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"ROYAL ASSASSIN" EPISODE 24"


ROYAL ASSASSIN

Chapter 24


Celaena lay on the bed, staring at a pool of moonlight on the floor. It filled in the dusty gaps between the stone tiles, and turned everything a bluish silver that made her feel as if she were frozen in an everlasting moment.

She didn’t fear the night, though she found little comfort in its dark hours. It was just the time when she slept, the time when she stalked and killed, the time when the stars emerged with glittering beauty and made her feel wonderfully small and insignificant.

Celaena frowned. It was only midnight, and even though they had another Test tomorrow, she couldn’t sleep. Her eyes were too heavy to read, she wouldn’t play the pianoforte for fear of another embarrassing encounter, and she most certainly wouldn’t amuse herself with fantasies of what the feast was like. She was still wearing her emerald-blue gown, too lazy to change.

She traced the moonlight to where it lapped upon the tapestry-covered wall. The tapestry was odd, old, and not very carefully preserved. Images of forest animals amongst drooping trees dotted the large expanse. A woman—the only human in the tapestry—stood near the floor.

She was life-size and remarkably beautiful. Though she had silver hair, her face was young, and her flowing white gown seemed to move in the moonlight; it—

Celaena sat up in bed. Did the tapestry sway slightly? She glanced at the window. It was firmly shut. The tapestry was barely blowing outward, not to the side.

Could it be?

Her skin tingled, and she lit a candle before approaching the wall. The tapestry stopped moving. She reached to the end of the fabric and pulled it up. There was only stone. But . . .

Celaena pushed back the heavy folds of the work and tucked it behind a chest to keep it aloft. A vertical groove ran down the face of the wall, different from the rest. And then another one, not three feet from it. They emerged from the floor, and just above Celaena’s head they met in a—

It is a door!

Celaena leaned her shoulder into the slab of stone. It gave a little, and her heart jumped. She pushed again, the candle flickering in her hand. The door groaned as it moved slightly. Grunting, she shoved, and finally it swung open.

A dark passage loomed before her.

A breeze blew into the black depths, pulling the strands of her hair past her face. A shiver ran down her spine. Why was the wind going inward? Especially when it had blown the tapestry out?

She looked back at the bed, which was littered with books she wasn’t going to read tonight. She took a step into the passage.

The light of the candle revealed that it was made of stone and thickly coated in dust. She stepped back into her room. If she were to go exploring, she’d need proper provisions. It was a pity she didn’t have a sword or a dagger. Celaena put her candle down. She also needed a torch—or at least some extra candlesticks. While she might be used to darkness, she wasn’t foolish enough to trust it.

Moving through her room, trembling with excitement, Celaena gathered two balls of yarn from Philippa’s sewing basket, along with three sticks of chalk and one of her makeshift knives. She tucked three extra candlesticks into the pockets of her cape, which she wrapped tightly around herself.

Again, she stood before the dark passage. It was terribly dark, and seemed to be beckoning to her. The breeze blew into the passage again.

Celaena pushed a chair into the doorway—it wouldn’t do to have it slam shut on her and leave her trapped forever. She tied a string to the back of the chair, knotting it five times, and held the ball in her spare hand. If she got lost, this would lead her back. She carefully folded the tapestry over the door, just in case someone came in.

Striding into the passage, she found it to be cold, but dry. Cobwebs hung everywhere, and there were no windows, only a very long stair that descended far beyond the light of her little candle. She tensed as she stepped down, waiting for a single sound that would send her springing back to her rooms. It was silent—silent and dead and completely forgotten.

Celaena held the candle aloft, her cape trailing behind her, leaving a clean wake on the dust-covered stairs. Minutes passed, and she scanned the walls for any engravings or markings, but saw none. Was this just a forgotten servants’ passage? She found herself a bit disappointed.

The bottom of the stairs soon appeared, and she came to a halt before three equally dark and imposing portals. Where was she? She had difficulty imagining that such a space could be forgotten in a castle filled with so many people, but—

The ground was covered with dust. Not even a hint of a footprint.

