It was Nox, actually, who surprised her most, with three bull’s-eyes into the nearer targets and the two final shots along the border of the inner ring. Perhaps she should consider him for an ally. From the way the other competitors watched him as he strode to the back of the room, she knew they were thinking the same thing.
Grave, the repulsive assassin, did fine, she supposed. Four bull’s-eyes, and the final shot right on the border of the innermost ring. But then Cain stepped up to the white line painted at the back of the room, drew back his yew bow, his black ring glinting, and fired.
Again, and again, and again, within the span of a few seconds.
And when the sound of his final shot stopped echoing in the suddenly silent chamber, Celaena’s stomach turned over. Five bull’s-eyes.
Her one consolation was that none of them had been on that black dot—the absolute center. One had come close, though.
For some reason, the line started moving quickly. All she could think about was Cain—Cain getting applauded by Perrington, Cain getting clapped on the back by Brullo, Cain getting all of that praise and attention, not because he was a mountain of muscle, but because he actually deserved it.
Suddenly, Celaena found herself standing at the white line, looking at the vast length of the room before her. Some of the men chuckled—albeit quietly—and she kept her head held high as she reached over her shoulder for an arrow and nocked it into her bow.
They’d done some archery practice a few days earlier, and she’d been excellent. Or, as excellent as she could be without attracting attention. And she’d killed men from longer shots than the farthest target. Clean shots, too. Right through the throat.
She tried to swallow, but her mouth was dry.
I am Celaena Sardothien, Adarlan’s Assassin. If these men knew who I was, they’d stop laughing. I am Celaena Sardothien. I am going to win. I will not be afraid.
She pulled back her bow, the sore muscles in her arm aching with the effort. She shut out noise, shut out movement, shut out anything other than the sound of her breathing as her focus narrowed on the first target. She took a steady breath. As she exhaled, she let the arrow fly.
The tightness in her stomach abated, and she sighed through her nose. It wasn’t an absolute bull’s-eye, but she hadn’t been aiming for it, anyway.
Some men stopped laughing, but she paid them no heed as she nocked another arrow and fired at the second target. She aimed for the edge of the innermost ring, which she hit with deadly precision. She could have made an entire circle of arrows, if she’d wanted. And if she’d had enough ammunition.
She got another bull’s-eye on the third target—aiming for the edge, but landing within the border. She did the same for the fourth target, but aimed for the opposite side of the bull’s-eye. Where she aimed, the arrow met its mark.
As she reached for her last arrow, she heard one of the competitors, a red-haired mercenary named Renault, snigger. She clenched her bow tightly enough for the wood to groan, and pulled back her final shot.
The target was little more than a blur of color, so far back that its bull’s-eye was a grain of sand in the vastness of the room. She couldn’t see the little dot in its center—the dot that no one had yet to touch, even Cain. Celaena’s arm trembled with effort as she pulled the string back a bit farther and fired.
The arrow hit the absolute center, obliterating the black dot. They stopped laughing.
No one said anything to her when she stalked away from the line and tossed her bow back onto the cart. Chaol only scowled at her—obviously, she hadn’t been that inconspicuous—but Dorian smiled. She sighed and joined the competitors waiting for the competition to finish, keeping well away from all of them.
When their marks were compared by Brullo himself, one of the army soldiers, not young Pelor, wound up being eliminated. But though she hadn’t lost by any means, Celaena couldn’t stand—absolutely could not stand—the feeling that she hadn’t really won anything at all.
Despite her attempt to keep her breathing steady, Celaena gasped for air as she ran beside Chaol in the game park. If he was winded, he didn’t show it, other than the gleam of sweat on his face and the dampness of his white shirt.
They ran toward a hill, its top still shrouded in morning mist. Her legs buckled at the sight of the incline, and her stomach rose in her throat. Celaena let out a loud gasp to get Chaol’s attention before she slowed to a stop, and braced her hands against a tree trunk.
She took a shuddering breath, holding on tightly to the tree as she vomited. She hated the warmth of the tears that leaked from her eyes, but couldn’t wipe them away as she heaved again, gagging. Chaol stood nearby, just watching. She leaned her brow into her upper arm, calming her breathing, willing her body to ease. It had been three days since the first Test, ten since her arrival in Rifthold, and she was still horribly out of shape. The next elimination was in four days, and though training had resumed as usual, she had started waking up a little earlier than normal. She would not lose to Cain, or Renault, or any of them.
“Done?” Chaol asked. She lifted her head to give him a withering glare, but everything spun, dragging her down with it, and she retched again. “I told you not to eat before we left.”
“Are you done being smug?”
“Are you done vomiting your guts up?”
“For the time being,” she snapped. “Perhaps I won’t be so courteous next time, and I’ll just vomit all over you instead.”
“If you can catch me,” he said with a half smile.
She wanted to punch the smirk off his face, but as she took a step, her knees shook, and she put her hands against the tree again, waiting for the retching to renew. Out of the corner of her eye she saw him looking at her back, most of which was exposed by her damp, white undershirt. She stood. “Are you enjoying looking at my scars?”
He sucked on his lower lip for a moment. “When did you get those?” She knew he meant the three enormous lines that ran down her back.
