Something dark flitted across his eyes. “That’s none of your business. And don’t try to pry details from me about it,” he added as she opened her mouth. He pointed to the book in her lap. “I saw at lunch that you’re reading The Wind and the Rain, and I forgot to ask what you thought.”
He’d really come to talk about a book when a Champion’s corpse had been found that morning? “It’s a bit dense,” she admitted, holding up the brown volume in her lap. When he didn’t reply, she asked, “Why are you really here?”
“I had a long day.”
She massaged an ache in her knee. “Because of Bill’s murder?”
“Because the prince dragged me into a council meeting that lasted for three hours,” he said, a muscle in his jaw feathering.
“I thought His Royal Highness was your friend.”
“How long have you been friends?”
He paused, and she knew he was contemplating how she might use the information against him, weighing the risk of telling her the truth. She was about to snap at him when he said: “Since we were young. We were the only boys of our age in the castle—at least of high rank. We had lessons together, played together, trained together. But when I was thirteen, my father moved my family back to our home in Anielle.”
“The city on the Silver Lake?” It somehow made sense that Chaol’s family ruled Anielle. The citizens of Anielle were warriors from birth, and had been guardians against the hordes of the wild men from the White Fang Mountains for generations. Thankfully, things had gotten a little easier for the warriors of Anielle in the past ten years; the White Fang mountain men had been one of the first peoples to be put down by Adarlan’s conquering armies, and very rarely did their rebels make it to slavery. She’d heard tales of mountain men killing their wives and children, then themselves, rather than be taken by Adarlan. The thought of Chaol going up against hundreds of them—against men built like Cain—made her a little sick.
“Yes,” Chaol said, fiddling with the long hunting knife at his side. “I was slotted to join the Royal Council, like my father; he wanted me to spend some time among my own people, and learn . . . whatever it is councilmen learn. He said that with the King’s army now in the mountains, we could move our interests from fighting the mountain folk to politics.” His golden eyes were distant. “But I missed Rifthold.”
“So you ran away?” She marveled that he was volunteering this much—hadn’t he refused to tell her almost anything about himself while traveling from Endovier?
“Ran away?” Chaol chuckled. “No. Dorian convinced the Captain of the Guard to take me as his apprentice, with the help of Brullo. My father refused. So I abdicated my title as Lord of Anielle to my brother and left the next day.”
The captain’s silence suggested what he could not say. That his father hadn’t objected. What of his mother? He loosed a long breath. “What about you, then?”
She crossed her arms. “I thought you didn’t want to know anything about me.”
There was a ghost of a smile on his face as he watched the sky melt into a smear of tangerine. “What do your parents make of their daughter being Adarlan’s Assassin?”
“My parents are dead,” she said. “They died when I was eight.”
Her heart thundered in her chest. “I was born in Terrasen, then I became an assassin, then I went to Endovier, and now I’m here. And that’s it.”
Silence fell; then he asked, “Where’d you get that scar on your right hand?” She didn’t need to glance at the jagged line that ran along the top of her hand, just above her wrist. She flexed her fingers.
“When I was twelve, Arobynn Hamel decided I wasn’t nearly as skilled at swordplay with my left hand. So he gave me a choice: either he could break my right hand, or I could do it myself.” The phantom memory of the blinding pain lanced through her hand. “That night, I put my hand against a doorframe, and slammed the door shut on it. I split my hand wide open and broke two bones. It took months to heal—months during which I could only use my left hand.” She gave him a vicious smile. “I bet Brullo never did that to you.”
“No,” he said quietly. “No, he didn’t.” He cleared his throat and stood. “The first Test is tomorrow. Are you ready?”
“Of course,” she lied.
He remained standing there for a moment longer, studying her. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning,” he said, and left. In the silence that followed in his wake, she contemplated his story, the paths that had made them so different, but so similar. She wrapped her arms around herself, a cold wind picking up the skirts of her dress and blowing them behind her.
Though she’d never admit it, Celaena didn’t really know what to expect at their first Test. With all the training over the past five days and fiddling with various weapons and techniques, her body ached. Which was another thing she’d never admit, even though hiding the throbbing pain in her limbs was nearly impossible. As Celaena and Chaol entered the giant sparring room in the morning, she glanced at her competitors and remembered she wasn’t the only one who hadn’t a clue what to expect. A towering black curtain had been swept across half of the room, blocking the other half from sight. Whatever lay beyond that curtain, she realized, was to decide the fate of one of them.
The normal ruckus had been replaced by a rustling quiet—and rather than mill about, the competitors lingered by their trainers’ sides. She kept close to Chaol, which wasn’t a change from the ordinary. But the sponsors atop the mezzanine looking over the black-and-white checkered floor were. Her throat tightened as her gaze met with that of the Crown Prince. Aside from sending her his books, she hadn’t seen or heard from him since the meeting with the king. He flashed her a grin, those sapphire eyes gleaming in the morning light. She offered him a tight smile in return and quickly looked away.
Brullo stood by the curtain, a scarred hand upon his sword, and Celaena studied the scene. Someone stepped to her side. She knew who it was before he spoke. “It’s a bit dramatic, don’t you think?”
