Just as Celaena was about to launch herself and her knives at the captain, someone stomped a spear on the ground and called the room to attention. She faced the voice and found a stocky, balding man standing beneath the mezzanine.
“Your attention now,” the man repeated. Celaena looked to Chaol, who nodded, taking the knives from her as they joined the twenty-three other competitors encircling the man. “I’m Theodus Brullo, Weapons Master and judge of this competition. Of course, our king’s the final judge of you sorry lot, but I’ll be the one determining every day if you’re fit to be his Champion.”
He patted his sword hilt, and Celaena had to admire the beautiful woven gold of the pommel. “I’ve been Weapons Master here for thirty years, and lived in this castle for twenty-five more than that. I’ve trained many a lord and knight—and many a would-be Champion of Adarlan. It will be very hard to impress me.”
Beside Celaena, Chaol stood with his shoulders thrown back. It occurred to her that Brullo might have trained the captain. Given how easily Chaol had kept up with her, if Brullo had trained him, then the Weapons Master must live up to his title. She knew better than anyone not to underestimate opponents based on their appearance.
“The king’s already told you all there is to know about this competition,” Brullo said, holding his hands behind his back. “But I figured you lot are itching to know more about each other.” He pointed a stubby finger at Cain. “You. What’s your name, occupation, and where do you hail from? And be honest about it—I know none of you are bakers and candlestick makers.”
Cain’s insufferable grin returned. “Cain, soldier in the king’s army. I hail from the White Fang Mountains.” Of course he did. She’d heard tales of the brutality of the mountain folk from that region, and seen a few of them up close, seen the fierceness in their eyes. Many of them had rebelled against Adarlan—and most wound up dead. What would his fellow mountain-dwellers say if they could see him now? She gritted her teeth; what would the people of Terrasen say if they could see her now?
Brullo, however, either didn’t know or didn’t care, and didn’t even give a nod before he pointed to the man to Cain’s right. Celaena immediately liked him. “And you?”
A slender, tall man with thinning blond hair surveyed the circle and sneered. “Xavier Forul. Master Thief of Melisande.” Master Thief! That man? Of course, she realized, his reed-thinness probably aided in slipping into houses. Maybe it wasn’t a bluff.
One by one, the twenty-one other competitors introduced themselves. There were six more seasoned soldiers—all of them thrown out of the army for questionable behavior, which must have been truly questionable, given that Adarlan’s army was notorious for ruthlessness. Then there were the three other thieves—including the dark-haired, gray-eyed Nox Owen, whom she’d actually heard of in passing, and who’d been giving her such charming smiles all morning. The three mercenaries looked ready to boil someone alive, and then there were the two shackled murderers.
As his name suggested, Bill Chastain, the Eye Eater, ate the eyes of his victims. He looked surprisingly plain, with mousy brown hair, tan skin, and average height, though Celaena had trouble not staring at his scar-flecked mouth. The other murderer was Ned Clement, who’d gone for three years under the name Scythe, for the weapon he’d used to torture and hack apart temple priestesses. It was a wonder they hadn’t executed either man, though from their tanned skin, she guessed they’d spent the years since their captures toiling under the sun in Calaculla, the southern sister labor camp to Endovier.
Next came two scarred, silent men who seemed to be cronies of some far-off warlord, and then the five assassins.
She immediately forgot the names of the first four: a gangly, haughty boy; a hulking brute; a disdainful runt of a man; and a sniveling, hawk-nosed prat who claimed he had an affinity for knives. They weren’t even in the Assassins Guild—not that Arobynn Hamel would ever allow them in. Membership required years of training and a more-than-impressive track record. While these four might be skilled, they lacked the refinement that Arobynn favored in his followers. She’d have to keep an eye on them, but at least they weren’t the Silent Assassins from the windswept dunes of the Red Desert. Those would be worthy of her—they’d make her sweat a bit. She’d spent a month training with them one burning summer, and her muscles still ached at the memory of their grueling exercises.
The last assassin, who called himself Grave, made her pause. He was slight and short, with the kind of wicked face that made people quickly look away. He’d entered the room wearing shackles, and only had them removed when his guards—all five of them—gave him a stern warning. Even now, they stood nearby, watching him relentlessly. As he introduced himself, Grave flashed an oily smile, revealing his brown teeth. Her disgust didn’t improve when Grave ran an eye over her body. An assassin like that never stopped at just killing. Not if his victim was female. She willed herself to hold his hungry gaze.
“And you?” Brullo said, cutting into her thoughts.
“Lillian Gordaina,” she said, holding her chin high. “Jewel thief from Bellhaven.”
Some of the men sniggered, and she clenched her teeth. They’d stop their laughing if they knew her true name, if they knew that this “jewel thief” could skin them alive without a knife.
“Fine,” Brullo said, waving a hand. “You all have five minutes to put away your weapons and catch your breath. Then we’re on a mandatory run to see how fit you are. Those of you who can’t run the distance go home, or back to whatever prison your sponsors found you rotting in. Your first Test is in five days; consider us merciful it’s not sooner.”
