Main Crown of Midnight Throne of Glass

Crown of Midnight Throne of Glass

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For Susan—

best friends until we’re nothing but dust.

(And then some.)




Part One

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Part Two

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56


Books by Sarah J. Maas

Part One

The King’s Champion

Chapter 1

The shutters swinging in the storm winds were the only sign of her entry. No one had noticed her scaling the garden wall of the darkened manor house, and with the thunder and the gusting wind off the nearby sea, no one heard her as she shimmied up the drainpipe, swung onto the windowsill, and slithered into the second-floor hallway.

The King’s Champion pressed herself into an alcove at the thud of approaching steps. Concealed beneath a black mask and hood, she willed herself to melt into the shadows, to become nothing more than a slip of darkness. A servant girl trudged past to the open window, grumbling as she latched it shut. Seconds later, she disappeared down the stairwell at the other end of the hall. The girl hadn’t noticed the wet footprints on the floorboards.

Lightning flashed, illuminating the hallway. The assassin took a long breath, going over the plans she’d painstakingly memorized in the three days she’d been watching the manor house on the outskirts of Bellhaven. Five doors on each side. Lord Nirall’s bedroom was the third on the left.

She listened for the approach of any other servants, but the house remained hushed as the sto; rm raged around them.

Silent and smooth as a wraith, she moved down the hall. Lord Nirall’s bedroom door swung open with a slight groan. She waited until the next rumble of thunder before easing the door shut behind her.

Another flash of lightning illuminated two figures sleeping in the four-poster bed. Lord Nirall was no older than thirty-five, and his wife, dark haired and beautiful, slept soundly in his arms. What had they done to off end the king so gravely that he wanted them dead?

She crept to the edge of the bed. It wasn’t her place to ask questions. Her job was to obey. Her freedom depended on it. With each step toward Lord Nirall, she ran through the plan again.

Her sword slid out of its sheath with barely a whine. She took a shuddering breath, bracing herself for what would come next.

Lord Nirall’s eyes flew open just as the King’s Champion raised her sword over his head.

Chapter 2

Celaena Sardothien stalked down the halls of the glass castle of Rifthold. The heavy sack clenched in her hand swung with each step, banging every so often into her knees. Despite the hooded black cloak that concealed much of her face, the guards didn’t stop her as she strode toward the King of Adarlan’s council chamber. They knew very well who she was—and what she did for the king. As the King’s Champion, she outranked them. Actually, there were few in the castle she didn’t outrank now. And fewer still who didn’t fear her.

She approached the open glass doors, her cloak sweeping behind her. The guards posted on either side straightened as she gave them a nod before entering the council chamber. Her black boots were nearly silent against the red marble floor.

On the glass throne in the center of the room sat the King of Adarlan, his dark gaze locked on the sack dangling from her fingers. Just as she had the last three times, Celaena dropped to one knee before his throne and bowed her head.

Dorian Havilliard stood beside his father’s throne—and she could feel his sapphire eyes fixed on her. At the foot of the dais, always between her and the royal family, stood Chaol Westfall, Captain of the Guard. She looked up at him from the shadows of her hood, taking in the lines of his face. For all the expression he showed, she might as well have been a stranger. But that was expected, and it was just part of the game they’d become so skilled at playing these past few months. Chaol might be her friend, might be someone she’d somehow come to trust, but he was still captain—still responsible for the royal lives in this room above all others. The king spoke.


Celaena kept her chin high as she stood and pulled off her hood.

The king waved a hand at her, the obsidian ring on his finger gleaming in the afternoon light. “Is it done?”

Celaena reached a gloved hand into the sack and tossed the severed head toward him. No one spoke as it bounced, a vulgar thudding of stiff and rotting flesh on marble. It rolled to a stop at the foot of the dais, milky eyes turned toward the ornate glass chandelier overhead.

Dorian straightened, glancing away from the head. Chaol just stared at her.

“He put up a fight,” Celaena said.

The king leaned forward, examining the mauled face and the jagged cuts in the neck. “I can barely recognize him.”

Celaena gave him a crooked smile, though her throat tightened. “I’m afraid severed heads don’t travel well.” She fished in her sack again, pulling out a hand. “Here’s his seal ring.” She tried not to focus too much on the decaying flesh she held, the reek that had worsened with each passing day. She extended the hand to Chaol, whose bronze eyes were distant as he took it from her and offered it to the king. The king’s lip curled, but he pried the ring off the stiff finger. He tossed the hand at her feet as he examined the ring.

Beside his father, Dorian shifted. When she’d been dueling in the competition, he hadn’t seemed to mind her history. What did he expect would happen when she became the King’s Champion? Though she supposed severed limbs and heads would turn the stomachs of most people—even after living for a decade under Adarlan’s rule. And Dorian, who had never seen battle, never witnessed the chained lines shuffling their way to the butchering blocks … Perhaps she should be impressed he hadn’t vomited yet.

“What of his wife?” the king demanded, turning the ring over in his fingers again and again.

“Chained to what’s left of her husband at the bottom of the sea,” Celaena replied with a wicked grin, and removed the slender, pale hand from her sack. It bore a golden wedding band, engraved with the date of the marriage. She offered it to the king, but he shook his head. She didn’t dare look at Dorian or Chaol as she put the woman’s hand back in the thick canvas sack.

“Very well, then,” the king murmured. She remained still as his eyes roved over her, the sack, the head. After a too-long moment, he spoke again. “There is a growing rebel movement here in Rifthold, a group of individuals who are willing to do anything to get me off the throne—and who are attempting to interfere with my plans. Your next assignment is to root out and dispatch them all before they become a true threat to my empire.”

Celaena clenched the sack so tightly her fingers ached. Chaol and Dorian were staring at the king now, as if this were the first they were hearing of this, too.

She’d heard whispers of rebel forces before she’d gone to Endovier—she’d met fallen rebels in the salt mines. But to have an actual movement growing in the heart of the capital; to have her be the one to dispatch them one by one … And plans—what plans? What did the rebels know of the king’s maneuverings? She shoved the questions down, down, down, until there was no possibility of his reading them on her face.

The king drummed his fingers on the arm of the throne, still playing with Nirall’s ring in his other hand. “There are several people on my list of suspected traitors, but I will only give you one name at a time. This castle is crawling with spies.”

Chaol stiffened at that, but the king waved his hand and the captain approached her, his face still blank as he extended a piece of paper to Celaena.

She avoided the urge to stare at Chaol’s face as he gave her the letter, though his gloved fingers grazed hers before he let go. Keeping her features neutral, she looked at the paper. On it was a single name: Archer Finn.

It took every ounce of will and sense of self-preservation to keep her shock from showing. She knew Archer—had known him since she was thirteen and he’d come for lessons at the Assassins’ Keep. He’d been several years older, already a highly sought-after courtesan … who was in need of some training on how to protect himself from his rather jealous clients. And their husbands.

He’d never minded her ridiculous girlhood crush on him. In fact, he’d let her test out flirting with him, and had usually turned her into a complete giggling mess. Of course, she hadn’t seen him for several years—since before she went to Endovier—but she’d never thought him capable of something like this. He’d been handsome and kind and jovial, not a traitor to the crown so dangerous that the king would want him dead.

It was absurd. Whoever was giving the king his information was a damned idiot.

“Just him, or all his clients, too?” Celaena blurted.

The king gave her a slow smile. “You know Archer? I’m not surprised.” A taunt—a challenge.

She just stared ahead, willing herself to calm, to breathe. “I used to. He’s an extraordinarily well-guarded man. I’ll need time to get past his defenses.” So carefully said, so casually phrased. What she really needed time for was to figure out how Archer had gotten tangled up in this mess—and whether the king was telling the truth. If Archer truly were a traitor and a rebel … well, she’d figure that out later.

“Then you have one month,” the king said. “And if he’s not buried by then, perhaps I shall reconsider your position, girl.”

She nodded, submissive, yielding, gracious. “Thank you, Your Majesty.”

“When you have dispatched Archer, I will give you the next name on the list.”

She had avoided the politics of the kingdoms—especially their rebel forces—for so many years, and now she was in the thick of it. Wonderful.

“Be quick,” the king warned. “Be discreet. Your payment for Nirall is already in your chambers.”

Celaena nodded again and shoved the piece of paper into her pocket.

The king was staring at her. Celaena looked away but forced a corner of her mouth to twitch upward, to make her eyes glitter with the thrill of the hunt. At last, the king lifted his gaze to the ceiling. “Take that head and be gone.” He pocketed Nirall’s seal ring, and Celaena swallowed her twinge of disgust. A trophy.

