“Exactly! It’s insulting!”
“It’s smart, that’s what it is. And you’re going to keep a low profile throughout this entire competition. You’re not going to excel, and you’re not going to trounce those thieves and soldiers and unknown assassins. You’re going to stay solidly in the middle, where no one will look your way, because you’re not a threat, because they’ll think that you’ll be eliminated sooner or later, and they should focus their attention on getting rid of bigger, stronger, faster Champions like Cain.
“But you’re going to outlast them,” Chaol continued. “And when they wake up on the morning of the final duel and find that you are their opponent, and that you have beaten them, the look on their faces will make all of the insults and lack of attention worthwhile.” He extended his hand to lead her outside. “So, what do you have to say about that, Lillian Gordaina?”
“I can look out for myself,” she said lightly, taking his hand. “But I have to say that you’re rather brilliant, Captain. So brilliant, actually, that I might give you one of the jewels I plan to steal from the queen tonight.”
Chaol chuckled, and they strode outside to where the running contest awaited.
Her lungs burned and her legs were leaden, but she kept running, kept her position in the middle of the pack of Champions. Brullo, Chaol, and the other trainers—along with three dozen armed guards—followed them around the game park on horseback. Some of the Champions, Grave, Ned, and Bill included, had been given long manacles. She supposed it was a privilege that Chaol hadn’t locked her up, too. But to her surprise, Cain led the pack, and was nearly ten yards in front of the rest of them. How could he possibly be that fast?
The sound of crunching leaves and labored breathing filled the warm autumn air, and Celaena kept her gaze on the damp and gleaming dark hair of the thief in front of her. One step after another, one breath in, one breath out. Breathe—she had to remember to keep breathing.
Ahead, Cain turned a corner, heading north—back toward the castle. Like a flock of birds, they followed him. One step after another, never slowing down. Let them all watch Cain, let them plot against him. She didn’t need to win the race to prove she was better—she was better without any kind of validation that the king could give her! She missed a breath, and her knees wobbled, but she kept upright. The run would be over soon. Soon.
She hadn’t even dared to look behind her to see if any had fallen. She could feel Chaol’s eyes on her, though, reminding her to keep in the middle. At least he had that much faith in her.
The trees parted, revealing the field that lay between the game park and the stables. The end of the path. Her head spun, and she would have cursed at the stitch that lanced through her side had she had any breath to do so. She had to stay in the middle. Stay in the middle.
Cain cleared the trees and raised his arms above his head in victory. He ran a few more feet, slowing his pace to cool down, and his trainer cheered for him. Celaena’s only response was to keep her feet moving. Only a few yards left. The light of the open field grew brighter and brighter as it approached. Stars flashed before her eyes, swarming in her vision. She had to stay in the middle. Years of training with Arobynn Hamel had taught her the dangers of giving up too easily.
Then, she was through the trees, and the open field surrounded her in an explosion of space and grass and blue sky. The men in front of her slowed to a stop. It was all she could do to keep from sinking to her knees, but she made her legs slow, slow, slow, made her feet walk, made herself take breath after breath as the stars continued bursting before her eyes.
“Good,” Brullo said, reining his horse and surveying whoever had first returned. “Get water. We’ve got more training after this.”
Through the spots in her vision, she saw Chaol stop his horse. Her feet moved of their own accord toward him, then past, back to the woods. “Where are you going?”
“I dropped my ring back there,” she lied, doing her best to look scatterbrained. “Just give me a moment to find it.” Without waiting for his approval, she entered the trees to the sneers and snickers of the Champions who had overheard. From the approaching crashing noises, she knew another Champion was on his way out. She stepped into the cover of the bushes, stumbling as the world became dark and light and tilted. She had barely sunk to her knees when she vomited.
She heaved and heaved until she had nothing left inside. The straggling Champion passed by. On trembling limbs, she grappled onto a nearby tree and hauled herself upright again. She found Captain Westfall standing across the path, watching her with pursed lips.
She wiped her mouth on the back of her wrist and said nothing to him as she exited the woods.
It was lunchtime when Brullo released them for the day, and to say that Celaena was hungry would be a severe understatement. She was halfway through her meal, shoveling meat and bread down her throat, when the dining room door opened. “What are you doing here?” she said through a mouthful.
“What?” said the Captain of the Guard, taking a seat at the table. He’d changed his clothes and taken a bath. He pulled a platter of salmon toward him and piled it on his plate. Celaena made a disgusted face, her nose crinkling. “You don’t care for salmon?”
“I hate fish. I’d rather die than eat it.”
“That’s surprising,” he said, taking a bite.
“Because you smell like one.”
She opened her mouth to expose the ball of bread and beef that she was chewing. He shook his head. “You might fight well, but your manners are a disgrace.”
She waited for him to mention her earlier vomiting, but he didn’t continue. “I can act and talk like a lady, if it pleases me.”
“Then I suggest that you begin to do so.” After a pause, he asked, “How are you enjoying your temporary freedom?”
“Is that a snide remark or an honest question?”
He took a bite of fish. “Whichever you like.”
The window revealed the afternoon sky, slightly pale, but still lovely. “I’m enjoying it, for the most part. Especially now that I have books to read whenever you lock me in here. I don’t suppose you’d understand.”
