Celaena walked down a marble hall, her dress flowing behind in a purple and white wave. Chaol strode beside her, a hand on the eagle-shaped pommel of his sword.
“Is there anything interesting down this hall?”
“What else would you care to see? We’ve already seen all three gardens, the ballrooms, the historical rooms, and the nicest views offered from the stone castle. If you refuse to go into the glass castle, there’s nothing else to see.”
She crossed her arms. She’d managed to convince him to give her a tour under the pretense of extreme boredom—when, in fact, she’d used every moment to plot a dozen escape routes from her room. The castle was old, and most of its halls and stairwells went nowhere; escaping would require some thought. But with the competition beginning tomorrow, what else did she have to do? And what better way to prepare for a potential disaster?
“I don’t understand why you refuse to enter the glass addition,” he went on. “There’s no difference between the interiors—you wouldn’t even know that you were inside it unless someone told you or you looked out the window.”
“Only an idiot would walk in a house made of glass.”
“It’s as sturdy as steel and stone.”
“Yes, until someone just a bit too heavy enters and it comes crashing down.”
The thought of standing on floors of glass made her queasy. “Is there no menagerie or library that we could see?” They passed by a set of closed doors. The sounds of lilting speech reached them, along with the gentle strumming of a harp. “What’s in there?”
“The queen’s court.” He grabbed her arm and pulled her down the hall.
“Queen Georgina?” Didn’t he have any idea what information he was giving away? Perhaps he honestly thought she wasn’t a threat. She hid her scowl.
“Yes, Queen Georgina Havilliard.”
“Is the young prince at home?”
“Hollin? He’s at school.”
“And is he as handsome as his older brother?” Celaena smirked as Chaol tensed.
It was well known that the ten-year-old prince was rotten and spoiled, inside and out, and she remembered the scandal that had erupted a few months before her capture. Hollin Havilliard, upon finding his porridge burnt, had beaten one of his servants so badly that there was no possibility of it being concealed. The woman’s family had been paid off, and the young prince shipped to school in the mountains. Of course everyone knew. Queen Georgina had refused to hold court for a month.
“Hollin will grow into his lineage,” Chaol grumbled. There was a bounce to her step as Celaena walked on, the court fading away behind them. They were silent for a few minutes before an explosion sounded nearby, then another.
“What is that awful noise?” Celaena said. The captain led her through a set of glass doors, and he pointed up as they entered into a garden.
“The clock tower,” he said, his bronze eyes shining with amusement, as the clock finished its war cry. She’d never heard bells like that.
From the garden sprouted a tower made of inky black stone. Two gargoyles, wings spread for flight, perched on each of the four clock faces, soundlessly roaring at those beneath. “What a horrible thing,” she whispered. The numbers were like war paint on the white face of the clock, the hands like swords as they slashed across the pearly surface.
“As a child, I wouldn’t go near it,” Chaol admitted.
“You’d see something like this before the Gates of Wyrd—not in a garden. How old is it?”
“The king had it built around Dorian’s birth.”
“This king?” Chaol nodded. “Why would he build such a wretched thing?”
“Come on,” he said, turning as he ignored her question. “Let’s go.”
Celaena examined the clock for a second more. The thick, clawed finger of a gargoyle pointed at her. She could have sworn that its jaws had widened. As she made to follow Chaol, she noticed a tile on the paved pathway. “What’s this?”
He stopped. “What’s what?”
She pointed at the mark engraved on the slate. It was a circle with a vertical line through the middle that extended beyond the circumference. Both ends of the line were hooked, one directing downward, the other up. “What is this mark on the path here?”
He walked around until he stood beside her. “I have no idea.”
Celaena examined the gargoyle again. “He’s pointing at it. What does the symbol mean?”
“It means you’re wasting my time,” he said. “It’s probably some sort of decorative sundial.”
“Are there other marks?”
“If you looked, I’m sure you’d find them.” She allowed herself to be dragged from the garden, away from the shadow of the clock tower and into the marble halls of the castle. Try as she might, and walk as far as they did, she couldn’t shake the feeling that those bulging eyes were still upon her.
They continued past the kitchen quarters, which were a mess of shouting, clouds of flour, and surging fires. Once beyond, they entered a long hallway, empty and silent save for their footsteps. Celaena suddenly halted. “What,” she breathed, “is that?” She pointed at the twenty-foot oak doors, her eyes widening at the dragons that grew out of either side of the stone wall. Four-legged dragons—not vicious, bipedal wyverns like those on the royal seal.
“The library.” The two words were like a shot of lightning.
