“You have food in your teeth,” he said. She picked it out with a sharp nail and turned her head to the window. The rain slid down the glass. Was she looking at the rain, or something beyond?
He sipped from his goblet. Despite her arrogance, she was clever, and relatively kind, and somewhat charming. But where was that writhing darkness? Why didn’t it show itself so he could just throw her into the dungeon and call off this ridiculous competition? There was something great and deadly concealed within her, and he didn’t like it.
He’d be ready—when the time came, he’d be waiting. He just wondered which one of them would survive.
For the next four days, Celaena awoke before dawn to train in her room, using whatever she could to exercise—chairs, the doorway, even her billiards table and cue sticks. The balls made for remarkable balance tools. Around dawn, Chaol usually showed up for breakfast. Afterward, they ran through the game park, where he kept pace at her side. Autumn had fully come, and the wind smelled of crisp leaves and snow. Chaol never said anything when she doubled over, hands on her knees, and vomited up her breakfast, nor did he comment on the fact that she could go farther and farther each day without stopping for breath.
Once they’d finished their run, they trained in a private room far from her competitors’ eyes. Until, that is, she collapsed to the ground and cried that she was about to die of hunger and fatigue. At lessons, the knives remained Celaena’s favorite, but the wooden staff became dear; naturally, it had to do with the fact that she could freely whack him and not chop off an arm. Since her initial meeting with Princess Nehemia, she hadn’t seen or heard from the princess—not even chatter from the servants.
Chaol always came for lunch, and afterward, she joined the other Champions for a few more hours of training under Brullo’s watchful eye. Most of their training was just to make sure they could actually use weapons. And, of course, she kept her head down throughout it all, doing enough to keep Brullo from critiquing her, but not enough to make him praise her the way he did Cain.
Cain. How she loathed him! Brullo practically worshipped the man—and even the other Champions nodded their respect when he passed by. No one bothered to comment on how perfect her form was. Was this how the other assassins at the Assassins’ Keep had felt all those years she had spent hogging Arobynn Hamel’s attention? But here, it was hard to focus when Cain was nearby, taunting and sneering, waiting for her to make one mistake. Hopefully he wouldn’t distract her at the first elimination test. Brullo hadn’t given them any indication what they might be tested for, and Chaol was just as clueless.
The day before the first Test, she knew something was wrong long before she got to the training hall. Chaol hadn’t shown up for breakfast, but rather sent her guards to bring her to the training hall to practice on her own. He didn’t show up for lunch, either, and by the time she was escorted to the hall, she was brimming with questions.
Without Chaol to stand near, she lingered beside a pillar, watching the competitors file in, flanked by guards and their trainers. Brullo wasn’t there yet—another oddity. And there were far too many guards in the training hall today.
“What do you suppose this is about?” Nox Owen, the young thief from Perranth, asked from beside her. After proving himself somewhat skilled during practice, many of the other competitors had sought him out, but he still opted to keep to himself.
“Captain Westfall didn’t train me this morning,” she offered. What was the harm in admitting that?
Nox held out his hand. “Nox Owen.”
“I know who you are,” she said, but shook his hand anyway. His grip was solid, his hand calloused and scarred. He’d seen his fair share of action.
“Good. I’ve felt a bit invisible with that hulking lout showing off these past few days.” He jerked his chin toward Cain, who was in the middle of examining his bulging biceps. A large ring of black, iridescent stone glimmered on Cain’s finger—strange that he’d wear it to practice. Nox went on. “Did you see Verin? He looks like he’s going to be sick.” He pointed to the loudmouthed thief that Celaena wanted to knock out cold. Normally, Verin could be found near Cain, taunting the other Champions. But today he stood alone by the window, face pale and eyes wide.
“I heard him talking to Cain,” said a timid voice behind them, and they found Pelor, the youngest assassin, standing nearby. She’d spent half a day watching Pelor—and while she only pretended to be mediocre, he truly could use the training.
Assassin indeed. His voice hasn’t even deepened yet. How did he wind up here?
“What’d he say?” Nox put his hands in his pockets. His clothes weren’t as ratty as the other competitors’; the mere fact that she’d actually heard his name implied he must have been a good thief in Perranth.
Pelor’s freckled face paled a bit. “Bill Chastain—the Eye Eater—was found stone cold dead this morning.”
A Champion was dead? And a notorious killer at that. “How?” she demanded.
Pelor swallowed hard. “Verin said it wasn’t pretty. Like someone ripped him wide open. He passed the body on his way here.” Nox cursed under his breath, and Celaena studied the other Champions. A hush had fallen on the group, and clusters of them stood together, whispering. Verin’s story was spreading fast. Pelor went on. “He said Chastain’s body was in ribbons.”
A chill snaked down her spine, but she shook her head, just as a guard entered and told them that Brullo had ordered them to have free rein of the training hall today and to practice what they wanted. Needing to distract herself from the image forming in her mind, she didn’t bother to say good-bye to Nox and Pelor as she strode to the weapons rack and gathered a belt strapped with throwing knives.
