“Perhaps. I can understand wanting to kill the competition, but to do it so viciously . . . I hope it’s not a pattern.”
Dorian’s blood went a bit cold. “You think they’ll try to kill Celaena?”
“I added some extra guards around her rooms.”
“To protect her, or to keep her in?”
They stopped at the hallway crossroads where they would part ways to their separate rooms. “What difference does it make?” Chaol said quietly. “You don’t seem to care either way. You’ll visit her no matter what I say, and the guards won’t stop you because you’re the prince.”
There was something so defeated, so bitter, underlying the captain’s words that Dorian, for a heartbeat, felt badly. He should stay away from Celaena—Chaol had enough to worry about. But then he thought of the list his mother made and realized he had enough, too.
“I need to inspect Xavier’s body again. I’ll see you in the hall for dinner tonight,” was all Chaol said before he headed to his rooms. Dorian watched him go. The walk back to his tower felt surprisingly long. He opened the wooden door to his rooms, peeling off his clothing as he headed to the bathing room. He had the entire tower to himself, though his chambers occupied only the upper level. They provided a haven from everyone, but today they just felt empty.
Late that afternoon, Celaena stared at the ebony clock tower. It grew darker and darker, as if it somehow absorbed the sun’s dying rays. On top of it, the gargoyles remained stationary. They hadn’t moved. Not even a finger. The Guardians, Elena had called them. But Guardians to what? They’d scared Elena enough to keep her away. Surely, if they’d been the evil Elena mentioned, she would have just said it outright. Not that Celaena was considering looking for it right now—not when it could get her into trouble. And somehow wind up killing her before she could even become the King’s Champion.
Still, why did Elena have to be so oblique about everything?
“What’s your obsession with these ugly things?” Nehemia asked from beside her.
Celaena turned to the princess. “Do you think they move?”
“They’re made of stone, Lillian,” the princess said in the common tongue, her Eyllwe accent slightly less thick.
“Oh!” Celaena exclaimed, smiling. “That was very good! One lesson, and you’re already putting me to shame!” Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said of Celaena’s Eyllwe.
Nehemia beamed. “They do look wicked,” she said in Eyllwe.
“And I’m afraid the Wyrdmarks don’t help,” Celaena said. A Wyrdmark was at her feet, and she glanced to the others. There were twelve of them all together, forming a large circle around the solitary tower. She hadn’t the faintest idea what any of it meant. None of the marks here matched the three she’d spotted at Xavier’s murder site, but there had to be some connection. “So, you truly can’t read these?” she asked her friend.
“No,” Nehemia said curtly, and headed toward the hedges that bordered the courtyard. “And you shouldn’t try to discover what they say,” she added over her shoulder. “Nothing good will come of it.”
Celaena pulled her cloak tighter around her as she followed after the princess. Snow would start falling in a matter of days, bringing them closer to Yulemas—and the final duel, still two months away. She savored the heat from her cloak, remembering all too well the winter she’d spent in Endovier. Winter was unforgiving when you lived in the shadow of the Ruhnn Mountains. It was a miracle she hadn’t gotten frostbite. If she went back, another winter might kill her.
“You look troubled,” Nehemia said when Celaena reached her side, and put a hand on her arm.
“I’m fine,” Celaena said in Eyllwe, smiling for Nehemia’s sake. “I don’t like winter.”
“I’ve never seen snow,” Nehemia said, looking at the sky. “I wonder how long the novelty will last.”
“Hopefully long enough for you to not mind the drafty corridors, freezing mornings, and days without sunshine.”
Nehemia laughed. “You should come to Eyllwe with me when I return—and make sure you stay long enough to experience one of our blistering summers. Then you’ll appreciate your freezing mornings and days without sun.”
Celaena had already spent one blistering summer in the heat of the Red Desert, but to tell Nehemia that would only invite difficult questions. Instead, she said: “I’d like to see Eyllwe very much.”
Nehemia’s gaze lingered on Celaena’s brow for a moment before she grinned. “Then it shall be so.”
Celaena’s eyes brightened, and she tilted her head back so she could see the castle looming above them. “I wonder if Chaol sorted through the mess of that murder.”
“My bodyguards tell me that the man was . . . very violently killed.”
“To say the least,” Celaena murmured, watching the shifting colors of the fading sun turn the castle gold and red and blue. Despite the ostentatious nature of the glass castle, she had to admit that it did look rather beautiful at times.
“You saw the body? My guards weren’t allowed close enough.”
She nodded slowly. “I’m sure you don’t want to know the details.”
“Indulge me,” Nehemia pressed, smiling tightly.
Celaena raised an eyebrow. “Well—there was blood smeared everywhere. On the walls, on the floor.”
“Smeared?” Nehemia said, her voice dropping into a hush. “Not splattered?”
“I think so. Like someone had rubbed it on there. There were a few of those Wyrdmarks painted, but most had been rubbed away.” She shook her head at the image that arose. “And the man’s body was missing its vital organs—like someone had split him open from neck to navel, and—I’m sorry, you look like you’re going to be ill. I shouldn’t have said anything.”
