When Celaena finally collapsed onto a bed after her meeting in the throne room, she couldn’t fall asleep, despite the exhaustion in every inch of her body. After being roughly bathed by brutish servants, the wounds on her back throbbed and her face felt like it had been scrubbed to the bone. Shifting to lie on her side to ease the pain in her dressed and bound back, she ran her hand down the mattress, and blinked at the freeness of movement. Before she’d gotten into the bath, Chaol had removed her shackles. She’d felt everything—the reverberations of the key turning in the lock of her irons, then again as they loosened and fell to the floor. She could still feel the ghost chains hovering just above her skin. Looking up at the ceiling, she rotated her raw, burning joints and gave a sigh of contentment.
But it was too strange to lie on a mattress, to have silk caress her skin and a pillow cradle her cheek. She had forgotten what food other than soggy oats and hard bread tasted like, what a clean body and clothes could do to a person. Now it was utterly foreign.
Though her dinner hadn’t been that wonderful. Not only was the roast chicken unimpressive, but after a few forkfuls, she’d dashed into the bathroom to deposit the contents of her stomach. She wanted to eat, to put a hand to a swollen belly, to wish that she’d never eaten a morsel and swear that she’d never eat again. She’d eat well in Rifthold, wouldn’t she? And, more importantly, her stomach would adjust.
She’d wasted away to nothing. Beneath her nightgown, her ribs reached out from inside of her, showing bones where flesh and meat should have been. And her br**sts! Once well-formed, they were now no larger than they’d been in the midst of puberty. A lump clogged her throat, which she promptly swallowed down. The softness of the mattress smothered her, and she shifted again, lying on her back, despite the pain it gave her.
Her face hadn’t been much better when she glimpsed it in the washroom mirror. It was haggard: her cheekbones were sharp, her jaw pronounced, and her eyes slightly, but ever so disturbingly, sunken in. She took steadying breaths, savoring the hope. She’d eat. A lot. And exercise. She could be healthy again. Imagining outrageous feasts and regaining her former glory, she finally fell asleep.
When Chaol came to fetch her the next morning, he found her sleeping on the floor, wrapped in a blanket. “Sardothien,” he said. She made a mumbling noise, burying her face farther into the pillow. “Why are you sleeping on the ground?” She opened an eye. Of course, he didn’t mention how different she looked now that she was clean.
She didn’t bother concealing herself with the blanket as she stood. The yards of fabric they called a nightgown covered her enough. “The bed was uncomfortable,” she said simply, but quickly forgot the captain as she beheld the sunlight.
Pure, fresh, warm sunlight. Sunlight that she could bask in day after day if she got her freedom, sunlight to drown out the endless dark of the mines. It leaked in through the heavy drapes, smearing itself across the room in thick lines. Gingerly, Celaena stretched out a hand.
Her hand was pale, almost skeletal, but there was something about it, something beyond the bruises and cuts and scars, that seemed beautiful and new in the morning light.
She ran to the window and nearly ripped the curtains from their hangings as she opened them to the gray mountains and bleakness of Endovier. The guards positioned beneath the window didn’t glance upward, and she gaped at the bluish-gray sky, at the clouds slipping on their shoes and shuffling toward the horizon.
I will not be afraid. For the first time in a while, the words felt true.
Her lips peeled into a smile. The captain raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
She was cheerful—jubilant, really—and her mood improved when the servants coiled her braided hair onto the back of her head and dressed her in a surprisingly fine riding habit that concealed her miserably thin form. She loved clothes—loved the feeling of silk, of velvet, of satin, of suede and chiffon—and was fascinated by the grace of seams, the intricate perfection of an embossed surface. And when she won this ridiculous competition, when she was free . . . she could buy all the clothes she wanted.
She laughed when Chaol, irked at how Celaena stood in front of the mirror for five minutes, admiring herself, half-dragged her out of the room. The budding sky made her want to dance and skip down the halls before they entered the main yard. However, she faltered as she beheld the mounds of bone-colored rock at the far end of the compound, and the small figures going in and out of the many mouthlike holes cut into the mountains.
