Late that afternoon, Celaena stared at the ebony clock tower. It grew darker and darker, as if it somehow absorbed the sun’s dying rays. On top of it, the gargoyles remained stationary. They hadn’t moved. Not even a finger. The Guardians, Elena had called them. But Guardians to what? They’d scared Elena enough to keep her away. Surely, if they’d been the evil Elena mentioned, she would have just said it outright. Not that Celaena was considering looking for it right now—not when it could get her into trouble. And somehow wind up killing her before she could even become the King’s Champion.
Still, why did Elena have to be so oblique about everything?
“What’s your obsession with these ugly things?” Nehemia asked from beside her.
Celaena turned to the princess. “Do you think they move?”
“They’re made of stone, Lillian,” the princess said in the common tongue, her Eyllwe accent slightly less thick.
“Oh!” Celaena exclaimed, smiling. “That was very good! One lesson, and you’re already putting me to shame!” Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said of Celaena’s Eyllwe.
Nehemia beamed. “They do look wicked,” she said in Eyllwe.
“And I’m afraid the Wyrdmarks don’t help,” Celaena said. A Wyrdmark was at her feet, and she glanced to the others. There were twelve of them all together, forming a large circle around the solitary tower. She hadn’t the faintest idea what any of it meant. None of the marks here matched the three she’d spotted at Xavier’s murder site, but there had to be some connection. “So, you truly can’t read these?” she asked her friend.
“No,” Nehemia said curtly, and headed toward the hedges that bordered the courtyard. “And you shouldn’t try to discover what they say,” she added over her shoulder. “Nothing good will come of it.”
Celaena pulled her cloak tighter around her as she followed after the princess. Snow would start falling in a matter of days, bringing them closer to Yulemas—and the final duel, still two months away. She savored the heat from her cloak, remembering all too well the winter she’d spent in Endovier. Winter was unforgiving when you lived in the shadow of the Ruhnn Mountains. It was a miracle she hadn’t gotten frostbite. If she went back, another winter might kill her.
“You look troubled,” Nehemia said when Celaena reached her side, and put a hand on her arm.
“I’m fine,” Celaena said in Eyllwe, smiling for Nehemia’s sake. “I don’t like winter.”
“I’ve never seen snow,” Nehemia said, looking at the sky. “I wonder how long the novelty will last.”
“Hopefully long enough for you to not mind the drafty corridors, freezing mornings, and days without sunshine.”
Nehemia laughed. “You should come to Eyllwe with me when I return—and make sure you stay long enough to experience one of our blistering summers. Then you’ll appreciate your freezing mornings and days without sun.”
Celaena had already spent one blistering summer in the heat of the Red Desert, but to tell Nehemia that would only invite difficult questions. Instead, she said: “I’d like to see Eyllwe very much.”
Nehemia’s gaze lingered on Celaena’s brow for a moment before she grinned. “Then it shall be so.”
Celaena’s eyes brightened, and she tilted her head back so she could see the castle looming above them. “I wonder if Chaol sorted through the mess of that murder.”
“My bodyguards tell me that the man was . . . very violently killed.”
“To say the least,” Celaena murmured, watching the shifting colors of the fading sun turn the castle gold and red and blue. Despite the ostentatious nature of the glass castle, she had to admit that it did look rather beautiful at times.
“You saw the body? My guards weren’t allowed close enough.”
She nodded slowly. “I’m sure you don’t want to know the details.”
“Indulge me,” Nehemia pressed, smiling tightly.
Celaena raised an eyebrow. “Well—there was blood smeared everywhere. On the walls, on the floor.”
“Smeared?” Nehemia said, her voice dropping into a hush. “Not splattered?”
“I think so. Like someone had rubbed it on there. There were a few of those Wyrdmarks painted, but most had been rubbed away.” She shook her head at the image that arose. “And the man’s body was missing its vital organs—like someone had split him open from neck to navel, and—I’m sorry, you look like you’re going to be ill. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“No. Keep going. What else was missing?”
Celaena paused for a moment before saying: “His brain. Someone had made a hole in the top of his head, and his brain was gone. And the skin from his face had been ripped off.”
Nehemia nodded, staring at a barren bush in front of them. The princess chewed on her bottom lip, and Celaena noted that her fingers curled and uncurled at the sides of her long, white gown. A cold breeze blew past them, making Nehemia’s multitude of fine, thin braids sway. The gold woven into her braids clinked softly.
