Chaol’s breath caught. He remembered her screaming at the duel with Cain, when Cain had taunted her about the brutal murder of her parents—when she’d awoken covered in their blood. She’d never told him anything else, and he hadn’t dared ask. He knew she’d been young, but he hadn’t realized she’d been only eight. Eight.
Ten years ago, Terrasen had been in upheaval, and anyone who had defied Adarlan’s invading forces had been slaughtered. Entire families had been dragged out of their homes and murdered. His stomach clenched. What horrors had she witnessed that day?
Chaol ran a hand over his face. “She told you about her parents in her note?” Maybe it held a shred more information—anything for him to better understand what sort of woman he’d be facing when she returned, what sort of memories he’d have to contend with.
“No,” Nehemia said. “She didn’t tell me. But I know.” She watched him with a calculated stillness, a switch to the defensive that he recognized. What sort of secrets was she protecting for her friend? And what sort of secrets did Nehemia herself keep that had caused the king to have her watched? The fact that he didn’t know anything about it, about how much the king knew, enraged him to no end. And then there was the other question: who had threatened the princess’s life? He’d ordered more guards to look after her, but so far, there had been no sign of anyone wanting to harm her.
“How do you know about her parents?” he asked.
“Some things you hear with your ears. Others, you hear with your heart.” He looked away from the intensity in her eyes.
“When is she coming back?”
Nehemia returned to the book in front of her. It looked like it was filled with strange symbols; vaguely familiar markings that tickled at his memory. “She said she won’t be back until after nightfall. If I were to guess, I’d say she didn’t want to spend one moment of daylight in this city—especially in this castle.”
In the home of the man whose soldiers had probably butchered her family.
Chaol took the morning training run alone. He ran through the mist-shrouded game park until his very bones were exhausted.
In the misty foothills above Rifthold, Celaena strode between the trees of the small forest, barely more than a sliver of darkness winding through the woods. She had been walking since before dawn, letting Fleetfoot follow as she would. Today, even the forest seemed silent.
Good. Today was not a day for the sounds of life. Today was for the hollow wind rustling branches, for the rushing of a half-frozen river, for the crunch of snow under her boots.
On this day last year, she’d known what she had to do—had seen every step with such brutal clarity that it had been easy when the time came. She’d once told Dorian and Chaol that she’d snapped that day in the Salt Mines of Endovier, but it was a lie. Snapped implied too human a feeling; nothing like the cold, hopeless rage that had taken hold and shut everything down when she’d awoken from the dream of the stag and the ravine.
She found a large boulder nestled between the bumps and hollows and sank down on its smooth, ice-cold top, Fleetfoot soon sitting beside her. Wrapping her arms around the dog, Celaena looked out into the still forest and remembered the day she’d unleashed herself upon Endovier.
Celaena panted through her bared teeth as she yanked the pickax out of the overseer’s stomach. The man gurgled blood, clutching at his gut as he looked to the slaves in supplication. But one glance from Celaena, one flash of eyes that showed she had gone beyond the edge, kept the slaves at bay.
She merely smiled down at the overseer as she swung the ax into his face. His blood sprayed her legs.
The slaves still stayed far away when she brought down the ax upon the shackles that bound her ankles to the rest of them. She didn’t offer to free them, and they didn’t ask; they knew how useless it would be.
The woman at the end of the chain gang was unconscious. Her back poured blood, split open by the iron-tipped whip of the dead overseer. She would die by tomorrow if her wounds were not treated. Even if they were, she’d probably die from infection. Endovier amused itself like that.
Celaena turned from the woman. She had work to do, and four overseers had to pay a debt before she was done.
She stalked from the mine shaft, pickax dangling from her hand. The two guards at the end of the tunnel were dead before they realized what was happening. Blood soaked her clothes and her bare arms, and Celaena wiped it from her face as she stormed down to the chamber where she knew the four overseers worked.
She had marked their faces the day they’d dragged that young Eyllwe woman behind the building, marked every detail about them as they used her, then slit her throat from ear to ear.
Celaena could have taken the swords from the fallen guards, but for these four men, it had to be the ax. She wanted them to know what Endovier felt like.
She reached the entrance to their section of the mines. The first two overseers died when she heaved the ax into their necks, slashing back and forth between them. Their slaves screamed, backing against the walls as she raged past them.
When she reached the other two overseers, she let them see her, let them try to draw their blades. She knew it wasn’t the weapon in her hands that made them stupid with panic, but rather her eyes—eyes that told them they had been tricked these past few months, that cutting her hair and whipping her hadn’t been enough, that she had been baiting them into forgetting that Adarlan’s Assassin was in their midst.
But she had not forgotten a second of pain, nor what she had seen them do to the others—to that young woman from Eyllwe, who had begged to gods who did not save her.
The men died too quickly, but Celaena had one more task to complete before she would meet her end. She prowled back up the main tunnel that led out of the mines. Guards foolishly came rushing out of tunnel mouths to meet her.
She surged upward, hacking and swinging. Two more guards went down, and she took up their swords, leaving the ax behind. The slaves didn’t cheer as their oppressors fell; they just watched in silence, understanding. This was not a fight for escape.