Work had already begun for the day, work that would continue without her when she left them all to this miserable fate. Her stomach clenching, Celaena averted her eyes from the prisoners, keeping up with the captain as they headed to a caravan of horses near the towering wall.
Yapping filled the air, and three black dogs sprinted from the center of the caravan to greet them. They were each sleek as arrows—undoubtedly from the Crown Prince’s kennels. She knelt on one knee, her bound wounds protesting as she cupped their heads and stroked their smooth hair. They licked her fingers and face, their tails slashing the ground like whips.
A pair of ebony boots stopped before her, and the dogs immediately calmed and sat. Celaena lifted her gaze to find the sapphire eyes of the Crown Prince of Adarlan studying her face. He smiled slightly. “How unusual for them to notice you,” he said, scratching one of the dogs behind the ears. “Did you give them food?”
She shook her head as the captain stepped behind her, so close that his knees grazed the folds of her forest-green velvet cape. It would take all of two movements to disarm him.
“Are you fond of dogs?” asked the prince. She nodded. Why was it already so hot? “Am I going to be blessed with the pleasure of hearing your voice, or have you resolved to be silent for the duration of our journey?”
“I’m afraid your questions didn’t merit a verbal response.”
Dorian bowed low. “Then I apologize, my lady! How terrible it must be to condescend to answer! Next time, I’ll try to think of something more stimulating to say.” With that, he turned on his heel and strode away, his dogs trailing after him.
She scowled as she stood. Her frown deepened when she discovered the Captain of the Guard smirking as they walked into the fray of the readying company. However, the unbearable urge to splatter someone across a wall lessened when they brought her a piebald mare to ride.
She mounted. The sky came closer, and it stretched forever above her, away and away to distant lands she’d never heard of. Celaena gripped the saddle horn. She was truly leaving Endovier. All those hopeless months, those freezing nights . . . gone now. She breathed in deeply. She knew—she just knew—that if she tried hard enough, she could fly from her saddle. That is, until she felt iron clamp around her arms.
It was Chaol, fastening her bandaged wrists into shackles. A long chain led to his horse, where it disappeared beneath the saddlebags. He mounted his black stallion, and she considered leaping from her horse and using the chain to hang him from the nearest tree.
It was a rather large company, twenty all together. Behind two imperial flag-bearing guards rode the prince and Duke Perrington. Then came a band of six royal guards, dull and bland as porridge. But still trained to protect him—from her. She clanked her chains against her saddle and flicked her eyes to Chaol. He didn’t react.
The sun rose higher. After one last inspection of their supplies, they left. With most of the slaves working the mines, and only a few toiling inside the ramshackle refining sheds, the giant yard was almost deserted. The wall suddenly loomed, and her blood throbbed in her veins. The last time she’d been this close to the wall . . .
The crack of the whip sounded, followed by a scream. Celaena looked over her shoulder, past the guards and the supplies wagon, to the near-empty yard. None of these slaves would ever leave here—even when they died. Each week, they dug new mass graves behind the refining sheds. And each week, those graves filled up.
She became all too aware of the three long scars down her back. Even if she won her freedom . . . even if she lived in peace in the countryside . . . those scars would always remind her of what she’d endured. And that even if she was free, others were not.
Celaena faced forward, pushing those thoughts from her mind as they entered the passage through the wall. The interior was thick, almost smoky, and damp. The sounds of the horses echoed like rolling thunder. The iron gates opened, and she glimpsed the wicked name of the mine before it split in two and swung wide. Within a few heartbeats, the gates groaned shut behind them. She was out.
