For the next two weeks, they traveled down through the continent, the nights becoming colder, the days shorter. Icy rain kept them company for four days, during which time Celaena was so miserably cold that she contemplated throwing herself into a ravine, hopefully dragging Chaol with her.
Everything was wet and half-frozen, and while she could bear sodden hair, she couldn’t withstand the agony of wet shoes. She had little sensation in her toes. Each night, she wrapped them in whatever spare, dry clothing she could find. She felt as though she were in a state of partial decay, and with each gust of frigid, stinging wind, she wondered when her skin would rip from her bones. But, as it was autumn weather, the rain suddenly disappeared, and cloudless, brilliant skies once more stretched over them.
Celaena was half-asleep on her horse when the Crown Prince pulled out of line and came trotting toward them, his dark hair bouncing. His red cape rose and fell in a crimson wave. Above his unadorned white shirt was a fine cobalt-blue jerkin trimmed with gold. She would have snorted, but he did look rather good in his knee-high brown boots. And his leather belt did go nicely—even though the hunting knife seemed a bit too bejeweled. He pulled up alongside Chaol. “Come,” he said to the captain, and jerked his head at the steep, grassy hill that the company was starting to ascend.
“Where?” the captain asked, jangling Celaena’s chain for Dorian to notice. Wherever he went, she went.
“Come see the view,” Dorian clarified. “Bring that one, I suppose.” Celaena bristled. “That one”! As if she were a piece of baggage!
Chaol moved them out of line, giving her chain a fierce tug. She grasped the reins as they advanced into a gallop, the tangy smell of horsehair creeping into her nostrils. They rode quickly up the steep hill, the horse jerking and surging beneath her. Celaena tried not to wince as she slid backward in the saddle. If she fell, she’d die of humiliation. But the setting sun emerged from the trees behind them, and her breath caught in her throat as a spire, then three, then six more appeared, piercing the sky.
Atop the hill, Celaena stared at the crowning achievement of Adarlan. The glass castle of Rifthold.
It was gargantuan, a vertical city of shimmering, crystalline towers and bridges, chambers and turrets, domed ballrooms and long, endless hallways. It had been built above the original stone castle, and cost a kingdom’s wealth to construct.
She thought of the first time she’d seen it, eight years ago, cold and still, frozen like the earth beneath her fat pony. Even then, she found the castle tasteless, a waste of resources and talent, its towers reaching into the sky like clawed fingers. She remembered the powder-blue cloak that she kept touching, the weight of her fresh curls, the scratch of her stockings against the saddle, how she’d worried about the spot of mud on her red velvet shoes, and how she kept on thinking about that man—the man she’d killed three days earlier.
“One more tower and the whole thing will collapse,” the Crown Prince said from his spot on the other side of Chaol. The sounds of their approaching party filled the air. “We’ve still got a few miles left, and I’d rather navigate these foothills in the daylight. We’ll camp here tonight.”
“I wonder what your father will think of her,” Chaol said.
“Oh, he’ll be fine—until she opens her mouth. Then the bellowing and the blustering will begin, and I’ll regret wasting the past two months tracking her down. But—well, I think my father has more important matters to worry over.” With that, the prince moved off.
Celaena couldn’t keep her eyes from the castle. She felt so small, even from far away. She’d forgotten how dwarfing the building was.
The soldiers scurried about, lighting fires and raising tents. “You look as if you’re facing the gallows, not your freedom,” the captain said beside her.
She wound and unwound a strap of leather rein around a finger. “It’s odd to see it.”
“The city, the castle, the slums, the river.” The shadow of the castle grew across the city like a hulking beast. “I still don’t entirely know how it happened.”
“How you were captured?”
She nodded. “Despite your visions of a perfect world under an empire, your rulers and politicians are quick to destroy each other. So are assassins, I suppose.”
“You believe one of your kind betrayed you?”
“Everyone knew I received the best hires and could demand any payment.” She scanned the twisting city streets and the winding glimmer of the river. “Were I gone, a vacancy would arise from which they could profit. It might have been one; it might have been many.”
“You shouldn’t expect to find honor amongst such company.”
“I didn’t say that I did. I never trusted most of them, and I knew they hated me.” She had her suspicions, of course. And the one that seemed most likely was a truth she wasn’t yet ready to face—not now, not ever.
“Endovier must have been terrible,” Chaol said. Nothing malicious or mocking lay beneath his words. Did she dare call it sympathy?
“Yes,” she said slowly. “It was.” He gave her a look that asked for more. Well, what did she care if she told him? “When I arrived, they cut my hair, gave me rags, and put a pickax in my hand as if I knew what to do with it. They chained me to the others, and I endured my whippings with the rest of them. But the overseers had been instructed to treat me with extra care, and took the liberty of rubbing salt into my wounds—salt I mined—and whipped me often enough so that some of the gashes never really closed. It was through the kindness of a few prisoners from Eyllwe that my wounds didn’t become infected. Every night, one of them stayed up the hours it took to clean my back.”
Chaol didn’t reply, and only glanced at her before dismounting. Had she been a fool to tell him something so personal? He didn’t speak to her again that day, except to bark commands.
Celaena awoke with a gasp, a hand on her throat, cold sweat sliding down her back and pooling in the hollow between her mouth and chin. She’d had the nightmare before—that she was lying in one of those mass graves in Endovier. And when she tried to pull herself from the tangle of rotting limbs, she’d been dragged down into a pile twenty bodies deep. And then no one noticed that she was still screaming when they buried her alive.
Nauseated, Celaena wrapped her arms around her knees. She breathed—in and out, in and out—and tilted her head, her sharp kneecaps pushing against her cheekbone. Due to the unseasonably warm weather, they’d foregone sleeping in tents—which gave her an unparalleled view of the capital. The illuminated castle rose from the sleeping city like a mound of ice and steam. There was something greenish about it, and it seemed to pulse.
By this time tomorrow, she’d be confined within those walls. But tonight—tonight it was so quiet, like the calm before a storm.
She imagined that the whole world was asleep, enchanted by the sea-green light of the castle. Time came and went, mountains rising and falling, vines creeping over the slumbering city, concealing it with layers of thorns and leaves. She was the only one awake.
She pulled her cloak around her. She would win. She’d win, and serve the king, and then vanish into nothing, and think no more of castles or kings or assassins. She didn’t wish to reign over this city again. Magic was dead, the Fae were banished or executed, and she would never again have anything to do with the rise and fall of kingdoms.
She wasn’t fated for anything. Not anymore.
A hand upon his sword, Dorian Havilliard watched the assassin from his spot on the other side of the sleeping company. There was something sad about her—sitting so still with her legs against her chest, the moonlight coloring her hair silver. No bold, swaggering expressions strutted across her face as the glow of the castle rippled in her eyes.
He found her beautiful, if a bit strange and sour. It was something in the way that her eyes sparked when she looked at something lovely in the landscape. He couldn’t understand it.
She stared at the castle unflinchingly, her form silhouetted against the blazing brightness that sat on the edge of the Avery River. Clouds gathered above them and she raised her head. Through a clearing in the swirling mass, a cluster of stars could be seen. He couldn’t help thinking that they gazed down at her.
No, he had to remember she was an assassin with the blessing of a pretty face and sharp wits. She washed her hands with blood, and was just as likely to slit his throat as offer him a kind word. And she was his Champion. She was here to fight for him—and for her freedom. And nothing more. He lay down, his hand still upon his sword, and fell asleep.
Still, the image haunted his dreams throughout the night: a lovely girl gazing at the stars, and the stars who gazed back.
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