Princes are not supposed to be handsome! They’re sniveling, stupid, repulsive creatures! This one . . . this . . . How unfair of him to be royal and beautiful.
She shifted on her feet as he frowned, surveying her in turn. “I thought I asked you to clean her,” he said to Captain Westfall, who stepped forward. She’d forgotten there was anyone else in the room. She looked at her rags and stained skin, and she couldn’t suppress the twinge of shame. What a miserable state for a girl of former beauty!
At a passing glance, one might think her eyes blue or gray, perhaps even green, depending on the color of her clothing. Up close, though, these warring hues were offset by the brilliant ring of gold around her pupils. But it was her golden hair that caught the attention of most, hair that still maintained a glimmer of its glory. In short, Celaena Sardothien was blessed with a handful of attractive features that compensated for the majority of average ones; and, by early adolescence, she’d discovered that with the help of cosmetics, these average features could easily match the extraordinary assets.
But now, standing before Dorian Havilliard as little more than a gutter rat! Her face warmed as Captain Westfall spoke. “I didn’t want to keep you waiting.”
The Crown Prince shook his head when Chaol reached for her. “Don’t bother with the bath just yet. I can see her potential.” The prince straightened, keeping his attention on Celaena. “I don’t believe that we’ve ever had the pleasure of an introduction. But, as you probably know, I’m Dorian Havilliard, Crown Prince of Adarlan, perhaps now Crown Prince of most of Erilea.”
She ignored the surge and crash of bitter emotions that awoke with the name.
“And you’re Celaena Sardothien, Adarlan’s greatest assassin. Perhaps the greatest assassin in all of Erilea.” He studied her tensed body before he raised his dark, well-groomed brows. “You seem a little young.” He rested his elbows on his thighs. “I’ve heard some rather fascinating stories about you. How do you find Endovier after living in such excess in Rifthold?”
“I couldn’t be happier,” she crooned as her jagged nails cut into her palms.
“After a year, you seem to be more or less alive. I wonder how that’s possible when the average life expectancy in these mines is a month.”
“Quite a mystery, I’m sure.” She batted her eyelashes and readjusted her shackles as if they were lace gloves.
The Crown Prince turned to his captain. “She has somewhat of a tongue, doesn’t she? And she doesn’t sound like a member of the rabble.”
“I should hope not!” Celaena interjected.
“Your Highness,” Chaol Westfall snapped at her.
“What?” Celaena asked.
“You will address him as ‘Your Highness.’ ”
Celaena gave him a mocking smile, and then returned her attention to the prince.
Dorian Havilliard, to her surprise, laughed. “You do know that you’re now a slave, don’t you? Has your sentence taught you nothing?”
Had her arms been unshackled, she would have crossed them. “I don’t see how working in a mine can teach anything beyond how to use a pickax.”
“And you never tried to escape?”
A slow, wicked smile spread across her lips. “Once.”
The prince’s brows rose, and he turned to Captain Westfall. “I wasn’t told that.”
Celaena glanced over her shoulder at Chaol, who gave his prince an apologetic look. “The Chief Overseer informed me this afternoon that there was one incident. Three months—”
“Four months,” she interrupted.
“Four months,” Chaol said, “after Sardothien arrived, she attempted to flee.”
She waited for the rest of the story, but he was clearly finished. “That’s not even the best part!”
“There’s a ‘best part’?” the Crown Prince said, face caught between a wince and a smile.
Chaol glared at her before speaking. “There’s no hope of escaping from Endovier. Your father made sure that each of Endovier’s sentries could shoot a squirrel from two hundred paces away. To attempt to flee is suicide.”
“But you’re alive,” the prince said to her.
Celaena’s smile faded as the memory struck her. “Yes.”
“What happened?” Dorian asked.
Her eyes turned cold and hard. “I snapped.”
“That’s all you have to offer as an explanation for what you did?” Captain Westfall demanded. “She killed her overseer and twenty-three sentries before they caught her. She was a finger’s tip from the wall before the guards knocked her unconscious.”
“So?” Dorian said.
Celaena seethed. “So? Do you know how far the wall is from the mines?” He gave her a blank look. She closed her eyes and sighed dramatically. “From my shaft, it was three hundred sixty-three feet. I had someone measure.”
“So?” Dorian repeated.
“Captain Westfall, how far do slaves make it from the mines when they try to escape?”
“Three feet,” he muttered. “Endovier sentries usually shoot a man down before he’s moved three feet.”
The Crown Prince’s silence was not her desired effect. “You knew it was suicide,” he said at last, the amusement gone.
Perhaps it had been a bad idea for her to bring up the wall. “Yes,” she said.
“But they didn’t kill you.”
“Your father ordered that I was to be kept alive for as long as possible—to endure the misery that Endovier gives in abundance.” A chill that had nothing to do with the temperature went through her. “I never intended to escape.” The pity in his eyes made her want to hit him.
