Her eyes became hard and she pointed to the door. “You may leave now.”
“You’re dismissing me?” He didn’t know whether to laugh or yell.
“Shall I summon Chaol to see what he thinks?” She crossed her arms, knowing she had won. Perhaps she’d also realized that there was fun to be had in riling him, too.
“Why should I be thrown from your rooms for stating the truth? You just called me little more than a whoremonger.” He hadn’t had this much fun in ages. “Tell me about your life—how you learned to play the pianoforte so masterfully. And what was that piece? It was so sad; were you thinking about a secret lover?” He winked.
“I practiced.” She stood, walking toward the door. “And yes,” she snapped, “I was.”
“You’re quite prickly tonight,” he said, trailing her. He stopped a foot away, but the space between them felt strangely intimate, especially as he purred, “You’re not nearly as chatty as you were this afternoon.”
“I’m not some odd commodity that you can gawk at!” She stepped closer. “I’m not some carnival exhibit, and you won’t use me as part of some unfulfilled desire for adventure and excitement! Which is undoubtedly why you chose me to be your Champion.”
His mouth fell open and he conceded a step. “What?” was all he managed.
She stalked past him and dropped into the armchair. At least she wasn’t leaving. “Did you honestly think I wouldn’t realize why you came here tonight? As someone who gave me The Crown of a Hero to read, which suggests a rather fanciful mind that yearns for adventure?”
“I don’t think you’re an adventure,” he muttered.
“Oh? The castle offers so much excitement that the presence of Adarlan’s Assassin is nothing unusual? Nothing that would entice a young prince who’s been confined to a court all his life? And what does this competition suggest, for that matter? I’m already at your father’s disposal. I won’t become his son’s jester, too.”
It was his turn to blush. Had he ever been scolded by anyone like this? His parents and tutors perhaps, but certainly not a young woman. “Don’t you know who you’re talking to?”
“My dear prince,” she drawled, examining her nails, “you’re alone in my rooms. The hallway door is very far away. I can say whatever I wish.”
He burst out laughing. She sat up and watched him, her head tilted to the side. Her cheeks were flushed, making her blue eyes even brighter. Did she know what he might have wanted to do with her if she wasn’t an assassin? “I’ll go,” he said at last, stopping himself from wondering if he could actually risk it—risk his father’s and Chaol’s wrath, and what might happen if he decided to damn the consequences. “But I’ll return. Soon.”
“I’m sure,” she said dryly.
“Good night, Sardothien.” He looked around her rooms and grinned. “Tell me something before I leave: this mystery lover of yours . . . he doesn’t live in the castle, does he?”
He instantly knew he’d said the wrong thing when some of the light vanished from her eyes. “Good night,” she said a bit coldly.
Dorian shook his head. “I didn’t mean to—”
She just waved him off, looking toward the fire. Understanding his dismissal, he strode to the door, each of his footsteps sounding in the now too-silent room. He was almost to the threshold when she spoke, her voice distant. “His name was Sam.”
She was still staring at the fire. Was Sam . . . “What happened?”
She looked at him, smiling sadly. “He died.”
“When?” he got out. He would have never teased her like that, never said a damn word if he’d known . . .
Her words were strangled as she said, “Thirteen months ago.”
A glimmer of pain flashed across her face, so real and endless that he felt it in his gut. “I’m sorry,” he breathed.
She shrugged, as if it could somehow diminish the grief he still saw in her eyes, shining so bright in the firelight. “So am I,” she whispered, and faced the fire again.
Sensing she was truly done talking this time, Dorian cleared his throat. “Good luck at the Test tomorrow.” She didn’t say anything as he left the room.
He couldn’t banish her heart-wrenching music from his mind, even when he burned his mother’s list of eligible maidens, even when he read a book long into the night, even when he finally fell asleep.
Celaena dangled from the stone wall of the castle, her legs trembling as she dug her tar-covered fingers and toes into the cracks between the giant blocks. Brullo shouted something at the other nineteen remaining Champions scaling the castle walls, but from seventy feet up, the wind carried his words away. One of the Champions hadn’t shown up for the Test—and even his guards hadn’t known where he went. Maybe he’d actually managed to escape. Risking it seemed better than this miserably stupid Test, anyway. She gritted her teeth, inching her hand upward, and pulled herself up another foot.
Twenty feet up and about thirty feet away flapped the object of this insane race: a golden flag. The Test was simple: climb the castle to where the flag waved ninety feet in the air and retrieve it. First one who grabbed the flag and brought it back down received a pat on the back. Last one to reach the designated spot would be sent back to whatever gutter they came from.
Surprisingly, no one had fallen yet—perhaps because the path to the flag was fairly easy: balconies, windowsills, and trellises covered most of the space. Celaena scooted up another few feet, her fingers aching. Looking down was always a bad idea, even if Arobynn had forced her to stand on the ledge of his Assassin’s Keep for hours on end to become accustomed to heights. She panted as she grasped another window ledge and hoisted herself up. It was deep enough that she could crouch within, and she took a moment to study the other competitors.
Sure enough, Cain was in the lead, and had taken the easiest path toward the flag, Grave and Verin on his trail, Nox close behind, and Pelor, the young assassin, not far below him. There were so many competitors following him that their gear often got tangled together. They’d each been given the opportunity to select one object to aid them in their ascent—rope, spikes, special boots—and sure enough, Cain had gone right for the rope.