Knowing how the story always went, Celaena lifted the candle to the arches above the portals, looking for any inscriptions regarding the sure death that would meet her if she walked beneath a specific arch.

She took stock of the ball of yarn in her hand. Now it was little more than a lump of string. She set down her candle and tied another ball to the end of the string. Perhaps she should have taken another. Well, at least she still had the chalk.

She chose the door in the middle, if only because it was closer. On the other side, the staircase continued downward—in fact, it went so far down that she wondered if she were beneath the castle. The passage became very damp and very cold, and Celaena’s candle sputtered in the moisture.

There were many archways now, but Celaena chose to go straight, following the moisture that grew by the inch. Water trickled down the walls, and the stone became slick with whatever fungus had grown over the centuries. Her red velvet shoes felt flimsy and thin against the wetness of the chamber. She would have considered turning back were it not for the sound that arose.

It was running water—slow-moving. In fact, as she walked, the passage became lighter. It was not the light of a candle, but rather the smooth, white light of the outdoors—of the moon.

Her yarn ran out, and she left it on the ground. There were no more turns to mark. She knew what this was—rather, she didn’t dare to hope that it was actually what she believed it to be. She hurried along, slipping twice, her heart pounding so loudly that she thought her ears would break. An archway appeared, and beyond it, beyond it . . .

Celaena stared at the sewer that ran past, flowing straight out of the castle. It smelled unpleasant, to say the least.

She stood along the side, examining the open gate that led to a wide stream that undoubtedly emptied into the sea or the Avery. There were no guards, and no locks, save for the iron fence that hovered over the surface, raised just enough to allow trash to pass through.

Four little boats were tied to either bank, and there were several other doors—some wooden, some iron—that led to this exit. It was probably an escape route for the king, though from the half-rotted condition of some of the boats, she wondered if he knew that it was here.

She strode to the iron fence, putting her hand through one of the gaps. The night air was chilled but not freezing. Trees loomed just beyond the stream: she must be in the back of the castle—the side that faced the sea . . .

Were there any guards posted outside? She found a stone on the ground—a bit of fallen ceiling—and hurled it into the water beyond the gate. There was no sound of shifting armor, no muttering or cursing. She studied the other side. There was a lever to raise the gate for the boats. Celaena set down her candle, removed her cloak, and emptied her pockets. Holding tightly with her hands, she placed one foot on the gate, then the other.

It would be so easy to raise the gate. She felt reckless—reckless and wild. What was she doing in a palace? Why was she—Adarlan’s Assassin!—participating in some absurd competition to prove that she was the best? She was the best!

They were undoubtedly drunk now, all of them. She could take one of the less-ancient boats and disappear into the night. Celaena began to climb back over. She needed her cloak. Oh, they were fools for thinking that they could tame her!

Her foot slipped on a slick rung, and Celaena barely stifled her cry as she gripped the bars, cursing as her knee banged into the gate. Clinging to the gate, she closed her eyes. It was only water.

She calmed her heart, letting her feet find their support again. The moon was almost blinding, so bright the stars were barely visible.

She knew that she could easily escape, and that it would be foolish to do so. The king would find her, somehow. And Chaol would be disgraced and relieved of his position. And Princess Nehemia would be left alone with moronic company, and, well . . .

Celaena straightened, her chin rising. She would not run from them as a common criminal. She would face them—face the king—and earn her freedom the honorable way. And why not take advantage of the free food and training for a while longer? Not to mention she’d need to stock up on provisions for her escape, and that could take weeks. Why rush any of it?

Celaena returned to her starting side and picked up the cloak. She’d win. And after she won, if she ever wanted to escape her servitude to the king . . . well, now she had a way out.

Still, Celaena had difficulty leaving the chamber. She was grateful for the silence of the passage as she walked upward, her legs burning from so many stairs. It was the right thing to do.