“No. Keep going. What else was missing?”
Celaena paused for a moment before saying: “His brain. Someone had made a hole in the top of his head, and his brain was gone. And the skin from his face had been ripped off.”
Nehemia nodded, staring at a barren bush in front of them. The princess chewed on her bottom lip, and Celaena noted that her fingers curled and uncurled at the sides of her long, white gown. A cold breeze blew past them, making Nehemia’s multitude of fine, thin braids sway. The gold woven into her braids clinked softly.
“I’m sorry,” Celaena said. “I shouldn’t have—”
A step fell behind them, and before Celaena could whirl, a male voice said: “Look at this.”
She tensed as Cain came to stand nearby, half-hidden in the shadow of the clock tower behind them. Verin, the curly-haired loudmouth thief, was at his side. “What do you want?” she said.
Cain’s tan face twisted in a sneer. Somehow, he’d gotten bigger—or maybe her eyes were playing tricks on her. “Pretending to be a lady doesn’t mean you are one,” he said. Celaena shot Nehemia a look, but the princess’s eyes remained upon Cain—narrowed, but her lips strangely slack.
But Cain wasn’t done, and his attention shifted to Nehemia. His lips pulled back, revealing his gleaming white teeth. “Neither does wearing a crown make you a real princess—not anymore.”
Celaena took a step closer to him. “Shut your stupid mouth, or I’ll punch your teeth down your throat and shut it for you.”
Cain let out a sharp laugh, which Verin echoed. The thief circled behind them, and Celaena straightened, wondering if they’d actually pick a fight here. “Lots of barking from the prince’s lapdog,” Cain said. “But does she have any fangs?”
She felt Nehemia’s hand on her shoulder, but she shrugged it off as she took another step toward him, close enough for the curls of his breath to touch her face. Inside the castle, the guards remained loitering about, talking amongst themselves. “You’ll find out when my fangs are buried in your neck,” she said.
“Why not right now?” Cain breathed. “Come on—hit me. Hit me with all that rage you feel every time you force yourself to miss the bull’s-eye, or when you slow yourself down so you don’t scale walls as fast as me. Hit me, Lillian,” he whispered so only she could hear, “and let’s see what that year in Endovier really taught you.”
Celaena’s heart leapt into a gallop. He knew. He knew who she was, and what she was doing. She didn’t dare to look at Nehemia, and only hoped her understanding of the common language was still weak enough for her not to have understood. Verin still watched from behind them.
“You think you’re the only one whose sponsor is willing to do anything to win? You think your prince and captain are the only ones who know what you are?”
Celaena clenched her hand. Two blows, and he’d be on the ground, struggling to breathe. Another blow after that, and Verin would be beside him.
“Lillian,” Nehemia said in the common tongue, taking her by the hand. “We have business. Let us go.”
“That’s right,” Cain said. “Follow her around like the lapdog you are.”
Celaena’s hand trembled. If she hit him . . . If she hit him, if she got into a brawl right here and the guards had to pull them apart, Chaol might not let her see Nehemia again, let alone leave her rooms after lessons, or stay late to practice with Nox. So Celaena smiled and rolled her shoulders as she said brightly: “Shove it up your ass, Cain.”
Cain and Verin laughed, but she and Nehemia walked away, the princess holding her hand tightly. Not from fear or anger, but just to tell her that she understood . . . that she was there. Celaena squeezed her hand back. It had been a while since someone had looked out for her, and Celaena had the feeling she could get used to it.
Chaol stood with Dorian in the shadows atop the mezzanine, staring down at the assassin as she punched at the dummy situated in the center of the floor. She’d sent him a message saying she was going to train for a few hours after dinner, and he’d invited Dorian to come along to watch. Perhaps Dorian would now see why she was such a threat to him. To everyone.
Celaena grunted, throwing punch after punch, left-right-left-left-right. On and on, as if she had something burning inside of her that she couldn’t quite get out.
“She looks stronger than before,” the prince said quietly. “You’ve done a good job getting her back in shape.” Celaena punched and kicked at the dummy, dodging invisible blows. The guards at the door just watched, their faces impassive. “Do you think she stands a chance against Cain?”
Celaena swung her leg through the air, connecting with the dummy’s head. It rocked back. The blow would have knocked out a man. “I think if she doesn’t get too riled and keeps a cool head when they duel, she might. But she’s . . . wild. And unpredictable. She needs to learn to control her feelings—especially that impossible anger.”
Which was true. Chaol didn’t know if it was because of Endovier, or just being an assassin; whatever the cause of that unyielding rage, she could never entirely leash herself.
“Who’s that?” Dorian asked sharply as Nox entered the room and walked over to Celaena. She paused, rubbing her wrapped knuckles, and wiped the sweat from her eyes as she waved to him.
“Nox,” Chaol said. “A thief from Perranth. Minister Joval’s Champion.”
Nox said something to Celaena that set her chuckling. Nox laughed, too. “She made another friend?” Dorian said, raising his brows as Celaena demonstrated a move for Nox. “She’s helping him?”
“Every day. They usually stay after lessons with the others are over.”
“And you allow this?”