She took up a place near the archery targets; Nox joined her a moment later, and started firing his knives at the target. He hit the second ring, but never got any closer to the center. His skill with knives wasn’t nearly as good as his archery.
She drew a dagger from the belt. Who would have killed one of the Champions so brutally? And how had they gotten away with it, if the body was in the hall? This castle was swarming with guards. A Champion was dead, and just a day before their first Test; would this start a pattern?
Her focus narrowed to the small, black dot in the center of the target. She steadied her breathing as she cocked her arm, letting her wrist go loose. The sounds of the other Champions faded. The blackness of the bull’s-eye beckoned, and as she exhaled, she sent the dagger flying.
It sparkled, a shooting star of steel. She smiled grimly as it struck home.
Beside her, Nox swore colorfully when his dagger hit the third ring on his target, and her smile broadened, despite the shredded corpse that lay somewhere in the castle.
Celaena drew another dagger, but paused as Verin called to her from the ring where he sparred with Cain. “Circus tricks ain’t much use when you’re the King’s Champion.” She shifted her gaze to him, but kept positioned toward the target. “You’d be better off on your back, learning tricks useful to a woman. In fact, I can teach you some tonight, if you’d like.” He laughed, and Cain joined with him. Celaena gripped the hilt of a dagger so hard that it hurt.
“Don’t listen to them,” Nox murmured. He tossed another dagger, missing the bull’s-eye again. “They wouldn’t know the first thing to do with a woman, even if one walked stark naked into their bedroom.”
Celaena threw her dagger, and the blade clanged as it landed a hair’s breadth from the one she’d already embedded in the bull’s-eye.
Nox’s dark brows rose, accentuating his gray eyes. He couldn’t have been older than twenty-five. “You’ve got impressive aim.”
“For a girl?” she challenged.
“No,” he said, and threw another dagger. “For anyone.” The dagger yet again missed the mark. He stalked to the target, yanking out all six daggers and shoving them in their sheaths before returning to the throwing line. Celaena cleared her throat.
“You’re standing wrong,” she said, quietly enough so the other Champions couldn’t hear. “And you’re holding your wrist incorrectly.”
Nox lowered his arm. She took up her stance. “Legs like this,” she said. He studied her for a moment, then positioned his legs similarly. “Bend slightly at the knees. Shoulders back; loosen your wrist. Throw when you exhale.” She demonstrated for him, and her dagger found its mark.
“Show me again,” Nox said appreciatively.
She did so, and struck the target. Then she threw with her left hand, and fought her whoop of triumph as the blade sank into the handle of another dagger.
Nox focused on the target as he brought up his arm. “Well, you’ve just put me to shame,” he said, laughing under his breath as he lifted his dagger higher.
“Keep your wrist even looser,” was her reply. “It’s all about how you snap it.”
Nox obeyed, and as he exhaled a long breath, his dagger flew. It didn’t hit the bull’s-eye, but it came within the inner circle. His brows rose. “That’s a bit of an improvement.”
“Just a bit,” she said, and held her ground as he gathered their knives from the two targets and handed hers back. She sheathed them in her belt. “You’re from Perranth, right?” she asked. Though she’d never been to Perranth, Terrasen’s second largest city, the mention of her homeland still spiked a bolt of fear and guilt. It had been ten years since the royal family had been butchered, ten years since the King of Adarlan had marched his army in, ten years since Terrasen met its doom with bowed heads and silence. She shouldn’t have mentioned it—she didn’t know why she mentioned it, actually.
She schooled her features into polite interest as Nox nodded. “This is my first time out of Perranth, actually. You said you were from Bellhaven, didn’t you?”
“My father is a merchant,” she lied.
“And what does he think about a daughter who steals jewels for a living?”
She conceded a smile and hurled a knife into the target. “He won’t be inviting me home for a while, that’s for certain.”
“Ah, you’re in good hands, though. You’ve got the best trainer out of anyone. I’ve seen you two running at dawn. I have to beg mine to put down the bottle and let me train outside of lessons.” He inclined his head toward his trainer, who sat against the wall, the hood of his cape over his eyes. “Sleeping, yet again.”
“The Captain of the Guard is a pain in my ass at times,” she said, chucking another knife, “but you’re right—he’s the best.”
Nox was quiet for a moment before he said: “The next time we pair off for lessons, find me, will you?”
“Why?” She reached for another dagger, but found she’d depleted her stock again.
Nox threw another dagger, and it hit the bull’s-eye this time. “Because my gold’s on you winning this whole damn thing.”
She smiled a little. “Let’s hope you won’t be eliminated at the Test tomorrow.” She scanned the training hall for any sign of the challenge to come the following morning, but found nothing out of the ordinary. The other competitors remained mostly quiet—save for Cain and Verin—and many of them were pale as snow. “And let’s hope neither of us winds up like the Eye Eater,” she added, and meant it.
“Don’t you ever do anything other than read?” said Chaol. She started from her chair on the balcony as he took a seat beside her. The late-afternoon sunlight warmed her face, and the last balmy breeze of autumn rushed through her unbound hair.
She stuck out her tongue. “Shouldn’t you be looking into the Eye Eater’s murder?” He never came to her rooms after lunch.