Trumpeters signaled their arrival as they passed through the looming alabaster walls of Rifthold. Crimson flags depicting gold wyverns flapped in the wind above the capital city, the cobblestone streets were cleared of traffic, and Celaena, unchained, dressed, painted, and seated in front of Chaol, frowned as the odor of the city met her nose.
Beneath the smell of spices and horses lay a foundation of filth, blood, and spoiled milk. The air held a hint of the salty waters of the Avery—different from the salt of Endovier. This brought with it warships from every ocean in Erilea, merchant vessels crammed with goods and slaves, and fishing boats with half-rotted, scale-covered flesh that people somehow managed to eat. From bearded peddlers to servant girls carrying armfuls of hatboxes, everyone paused as the flag-bearers trotted proudly ahead, and Dorian Havilliard waved.
They followed the Crown Prince, who, like Chaol, was swathed in a red cape, pinned over the left breast with a brooch fashioned after the royal seal. The prince wore a golden crown upon his neat hair, and she had to concede that he looked rather regal.
Young women flocked to them, waving. Dorian winked and grinned. Celaena couldn’t help but notice the sharp stares from the same women when they beheld her in the prince’s retinue. She knew how she appeared, seated atop a horse like some prize lady being brought to the castle. So Celaena only smiled at them, tossed her hair, and batted her eyelashes at the prince’s back.
Her arm stung. “What?” she hissed at the Captain of the Guard as he pinched her.
“You look ridiculous,” he said through his teeth, smiling at the crowd.
She mirrored his expression. “They’re ridiculous.”
“Be quiet and act normally.” His breath was hot on her neck.
“I should jump from the horse and run,” she said, waving at a young man, who gaped at what he thought was a court lady’s attention. “I’d vanish in an instant.”
“Yes,” he said, “you’d vanish with three arrows buried in your spine.”
“Such pleasant talk.”
They entered the shopping district, where the crowd swelled between the trees lining the broad avenues of white stone. The glass storefronts were nearly invisible beyond the crowd, but a ravenous sort of hunger arose in her as they passed shop after shop. Each window displayed dresses and tunics, which stood proudly behind lines of sparkling jewelry and broad-rimmed hats clumped together like bouquets of flowers. Above it all, the glass castle loomed, so high she had to tilt her head back to see the uppermost towers. Why had they chosen such a long and inconvenient route? Did they really wish to parade about?
Celaena swallowed. There was a break in the buildings, and sails spread like moth’s wings greeted them as they turned onto the avenue along the Avery. Ships sat docked along the pier, a mess of rope and netting with sailors calling to each other, too busy to notice the royal procession. At the sound of a whip, her head snapped to the side.
Slaves staggered down the gangplank of a merchant ship. A mix of conquered nations bound together, each of them had the hollow, raging face she’d seen so many times before. Most of the slaves were prisoners of war—rebels who survived the butchering blocks and endless lines of Adarlan’s armies. Some were probably people who had been caught or accused of trying to practice magic. But others were just ordinary folk, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now that she noticed, there were countless chained slaves working the docks, lifting and sweating, holding parasols and pouring water, eyes on the ground or the sky—never on what was before them.
She wanted to leap from her horse and run to them, or to simply scream that she wasn’t a part of this prince’s court, that she had no hand in bringing them here, chained and starved and beaten, that she had worked and bled with them, with their families and friends—she was not like these monsters that destroyed everything. That she had done something, nearly two years ago, when she had freed almost two hundred slaves from the Pirate Lord. Even that, though, wasn’t enough.
The city was suddenly separate, ripped from her. People still waved and bowed, cheering and laughing, throwing flowers and other nonsense before their horses. She had difficulty breathing.
Sooner than she would have liked, the iron and glass gate of the castle appeared, latticework doors opened, and a dozen guards flanked the cobblestone path that led through the archway. Spears erect, they held rectangular shields, and their eyes were dark beneath bronze helmets. Each wore a red cape. Their armor, while tarnished, was well crafted from copper and leather.
Beyond the archway sloped a road, lined with trees of gold and silver. Glass lampposts sprouted up between the hedges bordering the path. The sounds of the city vanished as they passed under another arch, this one made of sparkling glass, and then the castle rose before them.
Chaol sighed as he dismounted in the open courtyard. Hands pulled Celaena from the saddle and set her on wobbly legs. Glass gleamed everywhere, and a hand clamped on her shoulder. Stableboys quietly and quickly led her horse away.