“The . . .” She looked at the claw-shaped iron handles. “Can we—may we go in?”
The Captain of the Guard opened the doors reluctantly, the strong muscles of his back shifting as he pushed hard against the worn oak. Compared to the sunlit hallway, the interior that stretched beyond them seemed formidably dark, but as she stepped inside, candelabras came into view, along with black-and-white marble floors, large mahogany tables with red velvet chairs, a slumbering fire, mezzanines, bridges, ladders, railings, and then books—books and books and books.
She’d entered a city made entirely of leather and paper. Celaena put a hand against her heart. Escape routes be damned. “I’ve never seen—how many volumes are there?”
Chaol shrugged. “The last time anyone bothered to count, it was a million. But that was two hundred years ago. I’d say maybe more than that, especially given the legends that a second library lies deep beneath, in catacombs and tunnels.”
“Over a million? A million books?” Her heart leapt and danced, and she cracked a smile. “I’d die before I even got through half of that!”
“You like to read?”
She raised an eyebrow. “Don’t you?” Not waiting for an answer, she moved farther into the library, the train of her gown sweeping across the floor. She neared a shelf and looked at the titles. She recognized none of them.
Grinning, she whirled and moved through the main floor, running a hand across the dusty books. “I didn’t know assassins liked to read,” Chaol called. If she were to die now, it would be in complete bliss. “You said you were from Terrasen; did you ever visit the Great Library of Orynth? They say it’s twice the size of this—and that it used to hold all the knowledge of the world.”
She turned from the stack she was currently studying. “Yes,” she admitted. “When I was very young. Though they wouldn’t let me explore—the Master Scholars were too afraid I’d ruin some valuable manuscript.” She hadn’t returned to the Great Library since—and wondered how many of those invaluable works had been ordered destroyed by the King of Adarlan when he outlawed magic. From the way Chaol said “used to” with a tinge of sadness, she assumed much had been lost. Though part of her savored the hope that those Master Scholars had smuggled many of the priceless books to safety—that when the royal family had been slaughtered and the King of Adarlan invaded, those stuffy old men had had the good sense to start hiding two thousand years’ worth of ideas and learning.
A dead, empty space opened inside her. Needing to change the subject, she asked, “Why are none of your folk here?”
“Guards are of no use in a library.” Oh, how wrong he was! Libraries were full of ideas—perhaps the most dangerous and powerful of all weapons.
She said, “I was referring to your noble companions.”
He leaned against a table, a hand still on his sword. At least one of them remembered that they were alone together in the library. “Reading is a bit out of fashion, I’m afraid.”
“Yes, well—more for me to read, then.”
“Read? These belong to the king.”
“It’s a library, isn’t it?”
“It’s the king’s property, and you aren’t of noble blood. You need permission from either him or the prince.”
“I highly doubt either would notice the loss of a few books.”
Chaol sighed. “It’s late. I’m hungry.”
“So?” she said. He growled and practically dragged her from the library.
After a solitary supper, over which she contemplated all of her planned escape routes and how she might make more weapons for herself, Celaena paced through her rooms. Where were the other competitors being kept? Did they have access to books, if they wanted?
Celaena slumped into a chair. She was tired, but the sun had barely set. Instead of reading, she could perhaps use the pianoforte, but . . . well, it had been a while, and she wasn’t sure she could endure the sound of her own stumbling, clumsy playing. She traced a finger over a splotch of fuchsia silk on her dress. All those books, with no one to read them.
An idea flashed, and she jumped to her feet, only to sit at the desk and grab a piece of parchment. If Captain Westfall insisted on protocol, then she’d give it to him in abundance. She dipped the glass pen in a pot of ink and held it over the paper.
How odd it felt to hold a pen! She traced the letters in the air. It was impossible that she’d forgotten how to write. Her fingers moved awkwardly as the pen touched the paper, but she carefully wrote her name, then the alphabet, three times. The letters were uneven, but she could do it. She pulled out another piece of paper and began to write.
It has come to my attention that your library isn’t a library, but rather a personal collection for only you and your esteemed father to enjoy. As many of your million books seem to be present and underused, I must beg you to grant me permission to borrow a few so that they might receive the attention they deserve. Since I am deprived of company and entertainment, this act of kindness is the least someone of your importance could deign to bestow upon a lowly, miserable wretch such as I.
Yours most truly,
Celaena beamed at her note and handed it to the nicest-looking servant she could find, with specific instructions to give it immediately to the Crown Prince. When the woman returned half an hour later with a stack of books piled in her arms, Celaena laughed as she swiped the note that crowned the column of leather.