Celaena soon found herself before the other two portals. What other disappointments would she find in them? She had lost interest. But the breeze stirred again, and it blew so hard toward the far right arch that Celaena took a step. The hair on her arms rose as she watched the flame of her candle bend forward, pointing to a darkness that seemed blacker than all the rest. Whispers lay beneath the breeze, speaking to her in forgotten languages. She shuddered, and decided to go in the opposite direction—to take the far left portal. Following whispers on Samhuinn could only lead to trouble.

Despite the breeze, the passage was warm. With each step up the winding stairs, the whispers faded away. Up, and up, and up, her heavy breathing and shuffling steps the only sounds. There were no twisting passages once she reached the top, but rather one straight hall that seemed to lead on forever. She followed it, her feet already tired. After some time, she was surprised to hear music.

Actually, it was the sound of great revelry, and there was golden light ahead. It streamed in through a door or a window.

She rounded the corner and ascended a small set of steps that led into a significantly smaller hallway. In fact, the ceiling was so low that she had to duck as she waddled toward the light. It wasn’t a door, nor a window, but rather a bronze grate.

Celaena blinked at the light as she looked, from high above, at the feast in the Great Hall.

Were these tunnels for spying? She frowned at what she saw. Over a hundred people eating, singing, dancing . . . There was Chaol, sitting beside some old man, talking and—

Laughing?

His happiness made her own face flush in response, and Celaena set down her candle. She peered at the other end of the massive hall; there were a few other grates just below the ceiling, though she could see no other squinting eyes beyond their ornate metalwork. Celaena shifted her gaze to the dancers. Among them were a few of the champions, dressed finely, but not finely enough to conceal their poor dancing. Nox, who had now become her sparring and training partner, danced as well, perhaps a bit more elegantly than the others—though she still pitied the ladies who danced with him. But—

The other Champions were allowed to attend, and she wasn’t? She gripped the grate, pressing her face against it to get a better look. Sure enough, there were more Champions seated at the tables—even the pimply-faced Pelor sat near Chaol! A half-rate boy assassin! She bared her teeth. How dare she be denied an invitation to the feast? The tightness in her chest abated only slightly when she couldn’t find Cain’s face among the revelers. At least they kept him locked up in a cage, too.

She spotted the Crown Prince, dancing and laughing with some blond idiot. She wanted to hate him for refusing to invite her; she was his Champion, after all! But . . . she had difficulty not staring at him. She had no desire to talk to him, but rather just to look at him, to see that unusual grace, and the kindness in his eyes that had made her tell him about Sam. While he might be a Havilliard, he was . . . Well, she still very much wanted to kiss him.

Celaena scowled as the dance finished and the Crown Prince kissed the hand of the blond woman. She turned away from the grate. Here the hallway ended. She glanced back at the feast, only to see Chaol stand from the table and begin weaving his way out of the Great Hall. What if he came to her rooms and found her missing? Hadn’t he promised to bring her something from the feast?

Groaning at the thought of all the stairs she now had to climb, she picked up her candle and yarn and hurried toward the comfort of higher ceilings, rolling up the string as she went. Down and down she ran, taking the steps two by two.

She burst past the portals and darted up the stairs to her room, the small light growing with each bound. Chaol would throw her in the dungeons if he found her in some secret passageway—especially if the passageway led out of the castle!

She was sweating when she reached her chambers. She kicked the chair away, swung the stone door shut, pulled the tapestry over it, and flung herself on the bed.

After hours of enjoying himself at the feast, Dorian entered Celaena’s rooms, not sure what, exactly, he was doing in the chambers of an assassin at two in the morning. His head spun from the wine, and he was so tired from all the dancing that he was fairly certain that if he sat down, he’d fall asleep. Her chambers were silent and dark, and he cracked open her bedroom door to peer inside.

Though she was asleep on the bed, she still wore that strange dress. Somehow, it seemed far more fitting now that she lay sprawled upon the red blanket. Her golden hair was spread around her, and a flush of pink bloomed on her cheeks.