Chaol pulled her to his side, keeping a firm grip on her cloak as the Crown Prince approached. “Six hundred rooms, military and servant’s quarters, three gardens, a game park, and stables on either side,” said Dorian, staring at his home. “Who could ever need so much space?”
She managed a weak smile, a bit baffled by his sudden charm. “I don’t know how you can sleep at night with only a wall of glass keeping you from death.” She glanced up, but quickly lowered her focus to the ground. She wasn’t afraid of heights, but the thought of being so high up with nothing but glass to protect her made her stomach clench.
“Then you’re like me.” Dorian chuckled. “Thank the gods I gave you rooms in the stone castle. I’d hate for you to be uncomfortable.”
Deciding that scowling at him wouldn’t be the wisest decision, Celaena looked instead toward the massive castle gates. The doors were made of cloudy red glass, gaping at her like the mouth of a giant. But she could see the interior was made of stone, and it seemed to her that the glass castle had been dropped on top of the original building. What a ridiculous idea: a castle made of glass.
“Well,” said Dorian. “You’ve fattened up a bit, and your skin has some color now. Welcome to my home, Celaena Sardothien.” He nodded at a few passing nobles, who scraped and bowed. “The competition begins tomorrow. Captain Westfall will show you to your chambers.”
She rolled her shoulders and searched for any sign of her competitors. No one else seemed to be arriving, though.
The prince nodded to another flock of cooing courtiers, and didn’t look at either the assassin or the Captain of the Guard as he spoke again. “I have to meet with my father,” he said, running his gaze along the body of a particularly pretty lady. He winked at her, and she hid her face behind a lace fan as she continued her walk. Dorian nodded to Chaol. “I’ll see you later tonight.” Without saying a word to Celaena, he strode up the steps to the palace, his red cape blowing in the wind.
The Crown Prince lived up to his word. Her chambers were in a wing of the stone castle, and much bigger than she anticipated. They consisted of a bedroom with an attached bathing chamber and a dressing room, a small dining room, and a music and gaming room. Each room was furnished in gold and crimson, her bedroom also decorated with a giant tapestry along one wall, with couches and deep-cushioned chairs scattered in a tasteful manner. Her balcony overlooked a fountain in one of the gardens, and whichever it was, it was beautiful—never mind the guards she spotted posted beneath.
Chaol left her, and Celaena didn’t wait to hear the door shut before closing herself in her bedroom. Between her murmurs of appreciation during Chaol’s brief tour of her rooms, she’d counted the windows—twelve—the exits—one—and the guards posted outside her door, windows, and balcony—nine. They were each armed with a sword, knife, and crossbow, and though they’d been alert while their captain passed by, she knew a crossbow wasn’t exactly a light weight to bear for hours on end.
Celaena crept to her bedroom window, pressing herself against the marble wall, and glanced down. Sure enough, the guards had already strapped the crossbows across their backs. It would waste precious seconds to grab the weapon and load it—seconds when she could take their swords, cut their throats, and vanish into the gardens. She smiled as she stepped fully in front of the window to study the garden. Its far border ended in the trees of a game park. She knew enough about the castle to know that she was on the southern side, and if she went through the game park, she’d reach a stone wall and the Avery River beyond.
Celaena opened and closed the doors of her armoire, dresser, and vanity. Of course, there weren’t any weapons, not even a fire poker, but she grabbed the few bone hairpins left in the back of a dresser drawer, and some string she found in a mending basket in her giant dressing room. No needles. She knelt on the carpeted floor of the dressing room—which was void of clothes—and, one eye on the door behind her, she made quick work of the hairpins, snapping their heads off before binding them all together with the string. When she finished, she held up the object and frowned.
Well, it wasn’t a knife, but clustered together like that, the jagged points of the broken pins could do some damage. She tested the tips with a finger, and winced as a shard of bone pricked her calloused skin. Yes, it would certainly hurt if she jammed it into a guard’s neck. And disable him long enough for her to grab his weapons.
Celaena reentered the bedroom, yawning, and stood on the edge of the mattress to tuck the makeshift weapon into one of the folds of the partial canopy over the bed. When she’d concealed it, she glanced around the room again. Something about the dimensions seemed a little off—something with the height of the walls, but she couldn’t be sure. Regardless, the canopy provided plenty of hiding places. What else could she take without them noticing? Chaol had probably had the room looked over before they arrived. She listened at the bedroom door for any signs of activity. When she was certain no one was in her chambers, she entered the foyer and strode through it to the gaming room. She beheld the billiards cues along the far wall, and the heavy colored balls stacked on the green felt table, and grinned. Chaol wasn’t nearly as smart as he thought he was.
