It was lunchtime when Brullo released them for the day, and to say that Celaena was hungry would be a severe understatement. She was halfway through her meal, shoveling meat and bread down her throat, when the dining room door opened. “What are you doing here?” she said through a mouthful.
“What?” said the Captain of the Guard, taking a seat at the table. He’d changed his clothes and taken a bath. He pulled a platter of salmon toward him and piled it on his plate. Celaena made a disgusted face, her nose crinkling. “You don’t care for salmon?”
“I hate fish. I’d rather die than eat it.”
“That’s surprising,” he said, taking a bite.
“Because you smell like one.”
She opened her mouth to expose the ball of bread and beef that she was chewing. He shook his head. “You might fight well, but your manners are a disgrace.”
She waited for him to mention her earlier vomiting, but he didn’t continue. “I can act and talk like a lady, if it pleases me.”
“Then I suggest that you begin to do so.” After a pause, he asked, “How are you enjoying your temporary freedom?”
“Is that a snide remark or an honest question?”
He took a bite of fish. “Whichever you like.”
The window revealed the afternoon sky, slightly pale, but still lovely. “I’m enjoying it, for the most part. Especially now that I have books to read whenever you lock me in here. I don’t suppose you’d understand.”
“On the contrary. I might not have as much time to read as you and Dorian do, but that doesn’t mean I love books any less.”
She bit into an apple. It was tart, with a sweet, honey-like aftertaste. “Oh? And what books do you love?” He named a few, and she blinked. “Well, those are good choices—for the most part. What others?” she asked, and somehow, an hour flew by, carrying them on the wings of conversation. Suddenly, the clock chimed one, and he rose.
“The afternoon is yours to spend in any way that you like.”
“Where are you going?”
“To rest my limbs and my lungs.”
“Yes, well, hopefully you’ll read something of quality before I see you again.”
He sniffed the air as he walked out of her room. “Hopefully you’ll take a bath before I see you again.”
Sighing, Celaena called to her servants to draw her bath. An afternoon of reading on the balcony beckoned.
The following dawn, Celaena’s bedroom door opened, and a familiar stalking gait echoed through the room. Chaol Westfall stopped short when he found the assassin dangling from the beam of the bedroom doorway, repeatedly hoisting herself up to touch her chin to the wooden bar. Sweat soaked her undershirt and ran in rivulets down her pale skin. She’d been exercising for an hour already. Her arms quivered as she lifted herself again.
Though she might pretend to be in the middle of the pack, there was no reason to train like it. Even if every repetition made her body scream for her to stop. She wasn’t that out of shape—after all, her pickax in the mines had been heavy. And it definitely had nothing to do with her fellow competitors walloping her at the race yesterday.
She already had an edge on them. She just needed it to be a bit sharper.
She didn’t pause her exercising as she smiled at him, panting through her clenched teeth. To her surprise, he smiled back.
By that afternoon, a vicious rainstorm arrived, and Chaol permitted Celaena to walk around the castle with him after she’d finished training with the other Champions for the day. Though he spoke little, she was glad to be out of her rooms, and dressed in one of her new gowns—a lovely lilac silk dress with pale pink lace accents and pearl beading. But then they rounded a corner and nearly collided with Kaltain Rompier. The assassin would have grimaced, but she forgot all about Kaltain as her eyes fell upon her companion. It was an Eyllwe woman.
She was stunning, long and lean, each of her features perfectly formed and smooth. Her loose white dress contrasted with her creamy brown skin, and a three-plated gold torque covered much of her chest and neck. Bracelets of ivory and gold glimmered around her wrists, and her feet were sandaled beneath matching anklets. A thin circlet comprising dangling gold and jewels crowned her head. She had two male guards with her, armed to the teeth with an assortment of curved Eyllwe daggers and swords, both of them studying Chaol and Celaena closely—weighing the threat.
The Eyllwe girl was a princess.
“Captain Westfall!” Kaltain said, and curtsied. Beside her, a short man dressed in the red-and-black garb of a councilman bowed to the pair.
The Eyllwe princess stood perfectly still, her brown eyes wary as she took in Celaena and her companion. Celaena offered her a slight smile, and the princess stepped closer, her guards tensing slightly. She moved with an easy grace.
Kaltain gestured to the girl, poorly hidden distaste written across her beautiful face. “This is Her Royal Highness the Princess Nehemia Ytger of Eyllwe.”