She shifted her hands in their shackles, watching the chains sway and clank between her and the Captain of the Guard. It was attached to his saddle, which was cinched around his horse, which, when they stopped, could be subtly unbridled, just enough so that with a fierce tug from her end, the chain would rip the saddle off the beast, he’d tumble to the ground, and she would—
She sensed Captain Westfall’s attention. He stared at her beneath lowered brows, his lips tightly pursed, and she shrugged as she dropped the chain.
As the morning wore on, the sky became a crisp blue with hardly a cloud. Taking the forest road, they swiftly passed from the mountainous wasteland of Endovier and into fairer country.
By midmorning they were within Oakwald Forest, the wood that surrounded Endovier and served as a continental divide between the “civilized” countries of the East and the uncharted lands of the West. Legends were still told of the strange and deadly people who dwelt there—the cruel and bloodthirsty descendents of the fallen Witch Kingdom. Celaena had once met a young woman from that cursed land, and though she’d turned out to be both cruel and bloodthirsty, she was still just a human. And had still bled like one.
After hours of silence, Celaena turned to Chaol. “Rumor has it that once the king is finished with his war against Wendlyn, he’ll begin colonizing the West.” She said it casually, but hoped he’d confirm or deny. The more she knew of the king’s current position and maneuverings, the better. The captain surveyed her up and down, frowned, and then looked away. “I agree,” she said, sighing loudly. “The fate of those empty, wide plains and those miserable mountain regions seems dull to me as well.”
His jaw tightened as he clamped his teeth.
“Do you intend to ignore me forever?”
Captain Westfall’s brows rose. “I didn’t know I was ignoring you.”
She pursed her lips, checking her irritation. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. “How old are you?”
“So young!” She batted her eyelashes, watching him for some kind of response. “It only took a few years to climb the ranks?”
He nodded. “And how old are you?”
“Eighteen.” But he said nothing. “I know,” she continued. “It is impressive that I accomplished so much at such an early age.”
“Crime isn’t an accomplishment, Sardothien.”
“Yes, but becoming the world’s most famous assassin is!” He didn’t respond. “You might ask me how I did it.”
“Did what?” he said tightly.
“Became so talented and famous so quickly.”
“I don’t want to hear about it.”
Those weren’t the words she’d wanted to hear.
“You’re not very kind,” she said through her teeth. If she were going to get under his skin, she’d have to push a lot harder.
“You’re a criminal. I’m Captain of the Royal Guard. I’m not obligated to bestow any kindness or conversation upon you. Be grateful we don’t keep you locked up in the wagon.”
“Yes, well, I’d wager that you’re rather unpleasant to talk to even when you’re bestowing kindness upon others.” When he failed to respond again, Celaena couldn’t help but feel a bit foolish. A few minutes passed. “Are you and the Crown Prince close friends?”
“My personal life is none of your concern.”
She clicked her tongue. “How wellborn are you?”
“Well enough.” His chin lifted almost imperceptibly higher.
“Lord?” He didn’t reply, and she smiled slowly. “Lord Chaol Westfall.” She fanned herself with a hand. “How the court ladies must fawn over you!”
“Don’t call me that. I’m not given the title of lord,” he said quietly.
“You have an older brother?”
“Then why don’t you bear the title?” Again, no response. She knew she should stop prying, but she couldn’t help it. “A scandal? A deprived birthright? In what sort of messy intrigue are you involved?”
His lips squeezed together so tightly they turned white.
She leaned toward him. “Do you find that—”
“Shall I gag you, or are you capable of being silent without my assistance?” He stared ahead at the Crown Prince, his face blank again.
She tried not to laugh when he grimaced as she began speaking again. “Are you married?”
She picked at her nails. “I’m not married, either.” His nostrils flared. “How old were you when you became Captain of the Guard?”
He gripped the reins of his horse. “Twenty.”
The party halted in a clearing and the soldiers dismounted. She faced Chaol, who swung a leg over his horse. “Why have we stopped?”
Chaol unhooked the chain from his saddle and gave it a firm yank, motioning for her to dismount. “Lunch,” he said.
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