My Most True Assassin,
Enclosed are seven books from my personal library that I have recently read and enjoyed immensely. You are, of course, free to read as many of the books in the castle library as you wish, but I command you to read these first so that we might discuss them. I promise they are not dull, for I am not one inclined to sit through pages of nonsense and bloated speech, though perhaps you enjoy works and authors who think very highly of themselves.
Celaena laughed again and took the books from the woman’s arms, thanking her for her trouble. She walked into her bedroom, shutting the door with a backward kick, and dropped onto the bed, scattering the books across the crimson surface. She didn’t recognize any of the titles, though one author was familiar. Choosing the book that seemed the most interesting, Celaena flipped onto her back and began to read.
Celaena awoke the next morning to the wretched booming of the clock tower. Half-asleep, she counted the chimes. Noon. She sat up. Where was Chaol? And, more importantly, what about the competition? Wasn’t it supposed to have started today?
She leapt from bed and stalked through her chambers, half expecting to find him sitting in a chair, a hand upon his sword. He wasn’t there. She popped her head into the hallway, but the four guards only reached for their weapons. She paced onto the balcony, the crossbows of five guards beneath clicking into position, and put her hands on her hips as she surveyed the autumn day.
The trees in the garden were gold and brown, half of the leaves already dead on the earth. Yet the day was so warm it could have passed for summer. Celaena took a seat on the rail, and waved at the guards with their crossbows aimed at her. Out across Rifthold, she could make out the sails of ships, and the wagons and people streaming through the streets. The green roofs of the city glowed emerald in the sun.
She looked again at the five guards beneath the balcony. They stared right back at her, and when they slowly lowered their crossbows, she grinned. She could knock them senseless with a few heavy books.
A sound flitted through the garden, and some of the guards glanced toward the source. Three women appeared from around a nearby hedge, clustered in conversation.
Most of the talk Celaena had overheard yesterday was immensely dull, and she didn’t expect much as the women neared. They wore fine dresses, though the one in the middle—the raven-haired one—wore the finest. The red skirts were the size of a tent, and her bodice was so tightly bound that Celaena wondered if her waist were any more than sixteen inches. The other women were blondes dressed in pale blue, their matching gowns suggesting their rank as ladies-in-waiting. Celaena backed away from the ledge as they stopped at the nearby fountain.
From her place at the back of the balcony, Celaena could still see as the woman in red brushed a hand down the front of her skirts. “I should have worn my white dress,” she said loudly enough for everyone in Rifthold to hear. “Dorian likes white.” She adjusted a pleat in her skirt. “But I’ll wager that everyone’s wearing white.”
“Shall we go change, milady?” asked one of the blondes.
“No,” snapped the woman. “This dress is fine. Old and shabby as it is.”
“But—” said the other blonde, then stopped as her mistress’s head whipped around. Celaena approached the rail again and peered over. The dress hardly looked old.
“It won’t take long for Dorian to ask me for a private audience.” Celaena now leaned over the edge of the balcony. The guards watched the three girls, rapt for another reason entirely. “Though I worry how much Perrington’s courting will interfere; but I do adore the man for inviting me to Rifthold. My mother must be writhing in her grave!” She paused, and then said: “I wonder who she is.”
“Your mother, milady?”
“The girl the prince brought into Rifthold. I heard he traveled all over Erilea to find her, and that she rode into the city on the Captain of the Guard’s horse. I’ve heard nothing else about her. Not even her name.” The two women lagged behind their mistress and exchanged exasperated looks that informed the assassin this conversation had been held many times before. “I don’t need to worry,” the woman mused. “The prince’s harlot won’t be well-received.”
The ladies in waiting stopped beneath the balcony, batting their eyelashes at the guards. “I need my pipe,” the woman murmured, rubbing her temples. “I feel a headache coming on.” Celaena’s brows rose. “Regardless,” the woman continued, striding away, “I shall have to watch my back. I might even have to—”
The women screamed, the guards whirled with their crossbows pointed, and Celaena looked skyward as she retreated from the rail and into the shadows of the balcony doorway. The flowerpot had missed. This time.
The woman cursed so colorfully that Celaena clamped a hand over her mouth to keep from laughing. The servants cooed, wiping mud from the woman’s skirts and suede shoes. “Be quiet!” the woman hissed. The guards, wisely, didn’t let their amusement show. “Be quiet and let’s go!”
The women hurried off as the prince’s harlot strode into her chambers and called for her servants to dress her in the finest gown they could find.
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