“So you say. But when you called for help—when the amulet snapped, and you let your need be felt—you knew someone would answer. You knew I would answer.”
“Why?” Celaena dared ask. “Why answer? Why do I need to be the King’s Champion?”
Elena lifted her face toward the moonlight streaming into the tomb. “Because there are people who need you to save them as much as you yourself need to be saved,” she said. “Deny it all you want, but there are people—your friends—who need you here. Your friend, Nehemia, needs you here. Because I was sleeping—a long, endless sleep—and I was awoken by a voice. And the voice didn’t belong to one person, but to many. Some whispering, some screaming, some not even aware that they were crying out. But they all want the same thing.” She touched the center of Celaena’s forehead. Heat flared, and a blue light flashed across Elena’s face as Celaena’s mark burned and then faded. “And when you are ready—when you start to hear them crying out as well—then you will know why I came to you, and why I have stood by you, and will continue to watch over you, no matter how many times you shove me away.”
Celaena’s eyes stung, and she took a step back toward the hall.
Elena smiled sadly. “Until that day comes, you’re exactly where you need to be. From the king’s side, you’ll be able to see what needs to be done. But for now—enjoy the accomplishment.”
Celaena felt ill at the thought of what else might be asked of her, but she nodded. “Fine,” she breathed, making to leave, but paused in the hall. She looked over her shoulder, to where the queen still stood, watching her with those sad eyes. “Thank you for saving my life.”
Elena bowed her head. “Blood ties can’t be broken,” she whispered, and then vanished, her words echoing in the silent tomb.
The following day, Celaena approached the glass throne, casting a wary glance about the council chamber. It was the same one in which she’d seen the king those many months ago. A greenish fire burned in the mouthlike fireplace, and thirteen men sat at a long table, each staring at her. But there were no other Champions left—only her. The victor. Dorian stood beside his father and smiled at her.
Hopefully that’s a good sign.
Despite the hope his grin provided, she couldn’t ignore the terror that welled in her heart as the king, with dark eyes, watched her walk forward. The gold skirts of her dress were the only sound in the chamber. Celaena kept her hands pressed against the maroon bodice, trying not to wring them.
She stopped, and bowed. Chaol, standing beside her, did the same. The captain stood closer to her than he needed to.
“You have come to sign your contract,” the king said, and his voice made her bones splinter.
How can such a beastly man possess this sort of power over the world?
“Yes, Your Majesty,” she said as submissively as possible, staring at the man’s boots.
“Be my Champion, and you’ll find yourself a free woman. Four years of service was the bargain you set with my son, though I cannot imagine why he felt the need to bargain with you,” he said with a deadly glare in Dorian’s direction. Dorian bit his lip, but said nothing.
Her heart dropped and rose inside of her like a buoy. She would do whatever the king asked—every foul mission he could throw at her, and then when the four years were over, she’d be free to live her own life, without fear of pursuit or enslavement. She could begin again—far away from Adarlan. She could go away and forget this awful kingdom.
She didn’t know whether to smile, or to laugh, or to nod, or to cry and dance about. She could live off of her fortune until old age. She wouldn’t have to kill. She could say good-bye to Arobynn and leave Adarlan forever.
“Aren’t you going to thank me?” the king barked.
She dropped into a low bow, barely able to contain her joy. She had defeated him—she had sinned against his empire and now would emerge victorious. “Thank you for such an honor and gift, Your Majesty. I am your humble servant.”
The king snorted. “Lying won’t help you. Bring the contract forward.” A councilman dutifully placed a piece of parchment on the table before her.
She stared at the quill and the blank line where her name was to go.
The king’s eyes flashed, but she didn’t bite. Just one sign of rebellion, one movement of aggression, and he’d hang her. “There will be no questioning on your part. When I tell you to do something, you will do it. I don’t need to explain myself to you. And if you somehow are caught, you will deny any connection to me to your last breath. Is that clear?”
“Perfectly, Your Majesty.”
He strode from the dais. Dorian started to move, but Chaol shook his head.
Celaena looked at the floor as the king stopped before her. “Now understand this, assassin,” the king said. She felt small and frail, so close to him. “Should you fail any of my tasks, should you forget to return, you will pay dearly.” The king’s voice became so soft that even she could barely hear it. “If you don’t return from the missions on which I send you, I’ll have your friend, the captain”—he paused for emphasis—“killed.”
Her eyes were wide as she stared at his empty throne.
“If you fail to return after that, I’ll have Nehemia killed. Then, I’ll have her brothers executed. Not long after that, I’ll bury their mother beside them. Don’t believe I’m not as cunning and stealthy as you are.” She could feel him smile. “You get the picture, don’t you?” He pulled away. “Sign it.”
She looked at the blank space, and what it offered. She took a silent, long breath, and with a prayer for her soul, she signed. Each letter was harder to form than the last. Finally, she let the quill drop onto the table.
“Good. Now get out,” the king said, pointing at the door. “I’ll summon you when you’re needed.”
The king sat on his throne again. Celaena bowed carefully, not taking her stare from his face. Only for an instant did she glance at Dorian, whose sapphire eyes gleamed with what she could have sworn was sadness before he smiled at her. She felt Chaol’s hand graze her arm.
Chaol would die. She couldn’t send him to his death. Or the Ytger family. With feet both heavy and light, she left the chamber.
Outside, the wind bellowed and raged against the glass spire, but it could do nothing to shatter the walls.
With each step away from the chamber, the weight on her shoulders lifted. Chaol remained silent until they entered the stone castle, when he turned to her.
“Well, Champion,” he said. He still wasn’t wearing his sword.
The corners of his mouth tugged upward. “Are you happy now?”
She didn’t fight her own grin. “I may have just signed away my soul, but . . . yes. Or as happy as I can be.”
“Celaena Sardothien, the King’s Champion,” he mused.
“What about it?”
“I like the sound of it,” he said, shrugging. “Do you want to know what your first mission will be?”
She looked at his golden-brown eyes and all of the promises that lay within them, and linked her arm with his as she smiled. “Tell me tomorrow.”