“I’m sorry,” Celaena said. “I shouldn’t have—”
A step fell behind them, and before Celaena could whirl, a male voice said: “Look at this.”
She tensed as Cain came to stand nearby, half-hidden in the shadow of the clock tower behind them. Verin, the curly-haired loudmouth thief, was at his side. “What do you want?” she said.
Cain’s tan face twisted in a sneer. Somehow, he’d gotten bigger—or maybe her eyes were playing tricks on her. “Pretending to be a lady doesn’t mean you are one,” he said. Celaena shot Nehemia a look, but the princess’s eyes remained upon Cain—narrowed, but her lips strangely slack.
But Cain wasn’t done, and his attention shifted to Nehemia. His lips pulled back, revealing his gleaming white teeth. “Neither does wearing a crown make you a real princess—not anymore.”
Celaena took a step closer to him. “Shut your stupid mouth, or I’ll punch your teeth down your throat and shut it for you.”
Cain let out a sharp laugh, which Verin echoed. The thief circled behind them, and Celaena straightened, wondering if they’d actually pick a fight here. “Lots of barking from the prince’s lapdog,” Cain said. “But does she have any fangs?”
She felt Nehemia’s hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off as she took another step toward him, close enough for the curls of his breath to touch her face. Inside the castle, the guards remained loitering about, talking amongst themselves. “You’ll find out when my fangs are buried in your neck,” she said.
“Why not right now?” Cain breathed. “Come on—hit me. Hit me with all that rage you feel every time you force yourself to miss the bull’s-eye, or when you slow yourself down so you don’t scale walls as fast as me. Hit me, Lillian,” he whispered so only she could hear, “and let’s see what that year in Endovier really taught you.”
Celaena’s heart leapt into a gallop. He knew. He knew who she was, and what she was doing. She didn’t dare to look at Nehemia, and only hoped her understanding of the common language was still weak enough for her not to have understood. Verin still watched from behind them.
“You think you’re the only one whose sponsor is willing to do anything to win? You think your prince and captain are the only ones who know what you are?”
Celaena clenched her hand. Two blows, and he’d be on the ground, struggling to breathe. Another blow after that, and Verin would be beside him.
“Lillian,” Nehemia said in the common tongue, taking her by the hand. “We have business. Let us go.”
“That’s right,” Cain said. “Follow her around like the lapdog you are.”
Celaena’s hand trembled. If she hit him . . . If she hit him, if she got into a brawl right here and the guards had to pull them apart, Chaol might not let her see Nehemia again, let alone leave her rooms after lessons, or stay late to practice with Nox. So Celaena smiled and rolled her shoulders as she said brightly: “Shove it up your ass, Cain.”
Cain and Verin laughed, but she and Nehemia walked away, the princess holding her hand tightly. Not from fear or anger, but just to tell her that she understood . . . that she was there. Celaena squeezed her hand back. It had been a while since someone had looked out for her, and Celaena had the feeling she could get used to it.
Chaol stood with Dorian in the shadows atop the mezzanine, staring down at the assassin as she punched at the dummy situated in the center of the floor. She’d sent him a message saying she was going to train for a few hours after dinner, and he’d invited Dorian to come along to watch. Perhaps Dorian would now see why she was such a threat to him. To everyone.
Celaena grunted, throwing punch after punch, left-right-left-left-right. On and on, as if she had something burning inside of her that she couldn’t quite get out.
“She looks stronger than before,” the prince said quietly. “You’ve done a good job getting her back in shape.” Celaena punched and kicked at the dummy, dodging invisible blows. The guards at the door just watched, their faces impassive. “Do you think she stands a chance against Cain?”
Celaena swung her leg through the air, connecting with the dummy’s head. It rocked back. The blow would have knocked out a man. “I think if she doesn’t get too riled and keeps a cool head when they duel, she might. But she’s . . . wild. And unpredictable. She needs to learn to control her feelings—especially that impossible anger.”
Which was true. Chaol didn’t know if it was because of Endovier, or just being an assassin; whatever the cause of that unyielding rage, she could never entirely leash herself.
“Who’s that?” Dorian asked sharply as Nox entered the room and walked over to Celaena. She paused, rubbing her wrapped knuckles, and wiped the sweat from her eyes as she waved to him.
“Nox,” Chaol said. “A thief from Perranth. Minister Joval’s Champion.”
