The prince’s eyes shone with amusement at her brashness but lingered a bit too long on her body. Celaena could have raked her nails down his face for staring at her like that, yet the fact that he’d even bother to look when she was in such a filthy state . . . A slow smile spread across her face.
The prince crossed his long legs. “Leave us,” he ordered the guards. “Chaol, stay where you are.”
Celaena stepped closer as the guards shuffled out, shutting the door. Foolish, foolish move. But Chaol’s face remained unreadable. He couldn’t honestly believe he’d contain her if she tried to escape! She straightened her spine. What were they planning that would make them so irresponsible?
The prince chuckled. “Don’t you think it’s risky to be so bold with me when your freedom is on the line?”
Of all the things he could have said, that was what she had least expected. “My freedom?” At the sound of the word, she saw a land of pine and snow, of sun-bleached cliffs and white-capped seas, a land where light was swallowed in the velvety green of bumps and hollows—a land that she had forgotten.
“Yes, your freedom. So, I highly suggest, Miss Sardothien, that you get your arrogance in check before you end up back in the mines.” The prince uncrossed his legs. “Though perhaps your attitude will be useful. I’m not going to pretend that my father’s empire was built on trust and understanding. But you already know that.” Her fingers curled as she waited for him to continue. His eyes met hers, probing, intent. “My father has gotten it into his head that he needs a Champion.”
It took a delicious moment for her to understand.
Celaena tipped back her head and laughed. “Your father wants me to be his Champion? What—don’t tell me that he’s managed to eliminate every noble soul out there! Surely there’s one chivalrous knight, one lord of steadfast heart and courage.”
“Mind your mouth,” Chaol warned from beside her.
“What about you, hmm?” she said, raising her brows at the captain. Oh, it was too funny! Her—the King’s Champion! “Our beloved king finds you lacking?”
The captain put a hand on his sword. “If you’d be quiet, you’d hear the rest of what His Highness has to tell you.”
She faced the prince. “Well?”
Dorian leaned back in his throne. “My father needs someone to aid the empire—someone to help him maneuver around difficult people.”
“You mean he needs a lackey for his dirty work.”
“If you want to put it that bluntly, then, yes,” the prince said. “His Champion would keep his opponents quiet.”
“As quiet as the grave,” she said sweetly.
A smile tugged on Dorian’s lips, but he kept his face straight. “Yes.”
To work for the King of Adarlan as his loyal servant. She raised her chin. To kill for him—to be a fang in the mouth of the beast that had already consumed half of Erilea . . . “And if I accept?”
“Then, after six years, he’ll grant you your freedom.”
“Six years!” But the word “freedom” echoed through her once more.
“If you decline,” Dorian said, anticipating her next question, “you’ll remain in Endovier.” His sapphire eyes became hard, and she swallowed. And die here was what he didn’t need to add.
Six years as the king’s crooked dagger . . . or a lifetime in Endovier.
“However,” the prince said, “there’s a catch.” She kept her face neutral as he toyed with a ring on his finger. “The position isn’t being offered to you. Yet. My father thought to have a bit of fun. He’s hosting a competition. He invited twenty-three members of his council to each sponsor a would-be Champion to train in the glass castle and ultimately compete in a duel. Were you to win,” he said with a half smile, “you’d officially be Adarlan’s Assassin.”
She didn’t return his smile. “Who, exactly, are my competitors?”
Seeing her expression, the prince’s grin faded. “Thieves and assassins and warriors from across Erilea.” She opened her mouth, but he cut her off. “If you win, and prove yourself both skilled and trustworthy, my father has sworn to grant you your freedom. And, while you’re his Champion, you’ll receive a considerable salary.”
She barely heard his last few words. A competition! Against some nobody men from the-gods-knew-where! And assassins! “What other assassins?” she demanded.
“None that I’ve heard of. None as famous as you. And that reminds me—you won’t be competing as Celaena Sardothien.”
“You’ll compete under an alias. I don’t suppose you heard about what happened after your trial.”
“News is rather hard to come by when you’re slaving in a mine.”
Dorian chuckled, shaking his head. “No one knows that Celaena Sardothien is just a young woman—they all thought you were far older.”
