Nothung was its name.
“You have all been retrieved from across Erilea for the purpose of serving your country.”
It was easy enough to tell the nobility from her competitors. Old and wrinkled, each nobleman wore fine clothes and decorative swords. Beside each of them stood a man—some tall and slender, some burly, some average, all of them surrounded by at least three vigilant guards.
Twenty-three men stood between her and freedom. Most of them had enough bulk to warrant a double take, but when she scanned their faces—often scarred, pockmarked, or just plain hideous—there was no spark behind their eyes, no shining kernel of cleverness. They’d been picked for muscles, not brains. Three of them were actually in chains. Were they that dangerous?
A few of them met her gaze, and she stared right back, wondering if they thought she was a competitor or just a court lady. Most of the competitors’ attention jumped right over her. She gritted her teeth. The dress had been a mistake. Why had Chaol not told her about the meeting yesterday?
A moderately handsome black-haired young man stared at her, though, and she willed her face into neutrality while his gray eyes took her in. He was tall and lean, but not gangly, and he inclined his head to her. She studied him for a moment longer, from the way he balanced his weight to his left, to what feature he first noticed when his eyes moved on and he examined the other competitors.
One was a gargantuan man standing beside Duke Perrington, who seemed crafted of muscle and steel—and took pains to display it with his sleeveless armor. The man’s arms looked capable of crushing a horse’s skull. It wasn’t that he was ugly—in fact, his tanned face was rather pleasant, but there was something nasty about his demeanor, about his obsidian eyes as they shifted and met her own. His large, white teeth gleamed.
The king spoke. “You are each competing for the title of my Champion—my right-hand sword in a world brimming with enemies.”
A flicker of shame sparked within her. What was “Champion” but a dressed-up name for murderer? Could she actually stomach working for him? She swallowed. She had to. She had no other choice.
“Over the next thirteen weeks, you shall each dwell and compete in my home. You will train every day, and be tested once a week—a test during which one of you will be eliminated.” Celaena did the calculations. There were twenty-four of them—and only thirteen weeks. As if sensing her question, the king said, “These tests will not be easy, nor will your training. Some of you might die in the process. We will add additional elimination tests as we see fit. And if you fall behind, if you fail, if you displease me, you will be packed off to whatever dark hole you came from.
“The week after Yulemas, the four remaining Champions will face each other in a duel to win the title. Until then, while my court is aware that some sort of contest is being held among my closest friends and advisors”—he waved a huge, scarred hand to encompass the room—“you will keep your business private. Any wrongdoing on your part, and I’ll stake you to the front gates.”
By accident, her gaze slipped onto the king’s face, and she found his dark eyes staring into hers. The king smirked. Her heart threw itself backward and clung to the bars of her ribcage.
He should be hanging from the gallows. He had killed many more than she—people undeserving and defenseless. He’d destroyed cultures, destroyed invaluable knowledge, destroyed so much of what had once been bright and good. His people should revolt. Erilea should revolt—the way those few rebels had dared to do. Celaena struggled to maintain his gaze. She couldn’t retreat.
“Is that understood?” the king asked, still staring at her.
Her head was heavy as she nodded. She had only until Yulemas to beat them all. One test a week—perhaps more.
“Speak!” the king bellowed to the room, and she tried not to flinch. “Are you not grateful for this opportunity? Do you not wish to give me your thanks and allegiance?”
She bowed her head and stared at his feet. “Thank you, Your Majesty. I am most appreciative,” she murmured, the sound blending in with the words of the other Champions.
The king put a hand upon Nothung’s hilt. “This should be an interesting thirteen weeks.” She could feel his attention still upon her face, and she ground her teeth. “Prove trustworthy, become my Champion, and wealth and glory will be yours eternal.”
Only thirteen weeks to win her freedom.
“I am to depart next week for my own purposes. I will not return until Yulemas. But don’t think I won’t be able to give the command to execute any of you, should I hear word of any trouble, or accidents.” The Champions nodded once more.
“If we’re finished, I’m afraid I must take my leave,” interrupted Dorian from beside her, and her head snapped up at the sound of his voice—and his impertinence in interrupting his father. He bowed to his father, and nodded to the mute councilors. The king waved his son away, not even bothering to look at him. Dorian winked at Chaol before walking from the room.
“If there are no questions,” the king said to the Champions and their sponsors in a tone that suggested that asking questions would only guarantee a trip to the gallows, “then you have my leave. Do not forget that you are here to honor me—and my empire. Be gone, all of you.”
Celaena and Chaol didn’t speak as they strode down the hallway, quickly moving from the throng of competitors and their sponsors, who lingered to speak with one another—and size each other up. With every step away from the king, steadying warmth returned. It wasn’t until they rounded a corner that Chaol let out a deep breath and removed his hand from her back.
“Well, you managed to keep your mouth shut—for once,” he said.
“But how convincing she was in her nodding and bowing!” said a cheerful voice. It was Dorian, leaning against a wall.
“What are you doing?” Chaol asked.
Dorian pushed off the wall. “Why, waiting for you, of course.”
“We’re to dine this evening,” Chaol said.