She glanced sidelong at Nox. Chaol tensed next to her, and she could feel him watching the thief closely, no doubt wondering if she and Nox were formulating some escape plan that would include the deaths of every member of the royal family.
“After five days of mindless training,” she replied quietly, all too aware that very few people were speaking in the hall, “I’m glad for a bit of excitement.”
Nox laughed under his breath. “What do you think it is?”
She shrugged, keeping her attention on the curtain. More and more competitors were arriving, and soon the clock would strike nine—the time when the Test would begin. Even if she knew what was behind the curtain, she certainly wouldn’t help him. “Hopefully it’s a pack of man-eating wolves that we have to take on with our bare hands.” She looked at him fully now, a half smile on her lips. “Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Chaol subtly cleared his throat. Now was not the time for talking. She stuffed her hands into the pockets of her black pants. “Best of luck,” she said to Nox before she strode toward the curtain, Chaol following her. When they were far enough away, she asked under her breath, “No idea what’s behind that curtain?” Chaol shook his head.
She adjusted the thick leather belt slung low across her hips. It was the kind of belt intended to bear the weight of multiple weapons. Its lightness now only reminded her of what she’d lost—and what she had to gain. The death of the Eye Eater yesterday had been fortunate in one aspect: one less man to compete with.
She glanced up at Dorian. He could probably see what was behind the curtain from his place on the mezzanine. Why not help her cheat a little? She flicked her attention to the other sponsors—noblemen in fine clothing—and ground her teeth at the sight of Perrington. He smirked as he watched Cain, who was stretching out his muscular arms. Had he already told Cain what was beyond the curtain?
Brullo cleared his throat. “Attention now!” he called to them. All of the competitors tried to look calm as he strode to the center of the curtain. “Your first Test has arrived.” He grinned broadly, as if whatever the curtain concealed was going to torment the hell out of them. “As His Majesty has ordered, one of you will be eliminated today—one of you will be deemed unworthy.”
Just get on with it! she thought, her jaw clenched tight.
As if he’d read her thoughts, Brullo snapped his fingers, and a guard standing by the wall pulled the curtain back. Inch by inch, it swayed away, until—
Celaena bit down her laugh. Archery? It was an archery contest?
“Rules are simple,” Brullo said. Behind him, five targets were staggered at various distances through the hall. “You get five shots—one per target. The one with the worst aim goes home.”
Some competitors began murmuring, but it was all she could do to keep from beaming. Unfortunately, Cain didn’t bother to hide his triumphant grin. Why couldn’t he have been the Champion who was found dead?
“You’ll go one at a time,” Brullo said, and behind them a pair of soldiers rolled out a cart of bows and quivers loaded with arrows. “Form a line at the table to determine your order. The Test begins now.”
She expected them to rush to the long table stacked with identical bows and arrows, but apparently none of the twenty-one other competitors were in much of a hurry to go home. Celaena made to join the forming line, but Chaol grasped her shoulder. “Don’t show off,” he warned.
She smiled sweetly and pried his fingers off her. “I’ll try not to,” she purred, and joined the line.
It was an enormous leap of faith to give them arrows, even if the tips were blunted. A dull head wouldn’t stop it from going through Perrington’s throat—or Dorian’s, if she wanted.
Though the thought was entertaining, she kept her attention on the competitors. With twenty-two Champions and five shots each, the Test took a dreadfully long time. Thanks to Chaol pulling her aside, she’d been in the back of the line—not dead last, but three from the end. Far enough back that she had to watch everyone else go before her, including Cain.
The other competitors did well enough. The giant circular targets were composed of five colored rings—yellow marking the center, with only a tiny black dot to mark the bull’s-eye. Each target got smaller the farther back it was placed, and because the room was so long, the final target was nearly seventy yards away.
Celaena ran her fingers along the smooth curve of her yew bow. Archery was one of the first skills Arobynn had taught her—a staple of any assassin’s training. Two of the assassins further proved it with easy, skilled shots. Though they didn’t hit the bull’s-eyes, and their shots got sloppier the farther the target, whoever their masters had been, they’d known what they were teaching.
Pelor, the gangly assassin, wasn’t yet strong enough to manage a longbow, and barely made any shots. When he finished, his eyes gleaming with resentment, the Champions sniggered, and Cain laughed the loudest.
Brullo’s face was grim. “Didn’t anyone ever teach you how to use a bow, boy?”
Pelor lifted his head, glaring at the Weapons Master with surprising brazenness. “I’m more skilled in poisons.”
“Poisons!” Brullo threw his hands up. “The king wants a Champion—and you couldn’t shoot a cow in a pasture!” The Weapons Master waved Pelor off. The other Champions laughed again, and Celaena wanted nothing more than to smile with them. But Pelor took a shuddering breath, his shoulders relaxing, and joined the other finished competitors. If he wound up being eliminated, where would they bring him? To prison—or some other hellhole? Despite herself, Celaena felt badly for the boy. His shots hadn’t been that bad.