Nox said something to Celaena that set her chuckling. Nox laughed, too. “She made another friend?” Dorian said, raising his brows as Celaena demonstrated a move for Nox. “She’s helping him?”
“Every day. They usually stay after lessons with the others are over.”
“And you allow this?”
Chaol hid his glower at Dorian’s tone. “If you want me to put an end to it, I will.”
Dorian watched them for another moment. “No. Let her train with him. The other Champions are brutes—she could use an ally.”
“That she could.”
Dorian turned from the balcony and strode off into the darkness of the hall beyond. Chaol watched the prince disappear, his red cape billowing behind him, and sighed. He knew jealousy when he saw it, and while Dorian was clever, he was just as bad as Celaena at hiding his emotions. Perhaps bringing the prince along had done the opposite of what he’d intended.
His feet heavy, Chaol followed after the prince, hoping Dorian wasn’t about to drag them all into serious trouble.
A few days later, Celaena turned the crisp yellow pages of a heavy tome, squirming in her seat. Like the countless others she’d tried, it was just page after page of scribbled nonsense. But it was worth researching, if there were Wyrdmarks at Xavier’s crime scene and Wyrdmarks at the clock tower. The more she knew about what this killer wanted—why and how he was killing—the better. That was the real threat to be dealing with, not some mysterious, inexplicable evil Elena had mentioned. Of course, there was little to nothing to be found. Her eyes sore, the assassin looked up from the book and sighed. The library was gloomy, and were it not for the sound of Chaol flipping pages, it would have been wholly silent.
“Done?” he asked, closing the novel he was reading. She hadn’t told him about Cain revealing that he knew who she really was, or the possible murder connection to the Wyrdmarks—not yet. Inside the library, she didn’t have to think about competitions and brutes. Here, she could savor the quiet and the calm.
“No,” she grumbled, drumming her fingers on the table.
“This is actually how you spend your spare time?” A hint of a smile appeared on his lips. “You should hope no one else hears about this—it would ruin your reputation. Nox would leave you for Cain.” He chuckled to himself and opened his book again, leaning back in his chair. She stared at him for a moment, wondering if he’d stop laughing at her if he knew what she was researching. How it might help him, too.
Celaena straightened in her chair, rubbing a nasty bruise on her leg. Naturally, it was from an intentional blow of Chaol’s wooden staff. She glared at him, but he continued reading.
He was merciless during their lessons. He had her doing all sorts of activities: walking on her hands, juggling blades . . . It wasn’t anything new, but it was unpleasant. But his temper had improved somewhat. He did seem a bit sorry for hitting her leg so hard. Celaena supposed she liked him.
The assassin slammed shut the tome, dust flying into the air. It was pointless.
“What?” he asked, straightening.
“Nothing,” she grumbled.
What were Wyrdmarks, and where did they come from? And more importantly, why had she never heard of them before? They’d been all over Elena’s tomb, too. An ancient religion from a forgotten time—what were they doing here? And at the crime scene! There had to be a connection.
So far, she hadn’t learned much: according to one book, Wyrdmarks were an alphabet. Though, according to this book, no grammar existed with the Wyrdmarks: everything was just symbols that one had to string together. And they changed meaning depending on the marks around them. They were painfully difficult to draw; they required precise lengths and angles, or they became something else entirely.
“Stop glowering and sulking,” Chaol chided. He looked at the title of the book. Neither of them had mentioned Xavier’s murder, and she’d gleaned no more information about it. “Remind me what you’re reading.”
“Nothing,” she said again, covering the book with her arms. But his brown eyes narrowed farther, and she sighed. “It’s just—just about Wyrdmarks—those sundial-things by the clock tower. I was interested, so I started learning about them.” A half truth, at least.
She waited for the sneer and sarcasm, but it didn’t come. He only said: “And? Why the frustration?”
She looked at the ceiling, pouting. “All I can find is just . . . just radical and outlandish theories. I never knew any of this! Why? Some books claim the Wyrd is the force that holds together and governs Erilea—and not just Erilea! Countless other worlds, too.”
“I’ve heard of it before,” he said, picking up his book. But his eyes remained fixed on her face. “I always thought the Wyrd was an old term for Fate—or Destiny.”
“So did I. But the Wyrd isn’t a religion, at least not in the northern parts of the continent, and it’s not included in the worship of the Goddess or the gods.”