A book lay by her side, open and still waiting for her to turn the page. He remained in the doorway, fearful that she’d wake up if he took another step. Some assassin. She hadn’t even bothered to stir. But there was nothing of the assassin in her face. Not a trace of aggression or bloodlust lay across her features.

He knew her somehow. And he knew she wouldn’t harm him. It made little sense. When they talked, as sharp as her words usually were, he felt at ease, as if he could say anything. And she must have felt the same, after she’d told him about Sam, whoever he’d been. So here he was, in the middle of the night. She flirted with him, but was it real? A footstep sounded, and he found Chaol standing across the foyer.

The captain stalked over to Dorian and grabbed him by the arm. Dorian knew better than to struggle as his friend dragged him through the foyer, and stopped in front of the door to the hall. “What are you doing here?” Chaol hissed softly.

“What are you doing here?” Dorian countered, trying to keep his voice quiet. It was the better question, too. If Chaol spent so much time warning him about the dangers of associating with Celaena, what was he doing here in the middle of the night?

“By the Wyrd, Dorian! She’s an assassin. Please, please tell me you haven’t been here before.” Dorian couldn’t help his smirk. “I don’t even want an explanation. Just get out, you reckless idiot. Get out.” Chaol grabbed him by the collar of his jacket, and Dorian might have punched his friend had Chaol not been so lightning fast. Before he knew it, he was roughly tossed into the hallway, and the door closed and locked behind him.

Dorian, for some reason, didn’t sleep well that night.

Chaol Westfall took a deep breath. What was he doing here? Had he any right to treat the Crown Prince of Adarlan in such a manner when he himself was going against reason? He didn’t understand the rage that arose upon seeing Dorian standing in the doorway, didn’t want to understand that sort of anger. It wasn’t jealousy, but something beyond it. Something that transformed his friend into someone else, someone he didn’t know. He was fairly certain she was a virgin, but did Dorian know it? It probably made him more interested. He sighed and eased the door open, wincing as it creaked loudly.

She was still in her clothes, and while she looked beautiful, that did nothing to mask the killing potential that lay beneath. It was present in her strong jaw, in the slope of her eyebrows, in the perfect stillness of her form. She was a honed blade made by the King of Assassins for his own profit. She was a sleeping animal—a mountain cat or a dragon—and her markings of power were everywhere. He shook his head and walked into the bedroom.

At the sound of his step, she opened an eye. “It’s not morning,” she grumbled, and rolled over.

“I brought you a present.” He felt immensely foolish, and for a moment considered running from her rooms.

“A present?” she said more clearly, turning toward him and blinking.

“It’s nothing; they were giving them out at the party. Just give me your hand.” It was a lie—sort of. They had given them to the women of the nobility as favors, and he’d snagged one from the basket as it was passed around. Most of the women would never wear them—they would be tossed aside or given to a favorite servant.

“Let me see it.” She lazily extended an arm.

He fished in his pockets and pulled out the gift. “Here.” He placed it in her palm.

She examined it, smiling drowsily. “A ring.” She put it on. “How pretty.” It was simple: crafted of silver, its only ornamentation lay in the fingernail-sized amethyst embedded in its center. The surface of the gem was smooth and round, and it gleamed up at the assassin like a purple eye. “Thank you,” she said, her eyelids drooping.

“You’re wearing your gown, Celaena.” His blush refused to fade.

“I’ll change in a moment.” He knew she wouldn’t. “I just need . . . to rest.” Then she was asleep, a hand upon her breast, the ring hovering over her heart. With a disgruntled sigh, the captain grabbed a blanket from the nearby sofa and tossed it over her. He was half tempted to remove the ring from her finger, but . . . Well, there was something peaceful looking about her. Rubbing his neck, his face still burning, he walked from her rooms, wondering how, exactly, he’d explain this to Dorian tomorrow.
_____

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