Tomorrow—or was it today already?—she’d face Cain. She’d never sparred with him in practice. The other Champions had been too eager to get a piece of him. While Cain was strong, he wasn’t as fast as she was. But he had stamina. She’d have to dodge him for a while. She just prayed all that running with Chaol would keep her from tiring before him. If she lost—
Don’t even give yourself that option.
She leaned her forehead against the glass. Would it be more honorable to fall in the duel than to return to Endovier? Or would it be more honorable to die than to become the King’s Champion? Who would he have her kill?
She’d had a say as Adarlan’s Assassin. Even with Arobynn Hamel running her life, she’d always had a say in what jobs she took. No children. No one from Terrasen. But the king could tell her to kill anyone. Did Elena expect her to say no to him when she was his Champion? Her stomach rose in her throat. Now wasn’t the time for this. She had to focus on Cain, on wearing him down.
But try as she might, all she could think about was that half-starved, hopeless assassin who’d been dragged out of Endovier one autumn day by a snarling Captain of the Guard. What would she have said to the prince’s bargain, had she known she would come to stand poised to lose so much? Would she have laughed if she’d known that other things—other people—would come to mean as much as her freedom?
Celaena swallowed the lump in her throat. Perhaps there were other reasons to fight tomorrow. Perhaps a few months in the castle hadn’t been enough. Perhaps . . . perhaps she wanted to stay here for reasons other than her eventual freedom. That was one thing that hopeless assassin from Endovier would have never believed.
But it was true. She wanted to stay.
And that would make tomorrow so much harder.
Kaltain pulled her red cape around her, savoring its warmth. Why were the duels outside? She’d freeze before the assassin arrived! She fingered the vial in her pocket, and glanced at the two goblets on the wooden table. The one on the right was for Sardothien. She must not confuse them.
She looked to Perrington, who stood near the king. He had no idea what she’d do once Sardothien was out of the way—once Dorian was free again. Her blood grew warm and glittering.
The duke moved toward her, and Kaltain kept her eyes on the tiled veranda where the duel was to occur. He stopped in front of her, making a wall between her and the other council members so that none could see.
“A bit chilly for an outside duel,” he said. Kaltain smiled and let the folds of her cloak fall over the table as he kissed her hand. With a veil of red to conceal her stealthy, free hand, Kaltain flicked off the lid of the vial and dumped the contents into the wine. The vial was back in her pocket as he raised himself. Just enough to weaken Sardothien—to make her dizzy and disoriented.
A guard appeared in the doorway, and then another. Between them strode a figure. She wore men’s clothes, though Kaltain was forced to admit that her black-and-gold jacket was of fine make. It was strange to think of this woman as an assassin, but seeing her now, all of her oddities and faults made sense. Kaltain ran a finger along the base of the goblet and grinned.
Duke Perrington’s Champion emerged from behind the clock tower. Kaltain’s brows rose. They thought Sardothien could defeat such a man if she wasn’t drugged?
Kaltain took a step back from the table, and Perrington moved to sit beside the king as the other two Champions arrived. With eager faces, they waited for blood.
Standing on the wide veranda that encompassed the obsidian clock tower, Celaena tried not to shiver. She couldn’t see the point in having the duels outside—well, apart from making the Champions even more uncomfortable. She glanced longingly at the glass windows that lined the wall of the castle, and then at the frost-covered garden. Her hands were already numb. Tucking them into her fur-lined pockets, she approached Chaol, who was standing near the edge of the giant chalk circle that had been drawn on the flagstones.
“It’s freezing out here,” she said. The collar and sleeves of her black jacket were lined with rabbit fur, but it wasn’t enough. “Why didn’t you tell me it was outside?”
Chaol shook his head, looking at Grave, and at Renault—the mercenary from Skull’s Bay, who, to her satisfaction, also seemed fairly miserable in the cold. “We didn’t know; the king decided just now,” Chaol said. “At least it should be over quickly.” He smiled slightly, though she didn’t return it.
The sky was bright blue, and she gritted her teeth as a strong gust of wind ripped into her. The thirteen seats of the table were filling up, and at the center of the table sat the king and Perrington. Kaltain stood behind Perrington, wearing a beautiful red cloak lined with white fur. Their eyes met, and Celaena wondered why the woman smiled at her. Kaltain then looked away—toward the tower, and Celaena followed her gaze and understood.
Cain was leaning against the clock tower. His muscles were barely contained within his tunic. All that stolen strength . . . what would have happened if the ridderak had killed her, too? How much stronger would he be today? Worse, he was wearing the red-and-gold garb of a member of the royal guard—the wyvern emblazoned across his broad chest. The sword at his side was beautiful. A gift from Perrington, no doubt. Did the duke know the power his Champion wielded? Even if she tried to reveal him, no one would ever believe her.
Nausea gripped her, but Chaol took her by the elbow and escorted her to the far end of the veranda. At the table, she noticed two aging men casting anxious glances at her. She nodded to them.
Lords Urizen and Garnel. It seems you obtained what you desired enough to kill for. And it seems someone told you who I actually am.
It had been two years ago that they hired her, separately, to kill the same man. She hadn’t bothered to tell them, of course, and accepted both their payments. She winked at Lord Garnel, and he paled, knocking over his goblet of hot cocoa and ruining the papers before him. Oh, she’d keep their secrets; it would tarnish her reputation otherwise. But if her freedom came down to a vote . . . She smiled at Lord Urizen, who looked away. Her gaze shifted to another man, who she found staring at her.