He set the book in his lap. “Is there a point to this, beyond your obsession with those marks in the garden? Are you that bored?”
Worried for my safety is more like it!
“No. Yes. It’s interesting: some theories suggest the Mother Goddess is just a spirit from one of these other worlds, and that she strayed through something called a Wyrdgate and found Erilea in need of form and life.”
“That sounds a little sacrilegious,” he warned. He was old enough to more vividly recall the burnings and executions ten years ago. What had it been like to grow up in the shadow of the king who had ordered so much destruction? To have lived here when royal families were slaughtered, when seers and magic-wielders were burned alive, and the world fell into darkness and sorrow?
But she went on, needing to dump the contents of her mind in case all the pieces somehow assembled by speaking them aloud. “There’s an idea that before the Goddess arrived, there was life—an ancient civilization, but somehow, they disappeared. Perhaps through that Wyrdgate thing. Ruins exist—ruins too old to be of Fae making.” How this connected to the Champion murders was beyond her. She was definitely grasping at straws.
He set his feet down and put the book on the table. “Can I be honest with you?” Chaol leaned closer, and Celaena leaned to meet him as he whispered: “You sound like a raving lunatic.”
Celaena made a disgusted noise and sat back, seething. “Sorry for having some interest in the history of our world!”
“As you said, these sound like radical and outlandish theories.” He started reading once more, and said without looking at her, “Again: why the frustration?”
She rubbed her eyes. “Because,” she said, almost whining. “Because I just want a straightforward answer to what the Wyrdmarks are, and why they’re in the garden here, of all places.” Magic had been wiped away on the king’s orders; so why had something like the Wyrdmarks been allowed to remain? To have them show up at the murder scene meant something.
“You should find another way to occupy your time,” he said, returning to his book. Usually, guards watched her in the library for hours on end, day after day. What was he doing here? She smiled—her heart skipping a beat—and then looked at the books on the table.
She ran again through the information she’d gathered. There was also the idea of the Wyrdgates, which appeared numerous times alongside the mention of Wyrdmarks, but she’d never heard of them. When she’d first stumbled across the notion of Wyrdgates, days ago, it had seemed interesting, and so she’d researched, digging through piles of old parchment, only to find more puzzling theories.
The gates were both real and invisible things. Humans could not see them, but they could be summoned and accessed using the Wyrdmarks. They opened into other realms, some of them good, some of them bad. Things could come through from the other side and slither into Erilea. It was due to this that many of the strange and fell creatures of Erilea existed.
Celaena pulled another book toward her and grinned. It was as if someone had read her mind. It was a large black volume entitled The Walking Dead in tarnished silver letters. Thankfully, the captain didn’t see the title before she opened it. But . . .
She didn’t remember selecting this from the shelves. It reeked, almost like soil, and Celaena’s nose crinkled as she turned the pages. She scanned for any sign of the Wyrdmarks, or any mention of a Wyrdgate, but she soon found something far more interesting.
An illustration of a twisted, half-decayed face grinned at her, flesh falling from its bones. The air chilled, and Celaena rubbed her arms. Where had she found this? How had this escaped the burnings? How had any of these books escaped the purging fires ten years ago?
She shivered again, almost twitching. The hollow, mad eyes of the monster were full of malice. It seemed to look at her. She closed the book and pushed it to the end of the table. If the king knew this kind of book still existed in his library, he’d have it all destroyed. Unlike the Great Library of Orynth, here there were no Master Scholars to protect the invaluable books. Chaol kept reading. Something groaned, and Celaena’s head swung toward the back of the library. It was a guttural noise, an animalistic noise—
“Did you hear anything?” she asked.
“When do you plan on leaving?” was his only reply.
“When I grow tired of reading.” She pulled the black book back to her, leafed past the terrifying portrait of the dead thing, and drew the candle closer to read the descriptions of various monsters.
There was a scraping noise somewhere beneath her feet—close, as if someone were running a fingernail along the ceiling below. Celaena slammed the book shut and stepped away from the table. The hair on her arms rose, and she almost stumbled into the nearest table as she waited for something—a hand; a wing; a gaping, fanged mouth—to appear and grab her.
“Do you feel that?” she asked Chaol, who slowly, maliciously grinned. He held out his dagger and dragged it on the marble floor, creating the exact sound and feeling.
“Damned idiot,” she snarled. She grabbed two heavy books from the table and stalked from the library, making sure to leave The Walking Dead far behind.
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