The light of the surface made her blink, but she was ready. Her eyes having to adjust to the sun would be her greatest weakness. That was why she had waited until the softer light of afternoon. Twilight would have been better, but that time of day was too heavily guarded, and there were too many slaves about then that could be caught in the crossfire. This last hour of full daylight, when the warm sun lulled many to sleep, was when the sentries went lax on watch before the evening inspection.
The three sentries at the entrance to the mines didn’t know what was happening below. Everyone was always screaming in Endovier. Everyone sounded the same when they died. And the three sentries screamed just like the others.
And then she was running, sprinting for the death that beckoned to her, making for the towering stone wall at the other end of the compound.
Arrows whizzed past, and she zigzagged. They wouldn’t kill her, by order of the king. An arrow through the shoulder or leg, maybe. But she’d make them reconsider their orders once the carnage was too massive to ignore.
Other sentries came rushing from everywhere, and her blades were a song of steel fury as she cut through them. Silence settled over Endovier.
She took a gash in her leg—deep, but not deep enough to cut the tendon. They still wanted her able to work. But she wouldn’t work—not again, not for them. When the body count was high enough, they’d have no choice but to put that arrow through her throat.
But then she neared the gate, and the arrows stopped.
She started laughing when she found herself surrounded by forty guards, and laughed even more when they called for irons.
She was laughing when she lashed out one last time—one final attempt to touch the wall. Four more went down in her wake.
She was still laughing when the world went black and her fingers hit the rocky ground—barely an inch away from the wall.
Chaol stood from his seat at her foyer table as the door quietly opened. The outside hall was dark, the lights burned out; most of the castle asleep and tucked into their beds. He’d heard the clock chime midnight some time ago, but he knew it wasn’t exhaustion weighing down Celaena’s shoulders when she slipped into her rooms. Her eyes were purple beneath, her face wan, lips colorless.
Fleetfoot rushed to him, tail wagging, and licked him a few times on the hand before she trotted into the bedroom, leaving them alone.
Celaena glanced once at him, her turquoise-and-gold eyes weary and haunted, and began unfastening her cloak as she walked past him into the bedroom.
Wordlessly, he followed her, if only because she hadn’t had a hint of warning or reproach in her expression—rather a bleakness that suggested she wouldn’t have cared if she’d found the King of Adarlan himself in her rooms.
She removed her coat and then her boots, leaving them wherever she happened to discard them. He looked away as she unbuttoned her tunic and walked into the dressing room. A moment later, she walked back out, wearing a nightgown that was far more modest than her usual lacy attire. Fleetfoot had already hopped into bed, sprawling against the pillows.
Chaol swallowed hard. He should have given her privacy instead of waiting here. If she’d wanted him to be here, she would have written him a note.
Celaena stopped before the dim fireplace and used the poker to stir the coals before tossing another two logs on. She stared down at the flames. Her back was still to him when she spoke.
“If you’re trying to figure out what to say to me, don’t bother. There’s nothing that can be said, or done.”
“Then let me keep you company.” If she realized how much he knew, she didn’t care to ask how.
“I don’t want company.”
“Want and need are different things.” Nehemia, probably, should have been here—another child of a conquered kingdom. But he didn’t want Nehemia to be the one she turned to. And despite his loyalty to the king, he couldn’t turn away from her—not today.
“So you’re just going to stay here all night?” She flicked her eyes to the couch between them.
“I’ve slept in worse places.”
“I think my experience with ‘worse places’ is a lot more horrible than yours.” Again, that twisting in his gut. But then she looked through the open bedroom door to the foyer table, and her brows rose. “Is that … chocolate cake?”
“I thought you might need some.”
“Need, not want?”
A ghost of a smile was on her lips, and he almost sagged in relief as he said, “For you, I’d say that chocolate cake is most definitely a need.”
She crossed from the fireplace to where he stood, stopping a hand’s breadth away and staring up at him. Some of the color had returned to her face.
He should step back, put more distance between them. But instead, he found himself reaching for her, a hand slipping around her waist and the other twining itself through her hair as he held her tightly to him. His heart thundered through him so hard he knew she could feel it. After a second, her arms came up around him, her fingers digging into his back in a way that made him realize how close they stood.
He shoved that feeling down, even as the silken texture of her hair against his fingers made him want to bury his face in it, and the smell of her, laced with mist and night, had him grazing his nose against her neck. There were other kinds of comfort that he could give her than mere words, and if she needed that kind of distraction … He shoved down that thought, too, swallowing it until he nearly choked on it.
Her fingers were moving down his back, still digging into his muscles with a fierce kind of possession. If she kept touching him like that, his control was going to slip completely.
And then she pulled back, just far enough to look up at him again, still so close their breath mingled. He found himself gauging the distance between their lips, his eyes flicking between her mouth and her eyes, the hand he had entwined in her hair stilling.
Desire roared through him, burning down every defense he’d put up, erasing every line he’d convinced himself he had to maintain.
And then she said, so quietly it was hardly more than a murmur, “I can’t tell if I should be ashamed of wanting to hold you on this day, or grateful that, despite what happened before now, it somehow brought me to you.”
He was so startled by the words that he let go, let go and stepped back. He had his obstacles to overcome, but so did she—perhaps more obstacles than he’d even realized.
He had no response to what she’d said. But she didn’t give him time to think of the right words before she walked to the chocolate cake in the foyer, plunked down in the chair, and dug in.
CLICK HERE TO READ EPISODE 22