“When do you think?” she said. He didn’t reply, and she looked up at the canopy of leaves above them. A morning breeze sent them all shuddering, ripping a few from where they clung to the skeletal branches. “Those three, I received my first day in Endovier.”
“What did you do to deserve it?”
“Deserve it?” She laughed sharply. “No one deserves to be whipped like an animal.” He opened his mouth, but she cut him off. “I arrived in Endovier, and they dragged me into the center of the camp, and tied me between the whipping posts. Twenty-one lashes.” She stared at him without entirely seeing him as the ash-gray sky turned into the bleakness of Endovier, and the hiss of the wind became the sighing of slaves. “That was before I had befriended any of the other slaves—and I spent that first night wondering if I would make it until morning, if my back would become infected, or if I would bleed out and die before I knew what was happening.”
“No one helped you?”
“Only in the morning. A young woman slipped me a tin of salve while we were waiting in line for breakfast. I never got to thank her. Later that day, four overseers raped and killed her.” She clenched her hands into fists as her eyes stung. “The day I snapped, I stopped by their section of the mines to repay them for what they did to her.” Something frozen rushed through her veins. “They died too quickly.”
“But you were a woman in Endovier,” Chaol said, his voice rough and quiet. “No one ever . . .” He trailed off, unable to form the word.
She gave him a slow, bitter smile. “They were afraid of me to begin with. And after the day I almost touched the wall, none of them dared to come too close to me. But if one guard tried to get too friendly . . . Well, he’d become the example that reminded the others I could easily snap again, if I felt like it.” The wind stirred around them, ripping strands of hair from her braid. She didn’t need to voice her other suspicion—that perhaps somehow Arobynn had bribed the guards in Endovier for her safety. “We each survive in our own way.”
Celaena didn’t quite understand the softness in the look he gave her as he nodded. She only stared at him for a moment longer before she burst into a run, up toward the hill—where the first rays of sunshine began to peek through.
The following afternoon, the Champions stood gathered around Brullo, who lectured them on different weapons and other nonsense she’d learned years ago and didn’t need to hear again. She was just contemplating whether she could sleep while standing up when, from the corner of her eye, a sudden movement by the balcony doors caught her attention. Celaena turned just in time to see one of the larger Champions—one of the discharged soldiers—shove a nearby guard, knocking him to the ground. The guard’s head hit the marble with a crack, and he was instantly unconscious. She didn’t dare to move—none of the Champions did—as the man hurtled toward the door, toward the gardens and escape.
But Chaol and his men moved so fast that the fleeing Champion didn’t have time to touch the glass door before an arrow went clean through his throat.
Silence fell, and half of the guards encircled the Champions, hands on their swords, while the others, Chaol included, rushed to the dead Champion and fallen guard. Bows groaned as the archers on the mezzanine pulled their strings taut. Celaena kept still, as did Nox, who was standing close beside her. One wrong movement and a spooked guard could kill her. Even Cain didn’t breathe too deeply.
Through the wall of Champions, guards, and their weapons, Celaena beheld Chaol kneeling by the unconscious guard. No one touched the fallen Champion, who lay facedown, his hand still outstretched toward the glass door. Sven had been his name—though she didn’t know why he’d been expelled from the army.
“Gods above,” Nox breathed, so softly that his lips barely moved. “They just . . . killed him.” She thought about telling him to shut up, but even snapping at him seemed risky. Some of the other Champions were murmuring to each other, but no one dared to take a step. “I knew they were serious about not letting us leave, but . . .” Nox swore, and she felt him glance sidelong at her. “I was granted immunity by my sponsor. He tracked me down and said I wouldn’t go to prison if I lost the competition.” At that point, she knew he was speaking more to himself, and when she didn’t respond, Nox stopped talking. She stared and stared at the dead Champion.
What had made Sven risk it? And why here, right now? There were still three days until their second Test; what had made this moment so special? The day she snapped at Endovier, she hadn’t been thinking about freedom. No, she’d picked the time and place, and started swinging. She’d never meant to escape.
The sunlight shone through the doors, illuminating the Champion’s splattered blood like stained glass.
Maybe he’d realized he had no chance of winning, and that this kind of death was far better than returning to whatever place he’d come from. If he’d wanted to escape, he would have waited until dark, when he was away from everyone at the competition. Sven had wanted to prove a point, she understood, and understood only because of that day she had come within a fingertip of touching the wall at Endovier.
Adarlan could take their freedom, it could destroy their lives and beat and break and whip them, it could force them into ridiculous contests, but, criminal or not, they were still human. Dying—rather than playing in the king’s game—was the only choice left to him.
Still staring at his outstretched hand, forever pointing toward an unreachable horizon, Celaena said a silent prayer for the dead Champion, and wished him well.
With heavy eyelids, Dorian Havilliard tried not to slouch as he sat upon his throne. Music and chatter flitted through the air, wooing him to sleep. Why must his mother insist on his attending court? Even the weekly afternoon visit was too much. But it was better than studying the corpse of the Eye Eater, which Chaol had spent the past few days investigating. He’d worry about that later—if it became an issue. Which it wouldn’t, if Chaol was looking into it. It had probably just been a drunken brawl.