Chaol bowed low. The princess nodded, barely a dip of her chin. Celaena knew the name—she had often heard the Eyllwe slaves in Endovier boast of Nehemia’s beauty and bravery. Nehemia, the Light of Eyllwe, who would save them from their plight. Nehemia, who might someday pose a threat to the King of Adarlan’s rule over her home country when she ascended to the throne. Nehemia, they whispered, who smuggled information and supplies to the rebel groups hiding in Eyllwe. But what was she doing here?
“And the Lady Lillian,” Kaltain added briskly.
Celaena dropped into the lowest curtsy she could give without falling and said in Eyllwe, “Welcome to Rifthold, Your Highness.”
Princess Nehemia smiled slowly, and the others gaped. The councilman beamed, wiping the sweat from his brow. Why hadn’t they sent Nehemia with the Crown Prince, or even Perrington? Why was the princess herded around by Kaltain Rompier?
“Thank you,” the princess replied, her voice low.
“I imagine you’ve had a long journey,” Celaena continued in Eyllwe. “Have you arrived today, Your Highness?”
Nehemia’s guards exchanged glances, and Nehemia’s brows rose slightly. Not too many northerners spoke their language. “Yes, and the queen sent this one”—Nehemia jerked her head at Kaltain—“to bring me around with that sweating worm of a man as well.” The princess narrowed her eyes at the small councilman, who wrung his hands and dabbed his forehead with a handkerchief. Perhaps he knew what sort of threat Nehemia posed; but why bring her to the castle?
Celaena ran her tongue across her teeth, trying not to laugh. “He seems a bit nervous.” She had to change the subject or else she’d indeed laugh. “What do you make of the castle?”
“It’s the most foolish thing I’ve ever seen,” Nehemia said, scanning the ceiling as if she could see through the stone and into the glass sections. “I’d sooner enter a castle made of sand.”
Chaol watched them, somewhat disbelievingly.
“I’m afraid I haven’t understood a word you’ve said,” Kaltain interrupted. Celaena tried not to roll her eyes—she’d forgotten the woman was there.
“We,” the princess said, struggling for the word in the common language, “were talking with the weather.”
“About the weather,” Kaltain corrected sharply.
“Watch your mouth,” Celaena snapped before she could think.
Kaltain gave Celaena a vicious little smile. “If she’s here to learn our ways, I should correct her so she doesn’t sound foolish.”
Here to learn their ways, or for something else entirely? The faces of the princess and her guards were unreadable.
“Your Highness,” Chaol said, stepping forward, a subtle movement to keep himself between Nehemia and Celaena. “Are you having a tour of the castle?”
Nehemia chewed on the words and then looked to Celaena, brows high—as if she’d expected a translation by now. A smile tugged on the corners of Celaena’s lips. No wonder the councilman was sweating so profusely. Nehemia was a force to be reckoned with. Celaena translated Chaol’s question with ease.
“If you consider this structure of madness to be a castle,” Nehemia replied.
Celaena turned to Chaol. “She says yes.”
“I never knew so many words to mean one,” Kaltain said with faux sweetness. Celaena’s nails dug into her palms.
I’m going to rip your hair out.
Chaol took another step toward Nehemia—effectively blocking Celaena’s path to Kaltain. Smart man. He put a hand on his chest. “Your Highness, I am the Captain of the Royal Guard. Please allow me to escort you.”
Celaena translated again, and the princess nodded. “Get rid of her,” she said flatly to Celaena, and then waved a hand toward Kaltain. “I don’t care for her temperament.”
“You’re dismissed,” Celaena said to Kaltain, flashing a bright smile. “The princess tires of your company.”
Kaltain started. “But the queen—”
“If that is Her Highness’s wish, then it will be granted,” Chaol interrupted. Though his features were a mask of protocol, she could have sworn she glimpsed a glimmer of amusement in his eyes. Celaena wanted to hug him. She didn’t bother to nod her farewell to Kaltain as the princess and the councilman joined them and they strode down the hall, leaving the fuming lady behind.
“Are all of your royal women like that?” the princess said to Celaena in Eyllwe.
“Like Kaltain? Unfortunately, Your Highness.”
Nehemia examined the assassin, and Celaena knew she was taking in her clothes, her gait, her posture—everything Celaena herself had observed about the princess already. “But you—you’re not like them. How do you know how to speak Eyllwe so well?”
