She’d shut Cain up—in an unmarked grave for all eternity. But for now . . . Now, she’d make Chaol eat his words.
All the weapons were finely made, and glistened in the sunlight. Celaena eliminated her options one by one, seeing each weapon for what sort of damage she might do to the captain’s face.
Her heart beat rapidly as she ran a finger across the blades and handles of each. She found herself torn between the hunting daggers and a lovely rapier with an ornate bell-guard. She could cut out his heart from a safe distance with that.
The sword whined as she drew it from the stand and held it in her hands. It was a good blade—strong, smooth, light. They wouldn’t let her have a butter knife on her table, but they gave her access to this?
Why not wear him down a bit?
Chaol tossed his cape on top of hers, his toned body flexing through the dark threads of his shirt. He drew his sword. “On your guard!” He moved into defensive position, and Celaena looked at him dully.
Who do you think you are? What sort of person says “On your guard”?
“Aren’t you first going to show me the basics?” she said quietly enough for only him to hear, her sword dangling from one hand. She rubbed the hilt, her fingers contracting on the cool surface. “I was in Endovier for a year, you realize. I could have easily forgotten.”
“From the amount of killing that went on in your section of the mines, I highly doubt you’ve forgotten a thing.”
“That was with a pickax,” she said, her smile growing feral. “All I had to do was crack a man’s head open or hurl the ax into his stomach.” Thankfully, none of the other Champions paid them any heed. “If you consider that sort of gracelessness equal to swordsmanship . . . what sort of fighting do you do, Captain Westfall?” She put a spare hand over her heart and closed her eyes for emphasis.
With a growl, the Captain of the Guard lunged.
But she had been waiting for some time now, and her eyes flew open as soon as his boots scraped against the ground. With a turn of her arm she brought the sword into blocking position, her legs bracing for the impact as steel struck steel. The noise was strange, somehow more painful than receiving the blow, but Celaena thought little of it when he charged again and she met his weapon, parrying with ease. Her arms ached as they were shaken from their slumber, but she continued to deflect and parry.
Swordplay was like dancing—certain steps must be followed or else it would fall apart. Once she heard the beat, it all came rushing back. The other competitors faded away into shadows and sunlight.
“Good,” he said through his teeth, blocking her thrust as she forced him to take a defensive stance. Her thighs burned. “Very good,” he breathed. He was pretty good himself—better than good, actually. Not that she’d tell him that.
With a clang, the two swords met, and they pressed each other’s blades. He was stronger, and she grunted at the force required to hold her sword against his. But, strong as he might be, he was not as quick.
She withdrew and feinted, her feet jabbing and flexing on the floor with birdlike grace. Caught off-guard, he only had time to deflect, his parry lost in his size.
She surged forward, her arm coming down again and again, twisting and turning, loving the smooth ache within her shoulder as the blade slammed against his. She was moving fast—fast like a dancer in a temple ritual, fast like a snake in the Red Desert, fast like water down the side of a mountain.
He kept up, and she allowed him to advance before reclaiming the position. He tried to catch her unawares with a blow to the face, but her anger awoke as her elbow snapped up and deflected, slamming into his fist and forcing it down.
“Something to remember when fighting me, Sardothien,” he panted. The sun caught in his golden-brown eyes.
“Hmm?” she grunted, lunging to deflect his newest attack.
“I don’t lose.” He grinned at her, and before she could comprehend the words, something cut into her feet and—
She had the sickening feeling of falling. She gasped as her spine collided with marble, the rapier flying from her hand. Chaol pointed his blade at her heart. “I win,” he breathed.
She pushed herself onto her elbows. “You had to resort to tripping me. That’s hardly winning at all.”
“I’m not the one with the sword at my heart.”
The sound of clashing weapons and labored breathing filled the air. She flicked her eyes to the other Champions, who were all in the middle of sparring. All, of course, except Cain. He grinned broadly at her, and Celaena bared her teeth.
“You have the skills,” Chaol said, “but some of your moves are still undisciplined.”
She broke her stare with Cain and glared up into Chaol’s face. “That’s never stopped me from killing before,” she spat.
Chaol chuckled at her agitation and pointed his sword at the rack, allowing her to get to her feet. “Pick another—something different. Make it interesting, too. Something that will make me sweat, please.”
“You’ll be sweating when I skin you alive and squish your eyeballs beneath my feet,” she muttered, picking up the rapier.
“That’s the spirit.”
She practically threw the rapier into place, and drew the hunting knives without hesitation.
My dear old friends.
A wicked smile spread across her face.
Just as Celaena was about to launch herself and her knives at the captain, someone stomped a spear on the ground and called the room to attention. She faced the voice and found a stocky, balding man standing beneath the mezzanine.
“Your attention now,” the man repeated. Celaena looked to Chaol, who nodded, taking the knives from her as they joined the twenty-three other competitors encircling the man. “I’m Theodus Brullo, Weapons Master and judge of this competition. Of course, our king’s the final judge of you sorry lot, but I’ll be the one determining every day if you’re fit to be his Champion.”
He patted his sword hilt, and Celaena had to admire the beautiful woven gold of the pommel. “I’ve been Weapons Master here for thirty years, and lived in this castle for twenty-five more than that. I’ve trained many a lord and knight—and many a would-be Champion of Adarlan. It will be very hard to impress me.”