With that, everyone scattered, the Champions murmuring to their trainers about whatever competitor they deemed the biggest threat. Cain or Grave, most likely. Certainly not a jewel thief from Bellhaven. Chaol remained beside her, watching the Champions stride off. She hadn’t spent eight years building a reputation and a year laboring in Endovier to be disregarded like this. “If I have to call myself a jewel thief again—”
Chaol raised his brows. “You’ll do what, exactly?”
“Do you know how insulting it is to pretend to be some nobody thief from a small city in Fenharrow?”
He stared her down, quiet for a moment. “Are you that arrogant?” She bristled, but he went on. “It was foolish to spar with you just now. I’ll admit that I hadn’t realized you’d be that good. Thankfully, no one noticed. And do you want to know why, Lillian?” He took a step closer, his voice lowering. “Because you’re some pretty little girl. Because you’re a nobody jewel thief from a small city in Fenharrow. Look around.” He half-turned to the other Champions. “Is anyone staring at you? Are any of them sizing you up? No. Because you’re not real competition. Because you don’t stand between them and whatever freedom or wealth they’re looking for.”
“Exactly! It’s insulting!”
“It’s smart, that’s what it is. And you’re going to keep a low profile throughout this entire competition. You’re not going to excel, and you’re not going to trounce those thieves and soldiers and unknown assassins. You’re going to stay solidly in the middle, where no one will look your way, because you’re not a threat, because they’ll think that you’ll be eliminated sooner or later, and they should focus their attention on getting rid of bigger, stronger, faster Champions like Cain.
“But you’re going to outlast them,” Chaol continued. “And when they wake up on the morning of the final duel and find that you are their opponent, and that you have beaten them, the look on their faces will make all of the insults and lack of attention worthwhile.” He extended his hand to lead her outside. “So, what do you have to say about that, Lillian Gordaina?”
“I can look out for myself,” she said lightly, taking his hand. “But I have to say that you’re rather brilliant, Captain. So brilliant, actually, that I might give you one of the jewels I plan to steal from the queen tonight.”
Chaol chuckled, and they strode outside to where the running contest awaited.
Her lungs burned and her legs were leaden, but she kept running, kept her position in the middle of the pack of Champions. Brullo, Chaol, and the other trainers—along with three dozen armed guards—followed them around the game park on horseback. Some of the Champions, Grave, Ned, and Bill included, had been given long manacles. She supposed it was a privilege that Chaol hadn’t locked her up, too. But to her surprise, Cain led the pack, and was nearly ten yards in front of the rest of them. How could he possibly be that fast?
The sound of crunching leaves and labored breathing filled the warm autumn air, and Celaena kept her gaze on the damp and gleaming dark hair of the thief in front of her. One step after another, one breath in, one breath out. Breathe—she had to remember to keep breathing.
Ahead, Cain turned a corner, heading north—back toward the castle. Like a flock of birds, they followed him. One step after another, never slowing down. Let them all watch Cain, let them plot against him. She didn’t need to win the race to prove she was better—she was better without any kind of validation that the king could give her! She missed a breath, and her knees wobbled, but she kept upright. The run would be over soon. Soon.
She hadn’t even dared to look behind her to see if any had fallen. She could feel Chaol’s eyes on her, though, reminding her to keep in the middle. At least he had that much faith in her.
The trees parted, revealing the field that lay between the game park and the stables. The end of the path. Her head spun, and she would have cursed at the stitch that lanced through her side had she had any breath to do so. She had to stay in the middle. Stay in the middle.
Cain cleared the trees and raised his arms above his head in victory. He ran a few more feet, slowing his pace to cool down, and his trainer cheered for him. Celaena’s only response was to keep her feet moving. Only a few yards left. The light of the open field grew brighter and brighter as it approached. Stars flashed before her eyes, swarming in her vision. She had to stay in the middle. Years of training with Arobynn Hamel had taught her the dangers of giving up too easily.
Then, she was through the trees, and the open field surrounded her in an explosion of space and grass and blue sky. The men in front of her slowed to a stop. It was all she could do to keep from sinking to her knees, but she made her legs slow, slow, slow, made her feet walk, made herself take breath after breath as the stars continued bursting before her eyes.
“Good,” Brullo said, reining his horse and surveying whoever had first returned. “Get water. We’ve got more training after this.”
Through the spots in her vision, she saw Chaol stop his horse. Her feet moved of their own accord toward him, then past, back to the woods. “Where are you going?”
“I dropped my ring back there,” she lied, doing her best to look scatterbrained. “Just give me a moment to find it.” Without waiting for his approval, she entered the trees to the sneers and snickers of the Champions who had overheard. From the approaching crashing noises, she knew another Champion was on his way out. She stepped into the cover of the bushes, stumbling as the world became dark and light and tilted. She had barely sunk to her knees when she vomited.
She heaved and heaved until she had nothing left inside. The straggling Champion passed by. On trembling limbs, she grappled onto a nearby tree and hauled herself upright again. She found Captain Westfall standing across the path, watching her with pursed lips.
She wiped her mouth on the back of her wrist and said nothing to him as she exited the woods.
CLICK HERE TO READ EPISODE 13