She scooped up the head by its dark hair and grabbed the severed hand, stuffing them into the sack. With only a glance at Dorian, whose face had gone pale, she turned on her heel and left.

Dorian Havilliard stood in silence as the servants rearranged the chamber, dragging the giant oak table and ornate chairs into the center of the room. They had a council meeting in three minutes. He hardly heard as Chaol took his leave, saying he’d like to debrief Celaena further. His father grunted his approval.

Celaena had killed a man and his wife. And his father had ordered it. Dorian had barely been able to look at either of them. He thought he’d been able to convince his father to reevaluate his brutal policies after the massacre of those rebels in Eyllwe before Yulemas, but it seemed like it hadn’t made any difference. And Celaena …

As soon as the servants finished arranging the table, Dorian slid into his usual seat at his father’s right. The councilmen began trickling in, along with Duke Perrington, who went straight to the king and began murmuring to him, too soft for Dorian to hear.

Dorian didn’t bother saying anything to anyone and just stared at the glass pitcher of water before him. Celaena hadn’t seemed like herself just now.

Actually, for the two months since she’d been named the King’s Champion, she’d been like this. Her lovely dresses and ornate clothes were gone, replaced by an unforgiving, close-cut black tunic and pants, her hair pulled back in a long braid that fell into the folds of that dark cloak she was always wearing. She was a beautiful wraith—and when she looked at him, it was like she didn’t even know who he was.

Dorian glanced at the open doorway, through which she had vanished moments before.

If she could kill people like this, then manipulating him into believing she felt something for him would have been all too easy. Making an ally of him—making him love her enough to face his father on her behalf, to ensure that she was appointed Champion …

Dorian couldn’t bring himself to finish the thought. He’d visit her—tomorrow, perhaps. Just to see if there was a chance he was wrong.

But he couldn’t help wondering if he’d ever meant anything to Celaena at all.

Celaena strode quickly and quietly down hallways and stairwells, taking the now-familiar route to the castle sewer. It was the same waterway that flowed past her secret tunnel, though here it smelled far worse, thanks to the servants depositing refuse almost hourly.

Her steps, then a second pair—Chaol’s—echoed in the long subterranean passage. But she didn’t say anything until she stopped at the edge of the water, glancing at the several archways that opened on either side of the river. No one was here.

“So,” she said without looking behind her, “are you going to say hello, or are you just going to follow me everywhere?” She turned to face him, the sack still dangling from her hand.

“Are you still acting like the King’s Champion, or are you back to being Celaena?” In the torchlight, his bronze eyes glittered.

Of course Chaol would notice the difference; he noticed everything. She couldn’t tell whether it pleased her or not. Especially when there was a slight bite to his words.

When she didn’t reply, he asked, “How was Bellhaven?”

“The same as it always is.” She knew precisely what he meant; he wanted to know how her mission had gone.

“He fought you?” He jerked his chin toward the sack in her hand.

She shrugged and turned back to the dark river. “It was nothing I couldn’t handle.” She tossed the sack into the sewer. They watched in silence as it bobbed, then slowly sank.

Chaol cleared his throat. She knew he hated this. When she’d gone on her first mission—to an estate up the coast in Meah—he’d paced so much before she left that she honestly thought he would ask her not to go. And when she’d returned, severed head in tow and rumors flying about Sir Carlin’s murder, it had taken a week for him to even look her in the eye. But what had he expected?

“When will you begin your new mission?” he asked.

“Tomorrow. Or the day after. I need to rest,” she added quickly when he frowned. “And besides, it’ll only take me a day or two to figure out how guarded Archer is and sort out my approach. Hopefully I won’t even need the month the king gave me.” And hopefully Archer would have some answers about how he’d gotten on the king’s list, and what plans, exactly, that the king had alluded to. Then she would figure out what to do with him.

Chaol stepped beside her, still staring at the filthy water, where the sack was undoubtedly now caught in the current and drifting out into the Avery River and the sea beyond. “I’d like to debrief you.”

She raised an eyebrow. “Aren’t you at least going to take me to dinner first?” His eyes narrowed, and she gave him a pout.

“It’s not a joke. I want the details of what happened with Nirall.”

She brushed him aside with a grin, wiping her gloves on her pants before heading back up the stairs.

Chaol grabbed her arm. “If Nirall fought back, then there might be witnesses who heard—”

“He didn’t make any noise,” Celaena snapped, shaking him off as she stormed up the steps. After two weeks of travel, she just wanted to sleep. Even the walk up to her rooms felt like a trek. “You don’t need to debrief me, Chaol.”

He stopped her again at a shadowy landing with a firm hand on her shoulder. “When you go away,” he said, the distant torchlight illuminating the rugged planes of his face, “I have no idea what’s happening to you. I don’t know if you’re hurt or rotting in a gutter somewhere. Yesterday I heard a rumor that they caught the killer responsible for Nirall’s death.” He brought his face close to hers, his voice hoarse. “Until you arrived today, I thought they meant you. I was about to go down there myself to find you.”

Well, that would explain why she’d seen Chaol’s horse being saddled at the stables when she arrived. She loosed a breath, her face suddenly warm. “Have a little more faith in me than that. I am the King’s Champion, after all.”

She didn’t have time to brace herself as he pulled her against him, his arms wrapping tightly around her.

She didn’t hesitate before twining her arms over his shoulders, breathing in the scent of him. He hadn’t held her since the day she’d learned she had officially won the competition, though the memory of that embrace often drifted into her thoughts. And as she held him now, the craving for it never to stop roared through her.

His nose grazed the nape of her neck. “Gods above, you smell horrible,” he muttered.

She hissed and shoved him, her face burning in earnest now. “Carrying around dead body parts for weeks isn’t exactly conducive to smelling nice! And maybe if I’d been given time for a bath instead of being ordered to report immediately to the king, I might have—” She stopped herself at the sight of his grin and smacked his shoulder. “Idiot.” Celaena linked arms with him, tugging him up the stairs. “Come on. Let’s go to my rooms so you can debrief me like a proper gentleman.”

Chaol snorted and nudged her with his elbow but didn’t let go.

After a joyous Fleetfoot calmed down enough for Celaena to speak without being licked, Chaol squeezed every last detail from her and left her with the promise to return for dinner in a few hours. And after she let Philippa fuss over her in the bath and bemoan the state of her hair and nails, Celaena collapsed onto her bed.

Fleetfoot leapt up beside her, curling in close to her side. Stroking the dog’s silky golden coat, Celaena stared at the ceiling, the exhaustion seeping out of her sore muscles.

The king had believed her.

And Chaol hadn’t once doubted her story as he inquired about her mission. She couldn’t quite decide if that made her feel smug, disappointed, or outright guilty. But the lies had rolled off her tongue. Nirall awoke right before she killed him, she had to slit his wife’s throat to keep her from screaming, and the fight was a tad messier than she would have liked. She’d thrown in real details, too: the second-floor hall window, the storm, the servant with the candle … The best lies were always mixed with truth.

Celaena clutched the amulet on her chest. The Eye of Elena. She hadn’t seen Elena since their last encounter in the tomb; hopefully, now that she was the King’s Champion, the ancient queen’s ghost would leave her alone. Still, in the months since Elena had given her the amulet for protection, Celaena had come to find its presence reassuring. The metal was always warm, as though it had a life of its own.

She squeezed it hard. If the king knew the truth about what she did—what she’d been doing these past two months …

She had embarked on the first mission intending to quickly dispatch the target. She’d prepared herself for the kill, told herself that Sir Carlin was nothing but a stranger and his life meant nothing to her. But when she got to his estate and witnessed the unusual kindness with which he treated his servants, when she saw him playing the lyre with a traveling minstrel he sheltered in his hall, when she realized whose agenda she was aiding … she couldn’t do it. She tried to bully and coax and bribe herself into doing it. But she couldn’t.

Still, she had to produce a murder scene—and a body.

She’d given Lord Nirall the same choice she’d given Sir Carlin: die right then, or fake his own death and flee—flee far, and never use his given name again. So far, of the four men she’d been assigned to dispatch, all had chosen escape.

It wasn’t hard to get them to part with their seal rings or other token items. And it was even easier to get them to hand over their nightclothes so she could slash them in accordance with the wounds she would claim to have given them. Bodies were easy to acquire, too.

Sick-houses were always dumping fresh corpses. It was never hard to find one that looked enough like her target—especially since the locations of the kills had been distant enough to give the flesh time to rot.