“On the contrary. I might not have as much time to read as you and Dorian do, but that doesn’t mean I love books any less.”
She bit into an apple. It was tart, with a sweet, honey-like aftertaste. “Oh? And what books do you love?” He named a few, and she blinked. “Well, those are good choices—for the most part. What others?” she asked, and somehow, an hour flew by, carrying them on the wings of conversation. Suddenly, the clock chimed one, and he rose.
“The afternoon is yours to spend in any way that you like.”
“Where are you going?”
“To rest my limbs and my lungs.”
“Yes, well, hopefully you’ll read something of quality before I see you again.”
He sniffed the air as he walked out of her room. “Hopefully you’ll take a bath before I see you again.”
Sighing, Celaena called to her servants to draw her bath. An afternoon of reading on the balcony beckoned.
The following dawn, Celaena’s bedroom door opened, and a familiar stalking gait echoed through the room. Chaol Westfall stopped short when he found the assassin dangling from the beam of the bedroom doorway, repeatedly hoisting herself up to touch her chin to the wooden bar. Sweat soaked her undershirt and ran in rivulets down her pale skin. She’d been exercising for an hour already. Her arms quivered as she lifted herself again.
Though she might pretend to be in the middle of the pack, there was no reason to train like it. Even if every repetition made her body scream for her to stop. She wasn’t that out of shape—after all, her pickax in the mines had been heavy. And it definitely had nothing to do with her fellow competitors walloping her at the race yesterday.
She already had an edge on them. She just needed it to be a bit sharper.
She didn’t pause her exercising as she smiled at him, panting through her clenched teeth. To her surprise, he smiled back.
By that afternoon, a vicious rainstorm arrived, and Chaol permitted Celaena to walk around the castle with him after she’d finished training with the other Champions for the day. Though he spoke little, she was glad to be out of her rooms, and dressed in one of her new gowns—a lovely lilac silk dress with pale pink lace accents and pearl beading. But then they rounded a corner and nearly collided with Kaltain Rompier. The assassin would have grimaced, but she forgot all about Kaltain as her eyes fell upon her companion. It was an Eyllwe woman.
She was stunning, long and lean, each of her features perfectly formed and smooth. Her loose white dress contrasted with her creamy brown skin, and a three-plated gold torque covered much of her chest and neck. Bracelets of ivory and gold glimmered around her wrists, and her feet were sandaled beneath matching anklets. A thin circlet comprising dangling gold and jewels crowned her head. She had two male guards with her, armed to the teeth with an assortment of curved Eyllwe daggers and swords, both of them studying Chaol and Celaena closely—weighing the threat.
The Eyllwe girl was a princess.
“Captain Westfall!” Kaltain said, and curtsied. Beside her, a short man dressed in the red-and-black garb of a councilman bowed to the pair.
The Eyllwe princess stood perfectly still, her brown eyes wary as she took in Celaena and her companion. Celaena offered her a slight smile, and the princess stepped closer, her guards tensing slightly. She moved with an easy grace.
Kaltain gestured to the girl, poorly hidden distaste written across her beautiful face. “This is Her Royal Highness the Princess Nehemia Ytger of Eyllwe.”
Chaol bowed low. The princess nodded, barely a dip of her chin. Celaena knew the name—she had often heard the Eyllwe slaves in Endovier boast of Nehemia’s beauty and bravery. Nehemia, the Light of Eyllwe, who would save them from their plight. Nehemia, who might someday pose a threat to the King of Adarlan’s rule over her home country when she ascended to the throne. Nehemia, they whispered, who smuggled information and supplies to the rebel groups hiding in Eyllwe. But what was she doing here?
“And the Lady Lillian,” Kaltain added briskly.
Celaena dropped into the lowest curtsy she could give without falling and said in Eyllwe, “Welcome to Rifthold, Your Highness.”
Princess Nehemia smiled slowly, and the others gaped. The councilman beamed, wiping the sweat from his brow. Why hadn’t they sent Nehemia with the Crown Prince, or even Perrington? Why was the princess herded around by Kaltain Rompier?
“Thank you,” the princess replied, her voice low.
“I imagine you’ve had a long journey,” Celaena continued in Eyllwe. “Have you arrived today, Your Highness?”
Nehemia’s guards exchanged glances, and Nehemia’s brows rose slightly. Not too many northerners spoke their language. “Yes, and the queen sent this one”—Nehemia jerked her head at Kaltain—“to bring me around with that sweating worm of a man as well.” The princess narrowed her eyes at the small councilman, who wrung his hands and dabbed his forehead with a handkerchief. Perhaps he knew what sort of threat Nehemia posed; but why bring her to the castle?
Celaena ran her tongue across her teeth, trying not to laugh. “He seems a bit nervous.” She had to change the subject or else she’d indeed laugh. “What do you make of the castle?”
“It’s the most foolish thing I’ve ever seen,” Nehemia said, scanning the ceiling as if she could see through the stone and into the glass sections. “I’d sooner enter a castle made of sand.”
Chaol watched them, somewhat disbelievingly.
“I’m afraid I haven’t understood a word you’ve said,” Kaltain interrupted. Celaena tried not to roll her eyes—she’d forgotten the woman was there.