The king. Deep inside, she quaked, but she bowed her head.
“Are you ready?” Chaol asked. Celaena blinked, remembering that he was beside her.
“Yes,” she said, though she didn’t mean it. The wind whipped through her hair, knotting it with frozen fingers. Dorian appeared by the table, heartbreakingly handsome as always, and gave her a grim smile as he stuffed his hands in his pockets and looked toward his father.
The last of the king’s councilmen sat down at the table. Celaena cocked her head as Nehemia emerged to stand along the sidelines of the large white circle. The princess met her stare and lifted her chin in encouragement. She wore a spectacular outfit: close-fitting pants, a layered tunic studded with whorls of iron, and knee-high boots; she carried her wooden staff, which stretched as high as her head. To honor her, Celaena realized, her eyes stinging. One fellow warrior acknowledging the other.
Everyone grew silent as the king rose. Her insides turned to stone, and she felt clumsy and thick, but also light and weak as a newborn.
Chaol nudged her with an elbow, motioning for her to stand before the table. She focused on her feet as she moved, and wouldn’t look at the king’s face. Thankfully, Renault and Grave flanked her. If Cain had been standing beside her, she might have snapped his neck just to end it there. There were so many people watching her . . .
She stood not ten feet from the King of Adarlan. Freedom or death lay at this table. Her past and future were seated on a glass throne.
Her gaze shifted to Nehemia, whose fierce and graceful eyes warmed the marrow of her bones and steadied her arms.
The King of Adarlan spoke. Knowing that seeing his face would only weaken the strength she’d found in Nehemia’s eyes, she looked not at him, but at the throne behind him. She wondered if Kaltain’s presence meant that Duke Perrington had told her who Celaena truly was.
“You were taken from your miserable lives so you might prove yourself worthy of becoming a sacred warrior to the Crown. After months of training, the moment has come to decide who my Champion shall be. You will face each other in a duel. You can win only by trapping your opponent in a position of sure death. And no further,” he added with a sharp glance in her direction. “Cain and Councilman Garnel’s Champion will go first. Then my son’s Champion will face Councilman Mullison’s Champion.”
Of course, the king would know Cain’s name. He might as well have just declared the brute his Champion. “The winners will face each other in a final duel. Whoever wins will be crowned King’s Champion. Is that clear?”
They nodded. For a heartbeat, she saw the king with stark clarity. He was just a man—a man with too much power. And in that one heartbeat, she didn’t fear him. I will not be afraid, she vowed, wrapping the familiar words around her heart. “Then let the duels commence on my command,” the king said.
Taking that as a sign that she could clear out of the ring, Celaena stalked to where Chaol stood and took up a place beside him.
Cain and Renault bowed to the king, then to each other, and drew their swords. She ran an eye down Renault’s body as he took his stance. She’d seen him square off against Cain before; he’d never won, but he always managed to hold out longer than she would have thought possible. Perhaps he’d win.
But Cain lifted his sword. He had the better weapon. And he had half a foot on Renault.
“Begin,” the king said. Metal flashed. They struck each other and danced back. Renault, refusing to take up the defensive, swept forward again, landing a few strong blows on Cain’s blade. She forced her shoulders to relax, forced herself to breathe down the cold air.
“Do you think it was just poor luck,” she murmured to Chaol, “that I’m the one going second?”
He kept his attention on the duel. “I think you’ll be allowed proper time to rest.” He jerked his chin at the dueling men. “Cain sometimes forgets to guard his right side. Look there.” Celaena watched as Cain struck, twisting his body so his right side was wide open. “Renault doesn’t even notice.” Cain grunted and pressed Renault’s blade, forcing the mercenary to take a step back. “He just missed his chance.”
The wind roared around them. “Keep your wits about you,” Chaol said, still watching the duel. Renault was retreating, each swing of Cain’s blade taking him closer and closer to the line of chalk that had been drawn on the ground. One step outside of that ring and he’d be disqualified. “He’ll try to provoke you. Don’t get angry. Focus only on his blade, and that unprotected side of his.”
“I know,” she said, and shifted her gaze back to the duel just in time to see Renault cry out and stumble back. Blood sprayed from his nose, and he hit the ground hard. Cain, his fist smeared with Renault’s blood, only smiled as he pointed the blade at Renault’s heart. The mercenary’s bloody face went white, and he bared his teeth as he stared up at his conqueror.
She looked at the clock tower. He hadn’t lasted three minutes.
There was polite clapping, and Celaena noticed that Lord Garnel’s face was set with fury. She could only guess how much money he’d just lost.
“A valiant effort,” said the king. Cain bowed and didn’t offer Renault a hand to help him rise before he stalked toward the opposite end of the veranda. With more dignity than Celaena had expected, Renault got to his feet and bowed to the king, mumbling his thanks. Clutching his nose, the mercenary slunk away. What had he stood to lose—and where would he return to now?
Across the ring, Grave smiled at her as he wrapped a hand around the hilt of his sword. She bit down on her grimace at the sight of his teeth. Of course, she’d have to duel the grotesque one. At least Renault had been clean looking.