuckled at her agitation and pointed his sword at the rack, allowing her to get to her feet. “Pick another—something different. Make it interesting, too. Something that will make me sweat, please.”

“You’ll be sweating when I skin you alive and squish your eyeballs beneath my feet,” she muttered, picking up the rapier.

“That’s the spirit.”

She practically threw the rapier into place, and drew the hunting knives without hesitation.

My dear old friends.

A wicked smile spread across her face.



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