She didn’t know who the head of Lord Nirall actually belonged to—only that he had similar hair, and when she inflicted a few slashes on his face and let the whole thing decompose a bit, it did the job. The hand had also come from that corpse. And the lady’s hand … that had come from a young woman barely into her first bleeding, struck dead by a sickness that ten years ago a gifted healer could easily have cured. But with magic gone and those wise healers hanged or burned, people were dying in droves. Dying from stupid, once-curable illnesses. She rolled over to bury her face in Fleetfoot’s soft coat.

Archer. How was she going to fake his death? He was so popular, and so recognizable. She still couldn’t imagine him having a connection to whatever this underground movement was. But if he was on the king’s list, then perhaps in the years since she’d seen him Archer had used his talents to become powerful.

Yet what information could the movement possibly have on the king’s plans that would make it a true threat? The king had enslaved the entire continent—what more could he do?

There were other continents, of course. Other continents with wealthy kingdoms—like Wendlyn, that faraway land across the sea. It had held out against his naval attacks so far, but she’d heard next to nothing about that war since before she’d gone to Endovier.

And why would a rebel movement care about kingdoms on another continent when they had their own to worry about? So the plans had to be about this land, this continent.

She didn’t want to know. She didn’t want to know what the king was doing, what he imagined for the empire. She’d use this month to figure out what to do with Archer and pretend she’d never heard that horrible word: plans.

Celaena fought a shudder. She was playing a very, very lethal game. And now that her targets were people in Rifthold—now that it was Archer … She’d have to find a way to play it better. Because if the king ever learned the truth, if he found out what she was doing …

He’d destroy her.

Chapter 3

Celaena sprinted through the darkness of the secret passageway, her breathing ragged. She glanced over her shoulder to find Cain grinning at her, his eyes like burning coals.

No matter how fast she ran, his stalking gait easily kept him just behind her. After him flowed a wake of glowing green Wyrdmarks, their strange shapes and symbols illuminating the ancient blocks of stone. And behind Cain, its long nails scraping against the ground, lumbered the ridderak.

Celaena stumbled, but remained upright. Each step felt like she was wading through mud. She couldn’t escape him. He would catch her eventually. And once the ridderak got hold of her … She didn’t dare glance again at those too-big teeth that jutted out of its mouth or those fathomless eyes, gleaming with the desire to devour her bit by bit.

Cain chuckled, the sound grating on the stone walls. He was close now. Close enough that his fingers raked against the nape of her neck. He whispered her name, her true name, and she screamed as he—

Celaena awoke with a gasp, clutching the Eye of Elena. She scanned the room for denser shadows, for glowing Wyrdmarks, for signs that the secret door was open behind the tapestry that concealed it. But there was only the crackling of the dying fire.

Celaena sank back into her pillows. It was just a nightmare. Cain and the ridderak were gone, and Elena wouldn’t bother her again. It was over.

Fleetfoot, sleeping under the many layers of blankets, put her head on Celaena’s stomach. Celaena nestled down farther, wrapping her arms around the dog as she closed her eyes.

It was over.

In the chill mists of early morning, Celaena hurled a stick across the wide field of the game park. Fleetfoot took off through the pale grass like a bolt of golden lightning, so fast that Celaena let out a low, appreciative whistle. Beside her, Nehemia clicked her tongue, her eyes on the swift hound. With Nehemia so busy winning over Queen Georgina and gleaning information about the king’s plans for Eyllwe, dawn was usually the only time they could see each other. Did the king know that the princess was one of the spies he’d mentioned? He couldn’t, or else he’d never trust Celaena to be his Champion, not when their friendship was widely known.

“Why Archer Finn?” Nehemia mused in Eyllwe, keeping her voice low. Celaena had explained her latest mission, keeping the details brief.

Fleetfoot reached the stick and trotted back to them, her long tail wagging. Even though she wasn’t yet fully grown, the dog was already abnormally large. Dorian had never said what breed, exactly, he suspected her mother had mated with. Given Fleetfoot’s size, it could have been a wolfhound. Or an actual wolf.

Celaena shrugged at Nehemia’s question, stuffing her hands into the fur-lined pockets of her cloak. “The king thinks … he thinks that Archer is a part of some secret movement against him. A movement here in Rifthold to get him off the throne.”

“Surely no one would be that bold. The rebels hide out in the mountains and forests and places where the local people can conceal and support them—not here. Rifthold would be a death trap.”

Celaena shrugged again just as Fleetfoot returned and demanded the stick be thrown again. “Apparently not. And apparently the king has a list of people whom he thinks are key players in this movement against him.”

“And you’re to … kill them all?” Nehemia’s creamy brown face paled slightly.

“One by one,” Celaena said, throwing the stick as far as she could into the misty field. Fleetfoot shot off, dried grass and the remnants of the last snowstorm crunching beneath her huge paws. “He’ll only reveal one name at a time. A bit dramatic, if you ask me. But apparently they’re interfering with his plans.”

“What plans?” Nehemia said sharply.

Celaena frowned. “I was hoping you might know.”

“I don’t.” There was a tense pause. “If you learn anything …,” Nehemia began.

“I’ll see what I can do,” Celaena lied. She wasn’t even sure if she truly wanted to know what the king was up to—let alone share that information with anyone else. It was selfish, and stupid, perhaps, but she couldn’t forget the warning the king had given the day he crowned her Champion: if she stepped out of line, if she betrayed him, he’d kill Chaol. And then Nehemia, and then the princess’s family.

And all of this—every death she faked, every lie she told—put them at risk.

Nehemia shook her head but didn’t reply. Whenever the princess or Chaol or even Dorian looked at her like that, it was almost too much to bear. But they had to believe the lies, too. For their own safety.

Nehemia began wringing her hands, and her eyes grew distant. Celaena had seen that expression often in the past month. “If you’re fretting for my sake—”

“I’m not,” Nehemia said. “You can take care of yourself.”

“Then what is it?” Celaena’s stomach clenched. If Nehemia talked more about the rebels, she didn’t know how much of it she could take. Yes, she wanted to be free of the king—both as his Champion and as a child of a conquered nation—but she wanted nothing to do with whatever plots were brewing in Rifthold, and whatever desperate hope the rebels still savored. To stand against the king would be nothing but folly. They’d all be destroyed.

But Nehemia said, “Numbers in the Calaculla labor camp are swelling. Every day, more and more Eyllwe rebels arrive. Most consider it a miracle that they’re alive. After the soldiers butchered those five hundred rebels … My people are afraid.” Fleetfoot again returned, and it was Nehemia who took the stick from the dog’s mouth and chucked it into the gray dawn. “But the conditions in Calaculla …”

She paused, probably recalling the three scars that raked down Celaena’s back. A permanent reminder of the cruelty of the Salt Mines of Endovier—and a reminder that even though she was free, thousands of people still toiled and died there. Calaculla, the sister camp to Endovier, was rumored to be even worse.

“The king will not meet with me,” Nehemia said, now toying with one of her fine, slender braids. “I have asked him three times to discuss the conditions in Calaculla, and each time he claims to be occupied. Apparently, he’s too busy finding people for you to kill.”

Celaena blushed at the harshness in Nehemia’s tone. Fleetfoot returned again, but when Nehemia took the stick, the princess kept it in her hands.

“I must do something, Elentiya,” Nehemia said, using the name she’d given her on the night Celaena admitted that she was an assassin. “I must find a way to help my people. When does gathering information become a stalemate? When do we act?”

Celaena swallowed hard. That word—“act”—scared her more than she’d like to admit. Worse than the word “plans.” Fleetfoot sat at their feet, tail wagging as she waited for the stick to be thrown.

But when Celaena said nothing, when she promised nothing, just as she always did when Nehemia spoke about these things, the princess dropped the stick on the ground and quietly walked back to the castle.

Celaena waited until Nehemia’s footsteps faded and let out a long breath. She was to meet Chaol for their morning run in a few minutes, but after that … after that, she was going into Rifthold. Let Archer wait until this afternoon.

After all, the king had given her a month, and despite her own questions for Archer, she wanted to get off the castle grounds for a bit. She had blood money to burn.

Chapter 4

Chaol Westfall sprinted through the game park, Celaena keeping pace beside him. The chill morning air was like shards of glass in his lungs; his breath clouded in front of him. They’d bundled up as best they could without weighing themselves down—mostly just layers of shirts and gloves—but even with sweat running down his body, Chaol was freezing.