Beside Celaena, Chaol stood with his shoulders thrown back. It occurred to her that Brullo might have trained the captain. Given how easily Chaol had kept up with her, if Brullo had trained him, then the Weapons Master must live up to his title. She knew better than anyone not to underestimate opponents based on their appearance.
“The king’s already told you all there is to know about this competition,” Brullo said, holding his hands behind his back. “But I figured you lot are itching to know more about each other.” He pointed a stubby finger at Cain. “You. What’s your name, occupation, and where do you hail from? And be honest about it—I know none of you are bakers and candlestick makers.”
Cain’s insufferable grin returned. “Cain, soldier in the king’s army. I hail from the White Fang Mountains.” Of course he did. She’d heard tales of the brutality of the mountain folk from that region, and seen a few of them up close, seen the fierceness in their eyes. Many of them had rebelled against Adarlan—and most wound up dead. What would his fellow mountain-dwellers say if they could see him now? She gritted her teeth; what would the people of Terrasen say if they could see her now?
Brullo, however, either didn’t know or didn’t care, and didn’t even give a nod before he pointed to the man to Cain’s right. Celaena immediately liked him. “And you?”
A slender, tall man with thinning blond hair surveyed the circle and sneered. “Xavier Forul. Master Thief of Melisande.” Master Thief! That man? Of course, she realized, his reed-thinness probably aided in slipping into houses. Maybe it wasn’t a bluff.
One by one, the twenty-one other competitors introduced themselves. There were six more seasoned soldiers—all of them thrown out of the army for questionable behavior, which must have been truly questionable, given that Adarlan’s army was notorious for ruthlessness. Then there were the three other thieves—including the dark-haired, gray-eyed Nox Owen, whom she’d actually heard of in passing, and who’d been giving her such charming smiles all morning. The three mercenaries looked ready to boil someone alive, and then there were the two shackled murderers.
As his name suggested, Bill Chastain, the Eye Eater, ate the eyes of his victims. He looked surprisingly plain, with mousy brown hair, tan skin, and average height, though Celaena had trouble not staring at his scar-flecked mouth. The other murderer was Ned Clement, who’d gone for three years under the name Scythe, for the weapon he’d used to torture and hack apart temple priestesses. It was a wonder they hadn’t executed either man, though from their tanned skin, she guessed they’d spent the years since their captures toiling under the sun in Calaculla, the southern sister labor camp to Endovier.
Next came two scarred, silent men who seemed to be cronies of some far-off warlord, and then the five assassins.
She immediately forgot the names of the first four: a gangly, haughty boy; a hulking brute; a disdainful runt of a man; and a sniveling, hawk-nosed prat who claimed he had an affinity for knives. They weren’t even in the Assassins Guild—not that Arobynn Hamel would ever allow them in. Membership required years of training and a more-than-impressive track record. While these four might be skilled, they lacked the refinement that Arobynn favored in his followers. She’d have to keep an eye on them, but at least they weren’t the Silent Assassins from the windswept dunes of the Red Desert. Those would be worthy of her—they’d make her sweat a bit. She’d spent a month training with them one burning summer, and her muscles still ached at the memory of their grueling exercises.
The last assassin, who called himself Grave, made her pause. He was slight and short, with the kind of wicked face that made people quickly look away. He’d entered the room wearing shackles, and only had them removed when his guards—all five of them—gave him a stern warning. Even now, they stood nearby, watching him relentlessly. As he introduced himself, Grave flashed an oily smile, revealing his brown teeth. Her disgust didn’t improve when Grave ran an eye over her body. An assassin like that never stopped at just killing. Not if his victim was female. She willed herself to hold his hungry gaze.
“And you?” Brullo said, cutting into her thoughts.
“Lillian Gordaina,” she said, holding her chin high. “Jewel thief from Bellhaven.”
Some of the men sniggered, and she clenched her teeth. They’d stop their laughing if they knew her true name, if they knew that this “jewel thief” could skin them alive without a knife.
“Fine,” Brullo said, waving a hand. “You all have five minutes to put away your weapons and catch your breath. Then we’re on a mandatory run to see how fit you are. Those of you who can’t run the distance go home, or back to whatever prison your sponsors found you rotting in. Your first Test is in five days; consider us merciful it’s not sooner.”
With that, everyone scattered, the Champions murmuring to their trainers about whatever competitor they deemed the biggest threat. Cain or Grave, most likely. Certainly not a jewel thief from Bellhaven. Chaol remained beside her, watching the Champions stride off. She hadn’t spent eight years building a reputation and a year laboring in Endovier to be disregarded like this. “If I have to call myself a jewel thief again—”
Chaol raised his brows. “You’ll do what, exactly?”
“Do you know how insulting it is to pretend to be some nobody thief from a small city in Fenharrow?”
He stared her down, quiet for a moment. “Are you that arrogant?” She bristled, but he went on. “It was foolish to spar with you just now. I’ll admit that I hadn’t realized you’d be that good. Thankfully, no one noticed. And do you want to know why, Lillian?” He took a step closer, his voice lowering. “Because you’re some pretty little girl. Because you’re a nobody jewel thief from a small city in Fenharrow. Look around.” He half-turned to the other Champions. “Is anyone staring at you? Are any of them sizing you up? No. Because you’re not real competition. Because you don’t stand between them and whatever freedom or wealth they’re looking for.”