“Do you bear many scars?” asked the prince. She shrugged and he smiled, forcing the mood to lift as he stepped from the dais. “Turn around, and let me view your back.” Celaena frowned, but obeyed as he walked to her, Chaol stepping closer. “I can’t make them out clearly through all this dirt,” the prince said, inspecting what skin showed through the scraps of her shirt. She scowled, and scowled even more when he said, “And what a terrible stench, too!”
“When one doesn’t have access to a bath and perfume, I suppose one cannot smell as finely as you, Your Highness.”
The Crown Prince clicked his tongue and circled her slowly. Chaol—and all the guards—watched them with hands on their swords. As they should. In less than a second, she could get her arms over the prince’s head and have her shackles crushing his windpipe. It might be worth it just to see the expression on Chaol’s face. But the prince went on, oblivious to how dangerously close he stood to her. Perhaps she should be insulted. “From what I can see,” he said, “there are three large scars—and perhaps some smaller ones. Not as awful as I expected, but . . . well, the dresses can cover it, I suppose.”
“Dresses?” He was standing so near that she could see the fine thread detail on his jacket, and smelled not perfume, but horses and iron.
Dorian grinned. “What remarkable eyes you have! And how angry you are!”
Coming within strangling distance of the Crown Prince of Adarlan, son of the man who sentenced her to a slow, miserable death, her self-control balanced on a fragile edge—dancing along a cliff.
“I demand to know,” she began, but the Captain of the Guard pulled her back from the prince with spine-snapping force. “I wasn’t going to kill him, you buffoon.”
“Watch your mouth before I throw you back in the mines,” the brown-eyed captain said.
“Oh, I don’t think you’d do that.”
“And why is that?” Chaol replied.
Dorian strode to his throne and sat down, his sapphire eyes bright.
She looked from one man to another and squared her shoulders. “Because there’s something you want from me, something you want badly enough to come here yourselves. I’m not an idiot, though I was foolish enough to be captured, and I can see that this is some sort of secret business. Why else would you leave the capital and venture this far? You’ve been testing me all this time to see if I am physically and mentally sound. Well, I know that I’m still sane, and that I’m not broken, despite what the incident at the wall might suggest. So I demand to be told why you’re here, and what services you wish of me, if I’m not destined for the gallows.”
The men exchanged glances. Dorian steepled his fingers. “I have a proposition for you.”
Her chest tightened. Never, not in her most fanciful dreams, had she imagined that the opportunity to speak with Dorian Havilliard would arise. She could kill him so easily, tear that grin from his face . . . She could destroy the king as he had destroyed her . . .
But perhaps his proposition could lead to escape. If she got beyond the wall, she could make it. Run and run and disappear into the mountains and live in solitude in the dark green of the wild, with a pine-needle carpet and a blanket of stars overhead. She could do it. She just needed to clear the wall. She had come so close before . . .
“I’m listening,” was all she said.
The prince’s eyes shone with amusement at her brashness but lingered a bit too long on her body. Celaena could have raked her nails down his face for staring at her like that, yet the fact that he’d even bother to look when she was in such a filthy state . . . A slow smile spread across her face.
The prince crossed his long legs. “Leave us,” he ordered the guards. “Chaol, stay where you are.”
Celaena stepped closer as the guards shuffled out, shutting the door. Foolish, foolish move. But Chaol’s face remained unreadable. He couldn’t honestly believe he’d contain her if she tried to escape! She straightened her spine. What were they planning that would make them so irresponsible?
The prince chuckled. “Don’t you think it’s risky to be so bold with me when your freedom is on the line?”
Of all the things he could have said, that was what she had least expected. “My freedom?” At the sound of the word, she saw a land of pine and snow, of sun-bleached cliffs and white-capped seas, a land where light was swallowed in the velvety green of bumps and hollows—a land that she had forgotten.
“Yes, your freedom. So, I highly suggest, Miss Sardothien, that you get your arrogance in check before you end up back in the mines.” The prince uncrossed his legs. “Though perhaps your attitude will be useful. I’m not going to pretend that my father’s empire was built on trust and understanding. But you already know that.” Her fingers curled as she waited for him to continue. His eyes met hers, probing, intent. “My father has gotten it into his head that he needs a Champion.”
It took a delicious moment for her to understand.
Celaena tipped back her head and laughed. “Your father wants me to be his Champion? What—don’t tell me that he’s managed to eliminate every noble soul out there! Surely there’s one chivalrous knight, one lord of steadfast heart and courage.”
“Mind your mouth,” Chaol warned from beside her.
“What about you, hmm?” she said, raising her brows at the captain. Oh, it was too funny! Her—the King’s Champion! “Our beloved king finds you lacking?”
The captain put a hand on his sword. “If you’d be quiet, you’d hear the rest of what His Highness has to tell you.”
She faced the prince. “Well?”
Dorian leaned back in his throne. “My father needs someone to aid the empire—someone to help him maneuver around difficult people.”
“You mean he needs a lackey for his dirty work.”
“If you want to put it that bluntly, then, yes,” the prince said. “His Champion would keep his opponents quiet.”