Chaol knew Celaena was freezing, too—her nose was tipped with pink, color stood high on her cheeks, and her ears shone bright red. Noticing his stare, she flashed him a grin, those stunning turquoise eyes full of light. “Tired?” she teased. “I knew you weren’t bothering to train while I was away.”

He let out a breathy chuckle. “You certainly didn’t train while you were on your mission. This is the second time this morning that I’ve had to slow my pace for you.”

A blatant lie. She kept up with him easily now, nimble as a stag bounding through the woods. Sometimes he found it immensely hard not to watch her—to watch the way she moved.

“Keep telling yourself that,” she said, and ran a little faster.

He increased his speed, not wanting her to leave him behind. Servants had cleared a path through the snow blanketing the game park, but the ground was still icy and treacherous underfoot.

He’d been realizing it more and more recently—how much he hated it when she left him behind. How he hated her setting off on those cursed missions and not contacting him for days or weeks. He didn’t know how or when it had happened, but he’d somehow started caring whether she came back or not. And after all that they’d already endured together …

He’d killed Cain at the duel. Killed him to save her. Part of him didn’t regret it; part of him would do it again in a heartbeat. But the other part still woke him up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat that felt too much like Cain’s blood.

She looked over at him. “What’s wrong?”

He fought the rising guilt. “Keep your eyes on the path or you’ll slip.”

For once, she obeyed him. “You want to talk about it?”

Yes. No. If there were anyone who could understand the guilt and rage he grappled with when he thought about how he’d killed Cain, it would be her. “How often,” he said in between breaths, “do you think about the people you’ve killed?”

She whipped her gaze to him, then slowed. He didn’t feel like stopping, and might have kept running, but she grabbed his elbow and forced him to pause. Her lips formed a thin line. “If you think passing judgment on me before I’ve had breakfast is in any way a good idea—”

“No,” he interrupted, panting hard. “No—I didn’t mean it like …” He swallowed a few breaths. “I wasn’t judging.” If he could just get his damn breath back, he could explain what he’d meant.

Her eyes were as frozen as the park around him, but then she tilted her head to the side. “Is this about Cain?”

Hearing her speak the name made him clench his jaw, but he managed a nod.

The ice in her eyes melted completely. He hated the sympathy in her face, the understanding.

He was the Captain of the Guard—he was bound to have killed someone at some point. He’d already seen and done enough in the name of the king; he’d fought men, hurt them. So he shouldn’t even be having these feelings, and especially shouldn’t be telling her. There was a line between them, somewhere, and he was fairly certain that he’d been toeing it more and more these days.

“I’ll never forget the people I’ve killed,” she said. Her breath curled in the air between them. “Even the ones I killed to survive. I still see their faces, still remember the exact blow it took to kill them.” She looked to the skeletal trees. “Some days, it feels like another person did those things. And most of those lives I’m glad I ended. No matter the cause, though, it—it still takes away a little piece of you each time. So I don’t think I’ll ever forget them.”

Her gaze found his again, and he nodded.

“But, Chaol,” she said, and tightened her grip on his arm, a grip he hadn’t realized she’d still been holding, “what happened with Cain—that wasn’t an assassination, or even a cold-blooded murder.” He tried to step back, but she held firm. “What you did wasn’t dishonorable—and I’m not just saying that because it was my life you were saving.” She paused for a long moment. “You will never forget killing Cain,” she said at last, and when her eyes met his, his heart pounded so hard he could feel it across his whole body. “But I will never forget what you did to save me, either.”

The urge to lean into her warmth was staggering. He made himself step back, away from the grip of her hand, made himself nod again. There was a line between them. The king might not think twice about their friendship, but crossing that final line could be deadly for both of them; it could make the king question his loyalty, his position, everything.

And if it ever came down to having to choose between his king and Celaena … He prayed to the Wyrd that he’d never be faced with that decision. Staying firmly on this side of the line was the logical choice. The honorable one, too, since Dorian … He’d seen the way Dorian still looked at her. He wouldn’t betray his friend like that.

“Well,” Chaol said with forced lightness, “I suppose having Adarlan’s Assassin in my debt could be useful.”

She gave him a bow. “At your service.”

His smile was genuine this time.

“Come on, Captain,” she said, starting into a slow jog. “I’m hungry, and I don’t feel like freezing my ass off out here.”

He chuckled under his breath, and they ran on through the park.

When they finished their run, Celaena’s legs were wobbling, and her lungs were so raw from the cold and exertion that she thought they might be bleeding. They slowed to a brisk walk as they headed back to the toasty interior of the palace—and the giant breakfast that she was very much looking forward to devouring before going shopping.

They entered the castle gardens, weaving their way through the gravel paths and towering hedges. She kept her hands tucked under her arms. Even with the gloves, her fingers were frozen stiff. And her ears positively ached. Perhaps she’d start wearing a scarf over her head—even if Chaol would tease her mercilessly about it.

She glanced sideways at her companion, who had peeled off his outer layers of clothing to reveal the sweat-drenched shirt clinging to his body. They rounded a hedge, and Celaena rolled her eyes when she saw what waited on the path ahead.

Every morning, more and more ladies found excuses to be walking through the gardens just after dawn. At first, it had just been a few young women who’d taken one look at Chaol and his sweaty, clingy clothes and halted their walk. Celaena could have sworn their eyes had bulged out of their heads and their tongues had rolled onto the ground.

Then the next morning, they’d appeared along the path again—wearing even nicer dresses. The day after that, more girls showed up. And then several more. And now every direct route from the game park to the castle had at least one set of young women patrolling, waiting for him to walk by.

“Oh, please,” Celaena hissed as they passed two women, who looked up from their fur muffs to bat their eyelashes at him. They must have awoken before dawn to be dressed so finely.

“What?” Chaol asked, his brows rising.

She didn’t know whether he simply didn’t notice, or he didn’t want to say anything, but … “The gardens are rather busy for a winter morning,” she said carefully.

He shrugged. “Some people go a little stir-crazy being cooped up inside all winter.”

Or they just enjoy the sight of the Captain of the Guard and his muscles.

But all she said was, “Right,” and then shut her mouth. No need to point it out if he was that oblivious. Especially when some of the ladies were exceptionally pretty.

“Are you going into Rifthold to spy on Archer today?” Chaol asked softly, when the path was mercifully clear of giggling, blushing girls.

She nodded. “I want to get a sense of his schedule, so I’ll probably trail him.”

“Why don’t I help you?”

“Because I don’t need your help.” She knew he’d probably interpret it as arrogance—and it partially was—but … if he did get involved, then it would complicate things when it came time to smuggle Archer to safety. That is, after she got the truth out of him—and learned what plans the king had in mind.

“I know you don’t need my help. I just thought you might want …” He trailed off, then shook his head, as if reprimanding himself. She found herself wanting to know what he’d been about to say, but it was best to let the topic drop.

They rounded another hedge, the castle interior so close she almost groaned at the thought of that delicious warmth, but then—

“Chaol.” Dorian’s voice cut through the crisp morning.

She did groan then, a barely audible sound. Chaol shot her a puzzled look before they turned to find Dorian striding toward them, a blond young man in tow. She’d never seen the youth, who was finely dressed and looked about Dorian’s age, but Chaol stiffened.

The young man didn’t seem like a threat, though she knew better than to underestimate anyone in a court like this. He wore only a dagger at his waist, and his pale face seemed rather jovial, despite the winter morning chill.

She found Dorian watching her with a half smile, an amused gleam in his eye that made her want to slap him. The prince then glanced at Chaol and chuckled. “And here I was, thinking that all the ladies were out so early for Roland and me. When all of them catch a vicious cold, I’ll let their fathers know that you’re to blame.”

Chaol’s cheeks colored ever so slightly. So he wasn’t as ignorant of their morning audience as he’d led her to believe. “Lord Roland,” he said tightly to Dorian’s friend, and bowed.

The blond young man bowed back to Chaol. “Captain Westfall.” His voice was pleasant enough, but something in it made her pause. It wasn’t amusement or arrogance or anger … She couldn’t put her finger on it.

“Allow me to introduce my cousin,” Dorian said to her, clapping Roland on the shoulder. “Lord Roland Havilliard of Meah.” He extended a hand to Celaena. “Roland, this is Lillian. She works for my father.”

They still used her alias whenever she couldn’t avoid running into members of the court, though most everyone knew to some degree that she was not in the palace for administrative nonsense or politics.

“My pleasure,” Roland said, bowing at the waist. “Are you newly arrived to court? I don’t think I’ve seen you in years past.”