Ultimately, she left the billiards equipment, if only because it would arouse suspicion if it all disappeared, but it would be easy enough to get a stick if she needed to escape, or to use the dense balls to knock the guards unconscious. Exhausted, she returned to her bedroom and finally hoisted herself onto the enormous bed. The mattress was so soft that she sank down a few inches, and it was wide enough for three people to sleep without noticing each other. Curling on her side, Celaena’s eyes grew heavier and heavier.
She slept for an hour, until a servant announced the arrival of the tailor, to outfit her with proper court attire. And thus another hour was spent being measured and pinned, and sitting through a presentation of different fabrics and colors. She hated most of them. A few caught her attention, but when she tried to recommend specific styles that flattered her, she received only the wave of a hand and a curl of the lip. She considered jabbing one of the tailor’s pearl-headed pins through his eye.
She bathed, feeling almost as dirty as she had in Endovier, and was grateful for the gentle servants who attended her. Many of the wounds had scabbed or remained as thin white lines, though her back retained most of its damage. After nearly two hours of pampering—trimming her hair, shaping her nails, and scraping away the callouses on her feet and hands—Celaena grinned at the mirror in the dressing room.
Only in the capital could servants have done such fine work. She looked spectacular. Utterly and completely spectacular. She wore a dress with skirts and long sleeves of white, streaked and spotted with orchid-purple. The indigo bodice was bordered with a thin line of gold, and an ice-white cape hung from her shoulders. Her hair, half up and twisted with a fuchsia ribbon, fell in loose waves. But her smile faltered as she remembered why, exactly, she was here.
The King’s Champion indeed. She looked more like the King’s Lapdog.
“Beautiful,” said an older, female voice, and Celaena pivoted, the yards of cumbersome fabric twisting with her. Her corset—the stupid, cursed thing—pushed on her ribs so hard that the breath was sucked from her. This was why she mostly preferred tunics and pants.
It was a woman, large but well contained within the gown of cobalt and peach that marked her as one of the servants of the royal household. Her face, while a bit wrinkled, was red-cheeked and finely colored. She bowed. “Philippa Spindlehead,” said the woman, rising. “Your personal servant. You must be—”
“Celaena Sardothien,” she said flatly.
Philippa’s eyes widened. “Keep that to yourself, miss,” she whispered. “I’m the only one who knows. And the guards, I suppose.”
“Then what do people think about all my guards?” she asked.
Philippa approached, ignoring Celaena’s glower as she adjusted the folds of the assassin’s gown, fluffing them in the right places. “Oh, the other . . . Champions have guards outside their rooms, too. Or people just think you’re another lady-friend of the prince.”
Philippa smiled, but kept her eyes upon the dress. “He has a big heart, His Highness.”
Celaena wasn’t at all surprised. “A favorite with women?”
“It’s not my place to speak about His Highness. And you should mind your tongue, too.”
“I’ll do as I please.” She surveyed the withered face of her servant. Why send such a soft woman to serve her? She’d overpower her in a heartbeat.
“Then you’ll find yourself back in those mines, poppet.” Philippa put a hand on her hip. “Oh, don’t scowl—you ruin your face when you look like that!” She reached to pinch Celaena’s cheek, and Celaena pulled away.
“Are you mad? I’m an assassin—not some court idiot!”
Philippa clucked. “You’re still a woman, and so long as you’re under my charge, you’ll act like one, or Wyrd help me!”
Celaena blinked, then slowly said: “You’re awfully bold. I hope you don’t act like this around court ladies.”
“Ah. There was surely a reason why I was assigned to attend you.”
“You understand what my occupation entails, don’t you?”
“No disrespect, but this sort of finery is worth far more than seeing my head roll on the ground.” Celaena’s upper lip pulled back from her teeth as the servant turned from the room. “Don’t make such a face,” Philippa called over her shoulder. “It squishes that little nose of yours.”
Celaena could only gape as the servant woman shuffled away.
The Crown Prince of Adarlan stared at his father unblinkingly, waiting for him to speak. Seated on his glass throne, the King of Adarlan watched him back. Sometimes Dorian forgot how little he looked like his father—it was his younger brother, Hollin, who took after the king, with his broad frame and his round, sharp-eyed face. But Dorian, tall, toned, and elegant, bore no resemblance to him. And then there was the matter of Dorian’s sapphire eyes—not even his mother had his eyes. No one knew where they came from.