She’d taken a small tin of tar, and as Celaena rose from her crouch in the windowsill, her sticky, black hands and bare feet easily gripped the stone wall. She’d used some rope to strap the tin to her belt, and before she stepped out of the shade of the sill, she rubbed a little more on her palms. Someone gasped below, and she swallowed the urge to glance down. She knew she’d taken a more difficult path—but it was better than fighting off all the competitors taking the easy route. She wouldn’t put it past Grave or Verin to shove her off the wall.
Her hands suctioned onto the stone, and Celaena heaved herself upward just in time to hear a shriek, a thump, and then silence, followed by the shouting of onlookers. A competitor had fallen—and died. She looked down and beheld the body of Ned Clement, the murderer who’d called himself the Scythe and spent years in the labor camps of Calaculla for his crimes. A shudder went through her. Though the murder of the Eye Eater had made many of the Champions quiet down, the sponsors certainly didn’t seem to care that this Test might very well kill a few more of them.
She shimmied up a drainpipe, her thighs clinging to the iron. Cain hooked his long rope around a leering gargoyle’s neck and swung across an expanse of flat wall, landing on a balcony ledge fifteen feet below the flag. She fought her frustration as she worked her way up higher and higher, following the course of the drainpipe.
The other competitors shuffled along, following Cain’s path. There were a few more shouts, and she looked down long enough to see that Grave was causing a backup because he couldn’t manage to toss his rope around the gargoyle’s neck as Cain had. Verin nudged the assassin aside and moved past him, easily securing his own rope. Nox, now behind Grave, made to do the same, but Grave started cursing at him, and Nox stopped, lifting his hands in a gesture of placation. Smirking, Celaena braced her blackened feet on a stabilizing bracket holding the pipe in place. She’d soon be directly parallel to the flag. And then only thirty feet of bare stone would separate her from it.
Celaena eased farther up the pipe, her toes sticking to the metal. Fifteen feet below her pipe, a mercenary was clutching the horns of a gargoyle as he set about fastening his rope around its head. He seemed to be taking the faster route across a cluster of gargoyles. Then he’d have to swing onto a landing eighteen feet away, before making his way to the other gargoyles on which Grave and Nox now quarreled. She was in no danger of him trying to scale the drainpipe to bother her. So inch by inch, she moved up, the wind battering her hair this way and that.
It was then that she heard Nox shout, and Celaena looked in time to see Grave shove him from their perch atop the gargoyle’s back. Nox swung wide, the rope wrapped around his middle going taut as he collided with the castle wall below. Celaena froze, her breath catching as Nox scraped his hands and feet against the stone to catch hold.
But Grave wasn’t done yet. He bent under the guise of adjusting his boot, and Celaena saw a small dagger glint in the sunlight. How he’d gotten the weapon past his guards was a feat in itself. Celaena’s warning cry was carried away by the wind as Grave set about sawing Nox’s rope from its tether on the gargoyle. None of the other Champions nearby bothered to do anything, though Pelor paused for a moment before easing around Grave. If Nox died, it was one less competitor—and if they interfered, it might cost them this Test. Celaena knew she should keep moving, but something kept her rooted to the spot.
Nox couldn’t find a hold on the stone wall, and without a nearby ledge or gargoyle to grasp, he had nowhere to go but down. Once the rope broke, he’d fall.
One by one, the threads of his rope snapped beneath Grave’s dagger, and Nox, sensing the vibrations, looked up at the assassin in horror. If he fell, there was no chance of surviving. A few more slices of Grave’s blade and the rope would be severed entirely.
The rope groaned. Celaena moved.
She slid down the drainpipe, the flesh of her feet and hands tearing open as the metal cut into her skin, but she didn’t let herself think of the pain. The mercenary on the gargoyle below only had time to lean into the wall as she slammed onto the creature’s head, gripping its horns to steady herself. The mercenary had already tied one end of his climbing rope around the gargoyle’s neck; now she seized it and tied the other around her own waist. The rope was long enough—and strong enough, and the four gargoyles perched beside hers would provide enough space to run. “Touch this rope and I’ll gut you,” she warned the mercenary, and readied herself.
Nox shouted at Grave, and she dared a look to where the thief dangled. There was a sharp snap of rope breaking, and Nox’s cry of fear and rage, and Celaena took off, sprinting across the backs of the four gargoyles before she launched herself into the void.
Wind tore at her, but Celaena kept her focus on Nox, falling so fast, so far from her outstretched hands.
People shouted below, and the light bouncing off the glass castle blinded her. But there he was, just a hand’s breadth from her fingers, his gray eyes wide, his arms swinging as if he could turn them into wings.
In a heartbeat, her arms were around his middle, and she slammed into him so hard that the breath was knocked from her chest. Together they plummeted like a stone, down, down, down toward the rising ground.
Nox grabbed the rope, but even that wasn’t enough to lighten the blinding impact on her torso as the rope went taut. She held on to him with every ounce of strength she had, willing her arms not to let him go. The rope sent them careening toward the wall. Celaena hardly had the sense to lean her head away from the approaching stones, and the impact burst through her side and shoulder. She held tight to him still, focusing on her arms, on her too-shallow breathing. They hung there, flat against the wall, panting as they looked at the ground thirty feet below. The rope held.