Just the way he spoke told her enough about his history with women. “I arrived this autumn,” she said a bit too quietly.

Roland gave her a courtier’s smile. “And what sort of work do you do for my uncle?”

Dorian shifted on his feet and Chaol went very still, but Celaena returned Roland’s smile and said, “I bury the king’s opponents where nobody will ever find them.”

Roland, to her surprise, actually chuckled. She didn’t dare look at Chaol, whom she was certain would give her a tongue-lashing for it later. “I’d heard about the King’s Champion. I didn’t think it would be someone so … lovely.”

“What brings you to the castle, Roland?” the captain demanded. When Chaol looked at her like that, she usually found herself running in the other direction.

Roland smiled again. He smiled too much—and too smoothly. “His Majesty has offered me a position on his council.” Chaol’s eyes snapped to Dorian, who gave a shrug of confirmation. “I arrived last night, and I’m to start today.”

Chaol smiled—if you could call it that. It was more a flash of teeth. Yes, she’d most definitely be running if Chaol looked at her like that.

Dorian understood the look, too, and gave a deliberate chuckle. But before the prince could speak, Roland studied Celaena further, a tad too intently. “Perhaps you and I shall get to work with each other, Lillian. Your position intrigues me.”

She wouldn’t mind working with him—but not in the way Roland meant. Her way would include a dagger, a shovel, and an unmarked grave.

As if he could read her thoughts, Chaol put a guiding hand on her back. “We’re late for breakfast,” he said, bowing his head to Dorian and Roland. “Congratulations on your appointment.” He sounded like he’d swallowed rancid milk.

As she let Chaol lead her inside the castle, she realized she was in desperate need of a bath. But it had nothing to do with her sweaty clothes, and everything to do with the oily grin and roaming eyes of Roland Havilliard.

Dorian watched Celaena and Chaol disappear behind the hedges, the captain’s hand still on the middle of her back. She did nothing to shake it off.

“An unexpected choice for your father to make, even with that competition,” Roland mused beside him.

Dorian checked his irritation before replying. He’d never particularly liked his cousin, whom he’d seen at least twice a year while growing up.

Chaol positively hated Roland, and whenever he came up in conversation, it was usually accompanied by phrases like “conniving wretch” and “sniveling, spoiled ass.” At least, that’s what Chaol had been roaring three years ago, after the captain had punched Roland so hard in the face that the youth blacked out.

But Roland had deserved it. Deserved it enough that it hadn’t interfered with Chaol’s sterling reputation and later appointment to Captain of the Guard. If anything, it had improved Chaol’s standing among the other guards and lesser nobles.

If Dorian worked up the nerve, he’d ask his father what he’d been thinking when he appointed Roland to the council. Meah was a small yet prosperous coastal city in Adarlan, but it held no real political power. It didn’t even have a standing army, save for the city’s sentries. Roland was his father’s cousin’s son; perhaps the king felt that they needed more Havilliard blood in the council room. Still—Roland was untried, and had always seemed more interested in girls than politics.

“Where did your father’s Champion come from?” Roland asked, drawing Dorian’s attention back to the present.

Dorian turned toward the castle, heading for a different entrance than the one Chaol and Celaena had used. He still remembered the way they’d looked when he’d walked in on them embracing in her rooms after the duel, two months ago.

“Lillian’s story is hers to tell,” Dorian lied. He just didn’t feel like explaining the competition to his cousin. It was bad enough that his father had ordered him to take Roland on a walk this morning. The only bright spot had been seeing Celaena so obviously contemplate ways to bury the young lord.

“Is she for your father’s personal use, or do the other councilmen also employ her?”

“You’ve been here for less than a day, and you already have enemies to dispatch, cousin?”

“We’re Havilliards, cousin. We’ll always have enemies that need dispatching.”

Dorian frowned. It was true, though. “Her contract is exclusively with my father. But if you feel threatened, then I can have Captain Westfall assign a—”

“Oh, of course not. I was merely curious.”

Roland was a pain in the ass, and too aware of the effect his looks and his Havilliard name had on women, but he was harmless. Wasn’t he?

Dorian didn’t know the answer—and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to.

Her salary as King’s Champion was considerable, and Celaena spent every last copper of it. Shoes, hats, tunics, dresses, jewelry, weapons, baubles for her hair, and books. Books and books and books. So many books that Philippa had to bring up another bookcase for her room.

When Celaena returned to her rooms that afternoon, lugging hat boxes, colorful bags full of perfume and sweets, and brown paper parcels with the books she absolutely had to read immediately, she nearly dropped it all at the sight of Dorian Havilliard sitting in her foyer.

“Gods above,” he said, taking in all of her purchases.

He didn’t know the half of it. This was just what she could carry. More had been ordered, and more would be delivered soon.

“Well,” he said as she dumped the bags on the table, nearly toppling into a heap of tissue paper and ribbons, “at least you’re not wearing that dreadful black today.”

She shot him a glare over her shoulder as she straightened. Today she was wearing a lilac and ivory gown—a little bright for the end of winter, but worn in the hope that spring would soon come. Plus, dressing nicely guaranteed her the best service in whatever stores she visited. To her surprise, many of the shopkeepers remembered her from years ago—and had bought her lie about a long journey to the southern continent.

“And to what do I owe this pleasure?” She untied her white fur cloak—another gift to herself—and tossed it onto one of the chairs around the foyer table. “Didn’t I already see you this morning in the garden?”

Dorian remained seated, that familiar, boyish grin on his face. “Aren’t friends allowed to visit each other more than once a day?”

She stared down at him. Being friends with Dorian wasn’t something she was certain she could actually do. Not when he would always have that gleam in his sapphire eyes—and not when he was the son of the man who gripped her fate in his hands. But in the two months since she’d ended whatever had been between them, she’d often found herself missing him. Not the kissing and flirting, but just him.

“What do you want, Dorian?”

A glimmer of ire flashed across his face, and he stood. She had to tip her head back to look at him. “You said you still wanted to be friends with me.” His voice was low.

She closed her eyes for a moment. “I meant it.”

“So be my friend,” he said, his tone lifting. “Dine with me, play billiards with me. Tell me what books you’re reading—or buying,” he added with a wink in the direction of her parcels.

“Oh?” she asked, forcing herself to give him a half smile. “And you have so much time on your hands these days that you can spend hours with me again?”

“Well, I have my usual flock of ladies to attend to, but I can always make time for you.”

She batted her eyelashes at him. “I’m truly honored.” Actually, the thought of Dorian with other women made her want to shatter a window, but it wouldn’t be fair to let him know that. She glanced at the clock on the small table beside a wall. “I actually need to go back into Rifthold right now,” she said. It wasn’t a lie. She still had a few hours of daylight left—enough time to survey Archer’s elegant townhouse and start trailing him to get a sense of his usual whereabouts.

Dorian nodded, his smile fading.

Silence fell, interrupted only by the ticking of the clock on the table. She crossed her arms, remembering how he’d smelled, how his lips had tasted. But this distance between them, this horrible gap that spread every day … it was for the best.

Dorian took a step closer, exposing his palms to her. “Do you want me to fight for you? Is that it?”

“No,” she said quietly. “I just want you to leave me alone.”

His eyes flickered with the words left unsaid. Celaena stared at him, unmoving, until he silently left.

Alone in the foyer, Celaena clenched and unclenched her fists, suddenly disgusted with all of the pretty packages on the table.

Chapter 5

On a rooftop in a very fashionable and respectable part of Rifthold, Celaena crouched in the shadow of a chimney and frowned into the chill wind gusting off the Avery. She checked her pocket watch for the third time. Archer Finn’s previous two appointments had only been an hour each. He’d been in the house across the street for almost two.

There was nothing interesting about the elegant, green-roofed townhouse, and she hadn’t learned anything about who lived there, other than the client’s name—some Lady Balanchine. She had used the same trick she’d employed at the other two houses to gain that bit of information: she pretended to be a courier with a package for Lord So-and-So. And when the butler or housekeeper said that this was not Lord So-and-So’s house, she’d feigned embarrassment, asked whose house it was, chatted up the servant a bit, and then went on her way.

Celaena adjusted the position of her legs and rolled her neck. The sun had nearly set, the temperature dropping with each passing minute. Unless she could get into the houses themselves, she wasn’t going to learn much else. And given the likelihood that Archer might actually be doing what he was paid to do, she was in no rush to go inside. Better to learn where he went, who he saw, and then take the next step.