“She has arrived?” his father asked. His voice was hard, edged with the clash of shields and the scream of arrows. As far as greetings went, that was probably the kindest one he’d get.
“She shouldn’t pose any threat or problem while she’s here,” Dorian said as calmly as he could. Picking Sardothien had been a gamble—a bet against his father’s tolerance. He was about to see if it was worth it.
“You think like every fool she’s murdered.” Dorian straightened as the king continued. “She owes allegiance to none but herself, and won’t balk at putting a knife through your heart.”
“Which is why she’ll be fully capable of winning this competition of yours.” His father said nothing, and Dorian went on, his heart racing. “Come to think of it, the whole competition might be unnecessary.”
“You say that because you’re afraid of losing good coin.” If only his father knew that he hadn’t just ventured to find a champion to win gold, but also to get out—to get away from him, for as long as he could manage.
Dorian steeled his nerve, remembering the words he’d been brooding over for the entire journey from Endovier. “I guarantee she’ll be able to fulfill her duties; we truly don’t need to train her. I’ve told you already: it’s foolish to have this competition at all.”
“If you do not mind your tongue, I’ll have her use you for practice.”
“And then what? Have Hollin take the throne?”
“Do not doubt me, Dorian,” his father challenged. “You might think this . . . girl can win, but you forget that Duke Perrington is sponsoring Cain. You would have been better off picking a Champion like him—forged in blood and iron on the battlefield. A true Champion.”
Dorian stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Don’t you find the title a little ridiculous, given that our ‘Champions’ are no more than criminals?”
His father rose from his throne and pointed at the map painted on the far wall of his council chamber. “I am the conqueror of this continent, and soon to be ruler of all Erilea. You will not question me.”
Dorian, realizing how close he was to crossing a boundary between impertinence and rebellion—a boundary that he’d been very, very careful to maintain—mumbled his apologies.
“We’re at war with Wendlyn,” his father went on. “I have enemies all around. Who better to do my work than someone utterly grateful for being granted not only a second chance, but also wealth and the power of my name?” The king smiled when Dorian didn’t reply. Dorian tried not to flinch as his father studied him. “Perrington tells me that you behaved yourself well on this trip.”
“With Perrington as a watchdog, I couldn’t do otherwise.”
“I’ll not have some peasant woman banging on the gate, wailing that you’ve broken her heart.” Dorian’s face colored, but he did not drop his father’s stare. “I’ve toiled too hard and long to establish my empire; you will not complicate it with illegitimate heirs. Marry a proper woman, then dally as you will after you give me a grandson or two. When you are king, you will understand consequences.”
“When I’m king, I won’t declare control over Terrasen through thin claims of inheritance.” Chaol had warned him to watch his mouth when speaking to his father, but when he spoke to him like that, as if he were a pampered idiot . . .
“Even if you offered them self-rule, those rebels would mount your head on a pike before the gates of Orynth.”
“Perhaps alongside all my illegitimate heirs, if I’m so fortunate.”
The king gave him a poisonous smile. “My silver-tongued son.” They watched each other in silence before Dorian spoke again.
“Perhaps you should consider our difficulty in getting past Wendlyn’s naval defenses to be a sign that you should stop playing at being a god.”
“Playing?” The king smiled, his crooked teeth glowing yellow in the firelight. “I am not playing. And this is not a game.” Dorian’s shoulders stiffened. “Though she may look pleasant, she’s still a witch. You are to keep your distance, understood?”
“Who? The assassin?”
“She’s dangerous, boy, even if you’re sponsoring her. She wants one thing and one thing only—don’t think she won’t use you to get it. If you court her, the consequences will not be pleasant. Not from her, and not from me.”
“And if I condescend to associate with her, what would you do, father? Throw me in the mines as well?”
His father was upon him before Dorian could brace himself. The back of the king’s hand connected with Dorian’s cheek, and the prince staggered, but regained his countenance. His face throbbed, stinging so badly he fought to keep his eyes from watering. “Son or no son,” the king snarled, “I am still your king. You will obey me, Dorian Havilliard, or you will pay. I’ll have no more of your questioning.”
Knowing he’d only cause more trouble for himself if he stayed, the Crown Prince of Adarlan bowed silently and left his father, eyes gleaming with barely controlled anger.
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