“What?” she asked again, her face flushing. “How is that possible?” She should be proud that she’d kept it hidden from most of the world, but . . .
“You kept your identity a secret all the years you were running around killing everyone. After your trial, my father thought it would be . . . wise not to inform Erilea who you are. He wants to keep it that way. What would our enemies say if they knew we’d all been petrified of a girl?”
“So I’m slaving in this miserable place for a name and title that don’t even belong to me? Who does everyone think Adarlan’s Assassin really is?”
“I don’t know, nor do I entirely care. But I do know that you were the best, and that people still whisper when they mention your name.” He fixed her with a stare. “If you’re willing to fight for me, to be my Champion during the months the competition will go on, I’ll see to it that my father frees you after five years.”
Though he tried to conceal it, she could see the tension in his body. He wanted her to say yes. Needed her to say yes so badly he was willing to bargain with her. Her eyes began glittering. “What do you mean, ‘were the best’?”
“You’ve been in Endovier for a year. Who knows what you’re still capable of?”
“I’m capable of quite a lot, thank you,” she said, picking at her jagged nails. She tried not to cringe at all the dirt beneath them. When was the last time her hands had been clean?
“That remains to be seen,” Dorian said. “You’ll be told the details of the competition when we arrive in Rifthold.”
“Despite the amount of fun you nobles will have betting on us, this competition seems unnecessary. Why not just hire me already?”
“As I just said, you must prove yourself worthy.”
She put a hand on her hip, and her chains rattled loudly through the room. “Well, I think being Adarlan’s Assassin exceeds any sort of proof you might need.”
“Yes,” Chaol said, his bronze eyes flashing. “It proves that you’re a criminal, and that we shouldn’t immediately trust you with the king’s private business.”
“I give my solemn oa—”
“I doubt that the king would take the word of Adarlan’s Assassin as bond.”
“Yes, but I don’t see why I have to go through the training and the competition. I mean, I’m bound to be a bit . . . out of shape, but . . . what else do you expect when I have to make do with rocks and pickaxes in this place?” She gave Chaol a spiteful glance.
Dorian frowned. “So, you won’t take the offer?”
“Of course I’m going to take the offer,” she snapped. Her wrists chafed against her shackles badly enough that her eyes watered. “I’ll be your absurd Champion if you agree to free me in three years, not five.”
“Fine,” she said. “It’s a bargain. I might be trading one form of slavery for another, but I’m not a fool.”
She could win back her freedom. Freedom. She felt the cold air of the wide-open world, the breeze that swept from the mountains and carried her away. She could live far from Rifthold, the capital that had once been her realm.
“Hopefully you’re right,” Dorian replied. “And hopefully, you’ll live up to your reputation. I anticipate winning, and I won’t be pleased if you make me look foolish.”
“And what if I lose?”
The gleam vanished from his eyes as he said: “You’ll be sent back here, to serve out the remainder of your sentence.”
Celaena’s lovely visions exploded like dust from a slammed book. “Then I might as well leap from the window. A year in this place has worn me through—imagine what will happen if I return. I’d be dead by my second year.” She tossed her head. “Your offer seems fair enough.”
“Fair enough indeed,” Dorian said, and waved a hand at Chaol. “Take her to her rooms and clean her up.” He fixed her with a stare. “We depart for Rifthold in the morning. Don’t disappoint me, Sardothien.”
It was nonsense, of course. How difficult could it be to outshine, outsmart, and then obliterate her competitors? She didn’t smile, for she knew that if she did, it would open her to a realm of hope that had long been closed. But still, she felt like seizing the prince and dancing. She tried to think of music, tried to think of a celebratory tune, but could only recall a solitary line from the mournful bellowing of the Eyllwe work songs, deep and slow like honey poured from a jar: “And go home at last . . .”
She didn’t notice when Captain Westfall led her away, nor did she notice when they walked down hall after hall.
Yes, she would go—to Rifthold, to anywhere, even through the Gates of the Wyrd and into Hell itself, if it meant freedom.
After all, you aren’t Adarlan’s Assassin for nothing.
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