“I”—Celaena thought of a lie—“studied it for several years.”
“You use the intonation of the peasants. Is that taught in your books?”
“I knew an Eyllwe woman who taught it to me.”
“A slave of yours?” Her tone sharpened, and Chaol flicked his eyes toward them.
“No,” Celaena said hurriedly. “I don’t believe in keeping slaves.” Something twisted in her gut at the thought of all those slaves she’d left behind in Endovier, all those people doomed to suffer until they died. Just because she’d left Endovier didn’t mean Endovier had ceased to be.
Nehemia’s voice was soft. “Then you are very unlike your court companions.”
Celaena could only manage a nod to the princess as they turned their attention to the hall ahead. Servants darted past, eyes wide when they beheld the princess and her guards. After a moment of silence, Celaena squared her shoulders. “Why are you in Rifthold, if I might ask?” She added: “Your Highness.”
“You don’t need to bother calling me that.” The princess toyed with one of the gold bangles around her wrist. “I came at the request of my father, the King of Eyllwe, to learn your language and customs so I might better serve Eyllwe and my people.”
Given what she’d heard of Nehemia, Celaena didn’t think that was the entirety of it, but she smiled politely as she said, “How long will you remain in Rifthold?”
“Until my father sends for me again.” She stopped playing with her bracelets as she frowned at the rain pounding the windows. “If I’m fortunate, I’ll only be here until spring. Unless my father decides that a man from Adarlan might make me a good consort, and then I’ll be here until that matter is settled.” Seeing the annoyance in the princess’s eyes, Celaena felt a shred of pity for whatever man her father chose.
A thought struck her, and Celaena tilted her head to the side. “Whom would you marry? Prince Dorian?” It was prying, and a bit impertinent—and she regretted the question the second it came out.
But Nehemia just clicked her tongue. “That pretty boy? He grinned at me far too much—and you should only see how he winked at the other women in the court. I want a husband to warm my bed, and my bed alone.” She glanced sidelong at the assassin, giving her another head-to-toe examination. Celaena caught the princess’s eyes lingering on the few scars on her hands. “Where are you from, Lillian?”
Celaena casually hid her hands in the folds of her gown. “Bellhaven—a city in Fenharrow. It’s a fishing port. Smells terrible.” That wasn’t a lie. Every time she’d visited Bellhaven for a mission, the reek of fish made her gag if she got too near the docks.
The princess chuckled. “Rifthold smells terrible. Too many people. At least in Banjali, the sun burns up everything. And my father’s river palace smells like lotus blossoms.”
Chaol cleared his throat beside them, obviously tired of being excluded from the conversation, and Celaena grinned at him. “Don’t be so glum,” she said in the common tongue. “We must cater to the princess.”
“Stop your gloating,” he said, his brows low. He put a hand on the hilt of his sword, and Nehemia’s guards stepped closer to him. Though Chaol might be Captain of the Guard, Celaena didn’t doubt for a moment that Nehemia’s guards would put him down if he became a threat. “We’re only bringing her back to the king’s council. I’m going to have a word with them about allowing Kaltain to show her around.”
“Do you hunt?” Nehemia interrupted in Eyllwe.
“Me?” The princess nodded. “Oh—er, no,” Celaena said, then switched back to Eyllwe. “I’m more of a reader.”
Nehemia looked toward a rain-splattered window. “Most of our books were burned five years ago, when Adarlan marched in. It didn’t make a difference if the books were about magic”—her voice quieted at the word, even though Chaol and the councilman couldn’t understand them—“or history. They just burned the libraries whole, along with the museums and universities . . .”
A familiar ache filled her chest. Celaena nodded. “Eyllwe wasn’t the only country where that happened.”
Something cold and bitter glittered in Nehemia’s eyes. “Now, most of the books we receive are from Adarlan—books in a language I can barely understand. That’s also what I must learn while I’m here. There are so many things!” She stomped her foot, her jewelry clinking. “And I hate these shoes! And this miserable dress! I don’t care if it’s Eyllwe silk and I’m supposed to be representing my kingdom—the material’s been itching me ever since I put it on!” She stared at Celaena’s elaborate gown. “How can you stand wearing that enormous thing?”
Celaena picked at the skirts of her dress. “It breaks my ribs, to be honest.”