“I was speaking to my Champion,” Dorian said with a roguish wink. Remembering how he’d smiled at the court lady the day of their arrival, she kept her gaze ahead. The Crown Prince took up a place safely beside Chaol as they walked on. “I apologize for my father’s gruffness.” She stared down the hall, at the servants who bowed to Dorian. He ignored them.
“By the Wyrd!” Dorian laughed. “He’s trained you well already!” He nudged Chaol with his elbow. “From the way you two are blatantly ignoring me, I’d say she could pass for your sister! Though you don’t really look like each other—it would be hard to pass off someone so pretty as your sister.”
Celaena was unable to keep a hint of a smile from her lips. Both she and the prince had grown up under strict, unforgiving fathers—well, father figure in her case. Arobynn had never replaced the father she’d lost, nor had he ever tried to. But at least Arobynn had an excuse for being equal parts tyrannical and doting. Why had the King of Adarlan let his son become anything but an identical copy of himself?
“There!” Dorian said. “A reaction—thank the gods I’ve amused her.” He glanced behind them, making sure there was no one there, before his voice quieted. “I don’t think Chaol told you our plan before the meeting—risky, on all of our parts.”
“What plan?” She traced a finger along the beading on her skirts, watching it shimmer in the afternoon light.
“For your identity. Which you should keep quiet about; your competitors might know a thing or two about Adarlan’s Assassin and use it against you.”
Fair enough, even if it had taken them weeks to bother to fill her in. “And who, exactly, am I to be, if not a ruthless killer?”
“To everyone in this castle,” Dorian said, “your name is Lillian Gordaina. Your mother is dead and your father is a wealthy merchant from Bellhaven. You are the sole heir to his fortune. However, you have a dark secret: you spend your nights as a jewel thief. I met you this summer after you tried to rob me while I was vacationing in Bellhaven, and I saw your potential then. But your father discovered your nightly fun, and removed you from the lure of the city to a town near Endovier. When my father decided to have this competition, I journeyed to find you, and brought you here as my Champion. You can fill in the gaps yourself.”
She raised her brows. “Really? A jewel thief?”
Chaol snorted, but Dorian went on. “It’s rather charming, don’t you think?” When she didn’t respond, the prince asked, “Do you find my home to your liking?”
“It’s very fine indeed,” she said dully.
“ ‘Very fine indeed’? Maybe I should move my Champion to even larger chambers.”
“If it pleases you.”
Dorian chuckled. “I’m glad to find that seeing your competition hasn’t damaged that swagger of yours. What’d you make of Cain?”
She knew whom he meant. “Perhaps you should start feeding me whatever Perrington is giving him.” When Dorian continued staring at her, she rolled her eyes. “Men of his size usually aren’t very fast, or very nimble. He could knock me out in one punch, probably, but he’d have to be swift enough to catch me.” She gave Chaol a quick glance, daring him to challenge her claim, but Dorian answered.
“Good. I thought so. And what of the others? Any potential rivals? Some of the Champions have rather gruesome reputations.”
“Everyone else looks pathetic,” she lied.
The prince’s smile grew. “I bet they won’t expect to be trounced by a beautiful lady.”
This was all a game to him, wasn’t it? Before Celaena could ask, someone curtsied in the middle of their path. “Your Highness! What a surprise!” The voice was high, but smooth and calculated. It was the woman from the garden. She’d changed—she now wore a gown of white and gold that, despite herself, Celaena greatly admired. She was unfairly stunning.
And Celaena was willing to bet a fortune that this was anything but a surprise—the woman had probably been waiting here for a while.
“Lady Kaltain,” Dorian said tersely, his body tensing.
“I’ve just come from Her Majesty’s side,” said Kaltain, putting her back to Celaena. The assassin might have bothered to care about the slight if she had any interest in courtiers. “Her Majesty wishes to see Your Highness. Of course, I informed Her Majesty that Your Highness was in a meeting and could not be—”
“Lady Kaltain,” interrupted Dorian, “I’m afraid you haven’t been introduced to my friend.” Celaena could have sworn the young woman bristled. “Allow me to present the Lady Lillian Gordaina. Lady Lillian, meet Lady Kaltain Rompier.”
Celaena curtsied, restraining the urge to keep walking; if she had to deal with too much courtly nonsense, she might be better off back in Endovier. Kaltain bowed, the gold streaks in her dress glistening in the sunlight.
“Lady Lillian is from Bellhaven—she arrived just yesterday.”
The woman studied Celaena from beneath dark, shaped eyebrows. “And how long will you be staying with us?”
“Only a few years,” Dorian said with a sigh.
“ ‘Only’! Why, Your Highness! How droll! That is a very long stretch of time!” Celaena studied Kaltain’s narrow, narrow waist. Was it really that small? Or could she barely breathe in her corset?
She caught a glance exchanged between the two men—exasperation, annoyance, condescension. “The Lady Lillian and Captain Westfall are very close companions,” Dorian said dramatically. To Celaena’s delight, Chaol blushed. “It will feel short for them, I assure you.”
“And for you, Your Highness?” Kaltain said coyly. A concealed edge lingered beneath her voice.