It had been so long since she’d done something like this in Rifthold—since she’d crouched on the emerald rooftops and learned what she could about her prey. It was different than when the king had sent her off to Bellhaven or to some lord’s estate. Here, now, in Rifthold, it felt like …

It felt like she’d never left. As if she might look over her shoulder and find Sam Cortland crouching behind her. As if she might return at the end of the night not to the glass castle, but to the Assassins’ Keep on the other side of the city.

Celaena sighed, tucking her hands under her arms to keep her fingers warm and agile.

It had been over a year and a half since the night she’d lost her freedom; a year and a half since she’d lost Sam. And somewhere, in this city, were the answers to how it all had happened. If she dared to look, she knew she’d find them. And she knew it would destroy her again.

The front door of the townhouse opened, and Archer swaggered down the steps, right into his waiting carriage. She barely caught a glimpse of his golden-brown hair and fine clothes before he was whisked away.

Groaning, Celaena straightened from her crouch and hurried off the roof. Some harrowing climbing and a few jumps soon had her back on the cobbled streets.

She trailed Archer’s carriage, slipping in and out of shadows as they made their way across the city, a slow journey thanks to traffic. While she might be in no hurry to seek out the truth behind her own capture and Sam’s death, and while she was fairly certain the king had to be wrong about Archer, part of her wondered whether whatever truth she uncovered about this rebel movement and the king’s plans would destroy her, too.

And not just destroy her—but also everything she’d grown to care about.

Savoring the warmth of the crackling fire, Celaena leaned her head against the back of the small couch and dangled her legs over the cushioned arm. The lines on the paper she held before her were beginning to blur, which was no surprise, given that it was well past eleven, and she’d been up before dawn.

Sprawled on the well-worn red carpet in front of her, Chaol’s glass pen flickered with firelight as he scanned through documents and signed things and scribbled notes. Giving a little sigh through her nose, Celaena lowered the paper in her hands.

Unlike her spacious suite, Chaol’s bedroom was one large chamber, furnished only with a table by the solitary window and the old couch set before the stone fireplace. A few tapestries hung on the gray stone walls, a towering oak armoire stood in one corner, and his four-poster bed was decorated with a rather old and faded crimson duvet. There was a bathing room attached—not as large as her own, but still spacious enough to accommodate its own pool and privy. He had only one small bookcase, filled and neatly arranged. In alphabetical order, if she knew Chaol at all. And it probably contained only his most beloved books—unlike Celaena’s, which housed every title she got her hands on, whether she liked the book or not. Regardless of his unnaturally organized bookshelf, she liked it here; it was cozy.

She’d started coming here a few weeks ago, when thoughts of Elena and Cain and the secret passageways made her itch to get out of her own rooms. And even though he’d grumbled about her imposing on his privacy, Chaol hadn’t turned her away or objected to her frequent after-dinner visits.

The scratching of Chaol’s pen stopped. “Remind me again what you’re working on.”

She flopped onto her back as she waved the paper in the air above her. “Just information about Archer. Clients, favored haunts, his daily schedule.”

Chaol’s golden-brown eyes were molten in the firelight. “Why go to so much trouble to track him when you could just shoot him and be done with it? You said he was well-guarded, yet it seems like you tracked him easily today.”

She scowled. Chaol was too smart for his own good. “Because, if the king actually has a group of people conspiring against him, then I should get as much information about them as I can before I kill Archer. Perhaps following Archer will reveal more conspirators—or at least clues to their whereabouts.” It was the truth—and she’d followed Archer’s ornate carriage through the streets of the capital today for that very reason.

But in the hours she’d spent trailing him, he’d gone only to a few appointments before returning to his townhouse.

“Right,” Chaol said. “So you’re just … memorizing that information now?”

“If you’re suggesting that I have no reason to be here and should leave, then tell me to go.”

“I’m just trying to figure out what’s so boring that you dozed off ten minutes ago.”

She propped herself on her elbows. “I did not!”

His brows rose. “I heard you snoring.”

“You’re a liar, Chaol Westfall.” She threw her paper at him and plopped back on the couch. “I only closed my eyes for a minute.”

He shook his head again and went back to work.

Celaena blushed. “I didn’t really snore, did I?”

His face was utterly serious as he said, “Like a bear.”

She thumped a fist on the couch cushion. He grinned. She huffed, then draped her arm off the sofa, picking at the threads of the ancient rug as she stared up at the stone ceiling. “Tell me why you hate Roland.”

Chaol looked up. “I never said I hated him.”

She just waited.

Chaol sighed. “I think it’s fairly easy for you to see why I hate him.”

“But was there any incident that—”

“There were many incidents, and I don’t particularly feel like talking about any of them.”

She swung her legs off the arm of the couch and sat up straight. “Testy, aren’t you?”

She picked up another one of her documents, a map of the city that she’d marked up with the locations of Archer’s clients. Most of them seemed to be in the posh district where the majority of Rifthold’s elite lived. Archer’s own townhouse was in that neighborhood, tucked into a quiet, respectable side street. She traced a nail along it, but paused when her eyes fell upon a street just a few blocks over.

She knew that street—and knew the house that sat on its corner. Whenever she ventured into Rifthold, she took care to never pass too close to it. Today had been no different; she’d even gone a few blocks out of her way to avoid walking by.

Not daring to look at Chaol, she asked, “Do you know who Rourke Farran is?”

The name made her sick with long-suppressed rage and grief, but she managed to say it. Because even if she didn’t want the entire truth … there were some things she did need to know about her capture. Still needed to know, even after all this time.

She felt Chaol’s attention on her. “The crime lord?”

She nodded, her eyes still on that street where so many things had gone so horribly wrong. “Have you ever dealt with him?”

“No,” Chaol said. “But … that’s because Farran is dead.”

She lowered the paper. “Farran’s dead?”

“Nine months ago. He and his three top men were all found murdered by …” Chaol chewed on his lip, searching for the name. “Wesley. A man named Wesley took them all out. He was …” Chaol cocked his head to the side. “He was Arobynn Hamel’s personal guard.” Her breath was tight in her chest. “Did you know him?”

“I thought I did,” she said softly. For the years she’d spent with Arobynn, Wesley had been a silent, deadly presence, a man who had barely tolerated her, and had always made it clear that if she ever became a threat to his master, he’d kill her. But on the night that she’d been betrayed and captured, Wesley had tried to stop her. She’d thought that it was because Arobynn had ordered her locked in her rooms, that it had been a way to keep her from seeking retribution for Sam’s death at Farran’s hands; but …

“What happened to Wesley?” she asked. “Did Farran’s men catch him?”

Chaol ran a hand through his hair, glancing down at the rug. “No. We found Wesley a day later—courtesy of Arobynn Hamel.”

She felt the blood drain from her face, but dared to ask, “How?”

Chaol studied her closely, warily. “Wesley’s body was impaled on the iron fence outside Rourke’s house. There was … enough blood to suggest that Wesley was alive when they did it. They never confessed, but we got the sense that the servants in the household had also been instructed to let him stay there until he died.

“We thought it was an attempt to balance the blood feud—so that when the next crime lord ascended, they wouldn’t view Arobynn and his assassins as enemies.”

She stared at the carpet again. The night she’d broken out of the Assassins’ Keep to hunt down Farran, Wesley had tried to stop her. He’d tried to tell her it was a trap.

Celaena shut down the thought before it reached its conclusion. That was a truth she’d have to take out and examine at another time, when she was alone, when she didn’t have Archer and the rebel movement and all that nonsense to worry about. When she could try to understand why Arobynn Hamel might have betrayed her—and what she was going to do with that horrible knowledge. How much she’d make him suffer—and bleed for it.

After a few moments of silence, Chaol asked, “We never learned why Wesley went after Rourke Farran, though. Wesley was just a personal bodyguard. What did he have against Farran?”

Her eyes were burning, and she looked to the window, where the night sky was bathed in moonlight. “It was an act of revenge.” She could still see Sam’s twisted corpse, lying on that table in the room beneath the Assassins’ Keep; still see Farran crouched in front of her, his hands roaming over her paralyzed body. She swallowed down the tightness in her throat. “Farran captured, tortured, and then murdered one of … one of my … companions. And then the next night, I went out to repay the favor. It didn’t end so well for me.”

A log shifted in the fire, breaking open and filling the room with a flash of light.

“That was the night you were captured?” Chaol asked. “But I thought you didn’t know who had betrayed you.”

“I still don’t. Someone hired me and my companion to kill Farran, but it was all just a trap, and Farran was the bait.”