“Well, at least I’m not the only one suffering,” Nehemia said. Chaol stopped before a door and informed the six sentries posted outside to watch the women and the princess’s guards. “What’s he doing?”
“Returning you to the council and ensuring that Kaltain doesn’t lead you around again.”
Nehemia’s shoulders slumped slightly. “I’ve only been here for a day, and I wish to leave.” She let out a long sigh through her nose, and again turned to the window, as if she could see all the way back to Eyllwe. Suddenly, she grabbed Celaena’s hand and squeezed it. Her fingers were surprisingly calloused—in all the spots where the hilt of a sword or dagger might rest. Celaena’s eyes met with those of the princess and she dropped her hand.
Perhaps the rumors were correct about her association with the rebels in Eyllwe . . .
“Will you keep me company while I’m here, Lady Lillian?”
Celaena blinked at the request—feeling, despite herself, honored. “Of course. When I’m available, I’ll gladly attend you.”
“I have attendants. I wish for someone to talk to.”
Celaena couldn’t help it—she beamed. Chaol entered into the hallway once more, and bowed to the princess. “The council would like to see you.” Celaena translated.
Nehemia let out a low groan, but thanked Chaol before turning to Celaena. “I’m glad we met, Lady Lillian,” Nehemia said, her eyes bright. “Peace be with you.”
“And with you,” the assassin murmured, watching her leave.
She never had many friends, and the ones she had often disappointed her. Sometimes with devastating consequences, as she’d learned that summer with the Silent Assassins of the Red Desert. After that, she’d sworn never to trust girls again, especially girls with agendas and power of their own. Girls who would do anything to get what they wanted.
But as the door closed behind the ivory train of the Eyllwe princess, Celaena wondered if she’d been wrong.
Chaol Westfall watched the assassin eat lunch, her eyes darting from one plate to the next. She had immediately stripped from her gown upon entering her rooms, and now sat in a rose-and-jade dressing robe that suited her well.
“You’re awfully quiet today,” she said, her mouth full of food. Would she never stop eating? She ate more than anyone he knew—including his guards. She had multiple helpings of every course at each meal. “Enthralled by the Princess Nehemia?” The words were barely distinguishable from her chewing.
“That headstrong girl?” He immediately regretted the remark as her eyes narrowed. A lecture was coming on, and he was in no mood to be patronized. He had more important things on his mind. Before departing this morning, the king hadn’t taken any of the guards he’d suggested he bring on his journey, and refused to say where he was going, or to accept his offer of accompaniment.
Not to mention the fact that a few of the royal hounds had gone missing, only to have their half-eaten remains found in the northern wing of the palace. That was worrisome; who would do such a gruesome thing?
“And what’s wrong with headstrong girls?” she pressed. “Other than the fact that they’re not wooden-headed ninnies who can only open their mouths to give orders and gossip?”
“I just prefer a certain type of woman.”
Thankfully, it was the right thing to say, because she batted her eyelashes. “And what type of woman is that?”
“Not an arrogant assassin.”
She pouted. “Suppose I wasn’t an assassin. Would you fancy me then?”
“Would you prefer Lady Kaltain?”
“Don’t be a fool.” It was easy to be mean, but it was also getting far too easy to be nice. He took a bite of bread. She watched him, her head angled. He sometimes felt that she looked at him the way a cat regards a mouse. He just wondered how long it would take for her to pounce.
She shrugged, and took a bite from an apple. There was something girlish about her, too. Oh, he couldn’t stand her contradictions!
“You’re staring, Captain.”
He almost apologized, but stopped. She was a haughty, vulgar, utterly impertinent assassin. He wished for the months to fly by, for her to be appointed Champion, and then, once her years of servitude were over, to be gone. He hadn’t slept well since they’d taken her out of Endovier.
“You have food in your teeth,” he said. She picked it out with a sharp nail and turned her head to the window. The rain slid down the glass. Was she looking at the rain, or something beyond?
He sipped from his goblet. Despite her arrogance, she was clever, and relatively kind, and somewhat charming. But where was that writhing darkness? Why didn’t it show itself so he could just throw her into the dungeon and call off this ridiculous competition? There was something great and deadly concealed within her, and he didn’t like it.
He’d be ready—when the time came, he’d be waiting. He just wondered which one of them would survive.
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