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Despite her attempt to keep her breathing steady, Celaena gasped for air as she ran beside Chaol in the game park. If he was winded, he didn’t show it, other than the gleam of sweat on his face and the dampness of his white shirt.

They ran toward a hill, its top still shrouded in morning mist. Her legs buckled at the sight of the incline, and her stomach rose in her throat. Celaena let out a loud gasp to get Chaol’s attention before she slowed to a stop, and braced her hands against a tree trunk.

She took a shuddering breath, holding on tightly to the tree as she vomited. She hated the warmth of the tears that leaked from her eyes, but couldn’t wipe them away as she heaved again, gagging. Chaol stood nearby, just watching. She leaned her brow into her upper arm, calming her breathing, willing her body to ease. It had been three days since the first Test, ten since her arrival in Rifthold, and she was still horribly out of shape. The next elimination was in four days, and though training had resumed as usual, she had started waking up a little earlier than normal. She would not lose to Cain, or Renault, or any of them.

“Done?” Chaol asked. She lifted her head to give him a withering glare, but everything spun, dragging her down with it, and she retched again. “I told you not to eat before we left.”

“Are you done being smug?”

“Are you done vomiting your guts up?”

“For the time being,” she snapped. “Perhaps I won’t be so courteous next time, and I’ll just vomit all over you instead.”

“If you can catch me,” he said with a half smile.

She wanted to punch the smirk off his face, but as she took a step, her knees shook, and she put her hands against the tree again, waiting for the retching to renew. Out of the corner of her eye she saw him looking at her back, most of which was exposed by her damp, white undershirt. She stood. “Are you enjoying looking at my scars?”

He sucked on his lower lip for a moment. “When did you get those?” She knew he meant the three enormous lines that ran down her back.

“When do you think?” she said. He didn’t reply, and she looked up at the canopy of leaves above them. A morning breeze sent them all shuddering, ripping a few from where they clung to the skeletal branches. “Those three, I received my first day in Endovier.”

“What did you do to deserve it?”

“Deserve it?” She laughed sharply. “No one deserves to be whipped like an animal.” He opened his mouth, but she cut him off. “I arrived in Endovier, and they dragged me into the center of the camp, and tied me between the whipping posts. Twenty-one lashes.” She stared at him without entirely seeing him as the ash-gray sky turned into the bleakness of Endovier, and the hiss of the wind became the sighing of slaves. “That was before I had befriended any of the other slaves—and I spent that first night wondering if I would make it until morning, if my back would become infected, or if I would bleed out and die before I knew what was happening.”

“No one helped you?”

“Only in the morning. A young woman slipped me a tin of salve while we were waiting in line for breakfast. I never got to thank her. Later that day, four overseers raped and killed her.” She clenched her hands into fists as her eyes stung. “The day I snapped, I stopped by their section of the mines to repay them for what they did to her.” Something frozen rushed through her veins. “They died too quickly.”

“But you were a woman in Endovier,” Chaol said, his voice rough and quiet. “No one ever . . .” He trailed off, unable to form the word.

She gave him a slow, bitter smile. “They were afraid of me to begin with. And after the day I almost touched the wall, none of them dared to come too close to me. But if one guard tried to get too friendly . . . Well, he’d become the example that reminded the others I could easily snap again, if I felt like it.” The wind stirred around them, ripping strands of hair from her braid. She didn’t need to voice her other suspicion—that perhaps somehow Arobynn had bribed the guards in Endovier for her safety. “We each survive in our own way.”

Celaena didn’t quite understand the softness in the look he gave her as he nodded. She only stared at him for a moment longer before she burst into a run, up toward the hill—where the first rays of sunshine began to peek through.

The following afternoon, the Champions stood gathered around Brullo, who lectured them on different weapons and other nonsense she’d learned years ago and didn’t need to hear again. She was just contemplating whether she could sleep while standing up when, from the corner of her eye, a sudden movement by the balcony doors caught her attention. Celaena turned just in time to see one of the larger Champions—one of the discharged soldiers—shove a nearby guard, knocking him to the ground. The guard’s head hit the marble with a crack, and he was instantly unconscious. She didn’t dare to move—none of the Champions did—as the man hurtled toward the door, toward the gardens and escape.

But Chaol and his men moved so fast that the fleeing Champion didn’t have time to touch the glass door before an arrow went clean through his throat.

Silence fell, and half of the guards encircled the Champions, hands on their swords, while the others, Chaol included, rushed to the dead Champion and fallen guard. Bows groaned as the archers on the mezzanine pulled their strings taut. Celaena kept still, as did Nox, who was standing close beside her. One wrong movement and a spooked guard could kill her. Even Cain didn’t breathe too deeply.

Through the wall of Champions, guards, and their weapons, Celaena beheld Chaol kneeling by the unconscious guard. No one touched the fallen Champion, who lay facedown, his hand still outstretched toward the glass door. Sven had been his name—though she didn’t know why he’d been expelled from the army.

“Gods above,” Nox breathed, so softly that his lips barely moved. “They just . . . killed him.” She thought about telling him to shut up, but even snapping at him seemed risky. Some of the other Champions were murmuring to each other, but no one dared to take a step. “I knew they were serious about not letting us leave, but . . .” Nox swore, and she felt him glance sidelong at her. “I was granted immunity by my sponsor. He tracked me down and said I wouldn’t go to prison if I lost the competition.” At that point, she knew he was speaking more to himself, and when she didn’t respond, Nox stopped talking. She stared and stared at the dead Champion.

What had made Sven risk it? And why here, right now? There were still three days until their second Test; what had made this moment so special? The day she snapped at Endovier, she hadn’t been thinking about freedom. No, she’d picked the time and place, and started swinging. She’d never meant to escape.

The sunlight shone through the doors, illuminating the Champion’s splattered blood like stained glass.

Maybe he’d realized he had no chance of winning, and that this kind of death was far better than returning to whatever place he’d come from. If he’d wanted to escape, he would have waited until dark, when he was away from everyone at the competition. Sven had wanted to prove a point, she understood, and understood only because of that day she had come within a fingertip of touching the wall at Endovier.

Adarlan could take their freedom, it could destroy their lives and beat and break and whip them, it could force them into ridiculous contests, but, criminal or not, they were still human. Dying—rather than playing in the king’s game—was the only choice left to him.

Still staring at his outstretched hand, forever pointing toward an unreachable horizon, Celaena said a silent prayer for the dead Champion, and wished him well.


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