Silence; then—“What was his name?”

She pushed her lips together, shoving away the memory of how he’d looked the last time she’d seen him, broken on that table. “Sam,” she got out. “His name was Sam.” She took an uneven breath. “I don’t even know where they buried him. I don’t even know who I would ask about it.”

Chaol didn’t reply, and she didn’t know why she bothered talking, but the words just tumbled out. “I failed him,” she said. “In every way that counted, I failed him.”

Another long silence, then a sigh. “Not in one way,” Chaol said. “I bet he would have wanted you to survive—to live. So you didn’t fail him, not in that regard.”

She had to look away in order to force her eyes to stop burning as she nodded.

After a moment, Chaol spoke again. “Her name was Lithaen. Three years ago, she worked for one of the ladies of the court. And Roland somehow found out and thought it would be amusing for me to discover him in bed with her. I know it’s nothing like what you went through …”

She’d never known that he’d ever been interested in anyone, but … “Why did she do it?”

He shrugged, though his face was still bleak with the memory. “Because Roland is a Havilliard, and I’m just the Captain of the Guard. He even convinced her to go back to Meah with him—though I never learned what became of her.”

“You loved her.”

“I thought I did. And I thought she loved me.” He shook his head, as if silently chiding himself. “Did Sam love you?”

Yes. More than anyone had ever loved her. He’d loved her enough to risk everything—to give up everything. He’d loved her so much that she still felt the echoes of it, even now. “Very much,” she breathed.

The clock chimed eleven thirty, and Chaol shook his head, the tension falling from him. “I’m exhausted.”

She stood, somehow having no clue how they’d wound up talking about the people who had meant so much to them. “Then I should go.”

He got to his feet, his eyes so bright. “I’ll walk you back to your room.”

She lifted her chin. “I thought I didn’t need to be escorted everywhere now.”

“You don’t,” he said, walking to the door. “But it is something that friends tend to do.”

“Would you walk Dorian back to his room?” She batted her eyelashes at him, striding through the door as he opened it for her. “Or is this a privilege that only your lady-friends receive?”

“If I had any lady-friends, I’d certainly extend the offer. I’m not sure you qualify as a lady, though.”

“So chivalrous. No wonder those girls find excuses to be in the gardens every morning.”

He snorted, and they fell silent as they walked through the quiet, dim halls of the castle, making their way back to her rooms on the other side. It was a trek, and often a cold one, since many of the halls were lined with windows that didn’t keep out the winter chill.

When they reached the door to her rooms, he bid her a quick good night and began to walk away. Her fingers were around the brass door handle when she turned to him.

“For what it’s worth, Chaol,” she said. He faced her, his hands in his pockets. She gave him a slight smile. “If she picked Roland over you, that makes her the greatest fool who ever lived.”

He stared at her for a long moment before he quietly said, “Thank you,” and walked back to his room.

Celaena watched him go, watched those powerful muscles shifting in his back, visible even through his dark tunic, suddenly grateful that this Lithaen had long ago left the castle.

The midnight hour chimed through the castle, the off-kilter ringing of the wretched clock tower in the garden echoing through the dark, silent halls. Though Chaol had escorted her to her door, five minutes of pacing in her bedroom had sent her wandering again, heading for the library. She had mountains of unread books sitting in her rooms but didn’t feel like reading any of them. She needed something to do. Something to take her mind off her discussion with Chaol and the memories she’d dragged into the open tonight.

Celaena wrapped her cloak tightly around her, glaring at the fierce winds whipping the snow outside the drafty windows. Hopefully there would be a few hearths lit in the library. If not, she’d grab a book that did interest her, run back to her room, and curl up with Fleetfoot in her toasty bed.

Celaena turned a corner, entering the dark, window-lined hallway that ran past the towering doors of the library, and froze.

With the chill tonight, it was no surprise to see someone completely concealed by a black cloak, hood drawn far over the face. But something about the figure standing between the open library doors made some ancient, primal part of her send a warning pulse so strong that she didn’t take another step.

The person swiveled its head toward her, pausing as well.

Outside the hall windows, snow swirled, pressing against the glass.

It was just a person, she told herself as the figure now turned to face her fully. A person wearing a cloak darker than night, a hood so heavy it concealed every feature of the face inside.

It sniffed at her, a huffing, animal sound.

She didn’t dare move.

It sniffed again, and took a step toward her. The way it moved, like smoke and shadow …

A faint warmth bloomed against her chest, then a pulsing blue light—

The Eye of Elena was glowing.

The thing halted, and Celaena stopped breathing.

It hissed, and then slithered a step back into the shadows beyond the library doors. The tiny blue gem in the center of her amulet glowed brighter, and Celaena blinked against the light.

When she opened her eyes, the amulet was dark, and the hooded creature was gone.

Not a trace, not even a sound of footsteps.

Celaena didn’t go into the library. Oh, no. She just walked quickly back to her rooms with as much dignity as she could muster. Though she kept telling herself that she’d imagined it all, that it was some hallucination from too many hours awake, Celaena couldn’t stop hearing that cursed word again and again.


Chapter 6

The person outside the library probably had nothing to do with the king, Celaena told herself as she walked—still not sprinting—down the hall to her room. There were plenty of strange people in a castle this large, and even though she rarely saw another soul in the library, perhaps some people just … wished to go to the library alone. And unidentified. In a court where reading was so out of fashion, perhaps it was merely some courtier trying to hide a passionate love of books from his or her sneering friends.

Some animalistic, eerie courtier. Who had caused her amulet to glow.

Celaena entered her bedroom just as the lunar eclipse was beginning, and groaned. “Of course there’s an eclipse,” she grumbled, turning from the balcony doors and approaching the tapestry along the wall.

And even though she didn’t want to, even though she’d hoped to never see Elena again … she needed answers.

Maybe the dead queen would laugh at her and tell her it was nothing. Gods above, she hoped Elena would say that. Because if she didn’t …

Celaena shook her head and glanced at Fleetfoot. “Care to join me?” The dog, as if sensing what she was about to do, made a good show of turning circles on the bed and curling up with a huff. “I thought so.”

In a matter of moments, Celaena shoved the large chest of drawers from its spot in front of the tapestry that hid the secret door, grabbed a candle, and began walking down, down, down the forgotten stairs to the landing far below.

The three stone archways greeted her. The one on the far left led to a passage that allowed for spying on the Great Hall. The one in the center led to the sewers and the concealed exit that might someday save her life. And the one on the right … that one led down to the ancient queen’s forgotten tomb.

As she walked to the tomb, she didn’t dare look at the landing where she’d discovered Cain summoning the ridderak from another world, even though the debris of the door the creature had shattered still littered the stairs. There were gouges in the stone wall where the ridderak had come crashing through, chasing her down to the tomb, until she’d just barely reached Damaris, sword of the long-dead King Gavin, in time to slay the monster.

Celaena glanced at her hand, where a ring of white scars punctured her palm and encircled her thumb. If Nehemia hadn’t found her that night, the poison from the ridderak’s bite would have killed her.

At last, she reached the door at the bottom of the spiral staircase and found herself staring at the skull-shaped bronze knocker in its center.

Perhaps this hadn’t been a good idea. Perhaps the answers weren’t worth it.

She should go back upstairs. Come to think of it, this could only be bad.

Elena had seemed satisfied that Celaena had obeyed her command to become the King’s Champion, but if she showed up, then it would seem like she was willing to do another one of Elena’s tasks. And the Wyrd knew that she had enough on her hands right now.

Even if that—that thing in the hall just now hadn’t seemed friendly.

The skull knocker seemed to smile at her, its hollow eyes boring into hers.

Gods above, she should just leave.

But her fingers were somehow reaching for the door handle, as if an invisible hand were guiding her—

“Aren’t you going to knock?”

Celaena leapt back, a dagger already in her hand and angled to spill blood as she pressed herself into the wall. It was impossible—she had to have imagined it.

The skill knocker had spoken. Its mouth had moved up and down.

Yes, this was certainly, absolutely, undeniably impossible. Far more unlikely and incomprehensible than anything Elena had ever said or done.

Staring at her with gleaming metal eyes, the bronze skull clicked its tongue. It had a tongue.

Maybe she’d slipped on the stairs and smacked her head into the stones. That would make more sense than this. An endless, filthy stream of curses began flowing through her head, each more vulgar than the next, as she gaped at the knocker.

“Oh, don’t be so pathetic,” the skull huffed, its eyes narrowing. “I’m attached to this door. I cannot harm you.”

“But you’re”—she swallowed hard—“magic.”

It was impossible—it should be impossible. Magic was gone, vanished from the land ten years ago, before it had even been outlawed by the king.

“Everything in this world is magic. Thank you ever so kindly for stating the obvious.”

She calmed her reeling mind long enough to say, “But magic doesn’t work anymore.”

“New magic doesn’t. But the king cannot erase old spells made with older powers—like the Wyrdmarks. Those ancient spells still hold; especially ones that imbue life.”

“You’re … alive?”

The knocker chuckled. “Alive? I’m made of bronze. I do not breathe, nor do I eat or drink. So, no, I am not alive. Nor am I dead, for that matter. I simply exist.”

She stared at the small knocker. It was no larger than her fist.

“You should apologize,” it said. “You have no idea how loud and tiresome you’ve been these past few months, with all your running down here and slaying foul beasties. I kept quiet until I thought you’d witnessed enough strange things that you could accept my existence. But apparently, I am to be disappointed.”

Hands trembling, she sheathed her dagger and set down her candle. “I’m so glad you finally found me worth speaking to.”

The bronze skull closed its eyes. The skull had eyelids. How had she not noticed it before? “Why should I speak to someone who doesn’t have the courtesy to greet me, or even to knock?”

Celaena took a calming breath and looked at the door. The stones of the threshold still bore gouges from where the ridderak had passed through. “Is she in there?”

“Is who in there?” the skull said coyly.

“Elena—the queen.”

“Of course she is. She’s been in there for a thousand years.” The skull’s eyes seemed to glow.

“Don’t mock me, or I’ll peel you off this door and melt you down.”

“Not even the strongest man in the world could peel me from this door. King Brannon himself put me here to watch over her tomb.”

“You’re that old?”

The skull huffed. “How insensitive of you to insult me about my age.”

Celaena crossed her arms. Nonsense—magic always led to nonsense like this. “What’s your name?”

“What is your name?”

“Celaena Sardothien,” she ground out.

The skull barked a laugh. “Oh, that is too funny! The funniest thing I’ve heard in centuries!”

“Be quiet.”

“My name is Mort, if you must know.”

She picked up the candle. “Can I expect all of our encounters to be this pleasant?” She reached for the door handle.

“Aren’t you even going to knock, after all that? You truly have no manners.”

She used all of her self-control to avoid banging on his little face as she made three unnecessarily loud knocks on the wooden door.

Mort smirked as the door silently swung open. “Celaena Sardothien,” he said to himself, and began laughing again. Celaena hissed in his direction and kicked the door shut.

The tomb was dim with foggy light, and Celaena approached the grate through which it poured, carried down from the surface by a silver-coated shaft. It was normally brighter in here, but the eclipse made the tomb increasingly murky.

She paused not too far from the threshold, set the candle on the floor, and found herself staring at—nothing.

Elena wasn’t there.


Mort chuckled from the other side of the door.

Celaena rolled her eyes and yanked the door back open. Of course Elena wouldn’t actually be here when she had an important question. Of course she’d only have something like Mort to talk to. Of course, of course, of course.

“Is she coming tonight?” Celaena demanded.

“No,” Mort said simply, as if she should have known already. “She nearly burnt herself out helping you these past few months.”

“What? So she’s … gone?”

“For the time being—until she regains her strength.”

Celaena crossed her arms, taking yet another long, long breath. The chamber seemed the same as it had been the last time she was here. Two stone sarcophagi lay in the center, one depicting Gavin, Elena’s husband and the first King of Adarlan, and the other Elena, both with eerily lifelike quality. Elena’s silver hair spilled over the side of the coffin, disrupted only by the crown atop her head and the delicately pointed ears that marked her as half human, half Fae. Celaena’s attention lingered on the words etched at Elena’s feet: Ah! Time’s Rift!

Brannon, Elena’s Fae father—not to mention the first King of Terrasen—had carved the words into the sarcophagus himself.

The whole tomb was strange, actually. Stars had been carved into the floor, and trees and flowers adorned the arched ceiling. The walls were all etched with Wyrdmarks, the ancient symbols that could be used to access a power that still worked—a power that Nehemia and her family had long kept secret until Cain had somehow mastered it. If the king ever learned of their power, if he knew it could summon creatures as Cain had done, he could unleash endless evil upon Erilea. And his plans would become even more deadly.

“But Elena did tell me that if you deigned to come here again,” Mort said, “she had a message for you.”

Celaena had a feeling of standing in front of a cresting wave, waiting-waiting-waiting for it to break. It could wait—the message could wait, the oncoming burden could wait—for another moment or two of freedom. She walked to the back of the tomb, which had been piled with jewels and gold and trunks overflowing with treasure.

Before it all was displayed a suit of armor and Damaris, the legendary sword of Gavin. Its hilt was silvery gold and had little ornamentation save for a pommel in the shape of an eye. No jewel lay in the socket; it was only an empty ring of gold. Some legends claimed that when Galavin wielded Damaris, he would see only the truth, and that was why he had been crowned king. Or some nonsense like that.

Damaris’s scabbard was decorated by a few Wyrdmarks. Everything seemed connected to those blasted symbols. Celaena scowled and examined the king’s armor. It still bore scratches and indentations upon its golden front. From battles, no doubt. Perhaps even the fight with Erawan, the dark lord who had led an army of demons and the dead against the continent when the kingdoms had been little more than warring territories.

Elena had said that she was a warrior, too. But her armor was nowhere to be seen. Where had it gone? It was probably lying forgotten in a castle somewhere in the kingdoms.

Forgotten. The same way legend had reduced the fierce warrior-princess to nothing more than a damsel in a tower, whom Gavin had rescued.

“It’s not over, is it?” Celaena asked Mort at last.

“No,” Mort said, quieter than he’d been before. This was what Celaena had been dreading for weeks—for months.

The moonlight in the tomb was fading. Soon the eclipse would be complete, and the tomb would be dark, save for the candle.

“Let’s hear her message,” Celaena said, sighing.

Mort cleared his throat, and then said in a voice that sounded eerily like the queen’s, “‘If I could leave you in peace, I would. But you have lived your life aware that you will never escape certain burdens. Whether you like it or not, you are bound to the fate of this world. As the King’s Champion, you are now in a position of power, and you can make a difference in the lives of many.’” Celaena’s stomach turned over.

“Cain and the ridderak were just the beginning of the threat to Erilea,” Mort said, the words echoing around the tomb. “There is a far deadlier power poised to devour the world.”

“And I have to find it, I suppose?”

“Yes. There will be clues to lead you to it. Signs you must follow. Refusing to kill the king’s targets is only the first and smallest step.”

Celaena looked toward the ceiling, as if she could see through the tree-carved surface to the library far, far above. “I saw someone in the castle hallway tonight. Something. It made the amulet glow.”

“Human?” Mort asked, sounding reluctantly intrigued.

“I don’t know,” Celaena admitted. “It didn’t feel like it.” She closed her eyes, taking a steadying breath. She’d been waiting for this for months. “It’s all connected to the king, isn’t it? All of these awful things? Even Elena’s command—that’s about finding whatever power he has, the threat he poses.”

“You already know the answer to that.”

Her heart thundered—with fear, with anger, she didn’t know. “If she’s so damn powerful and knows so much, then she can go find the king’s source of power herself.”

“It is your fate, and your responsibility.”

“There is no such thing as fate,” Celaena hissed.

“Says the girl who was saved from the ridderak because some force compelled her down here on Samhuinn, to see Damaris and learn it was here.”

Celaena took a step closer to the door. “Says the girl who spent a year in Endovier. Says the girl who knows that the gods care no more for our lives than we care for an insect beneath our feet.” She glared into Mort’s gleaming face. “Come to think of it, I can’t quite recall why I should bother helping Erilea, when the gods so clearly don’t bother to help us, either.”

“You don’t mean that,” he said.

Celaena gripped the hilt of her dagger. “I do. So tell Elena to find some other fool to impose upon.”

“You must discover where the king’s power comes from and what he plans to do—before it’s too late.”

Celaena snorted. “Don’t you understand? It’s already too late. It’s been too late for years now. Where was Elena ten years ago, when there was a whole host of heroes that she could have had her pick of? Where were she and her ridiculous quests when the world truly needed them—when Terrasen’s heroes were cut down or hunted and executed by Adarlan’s armies? Where was she when the kingdoms fell, one by one, to the king?” Her eyes burned, but she shoved the pain down to that dark place where it dwelled inside of her. “The world is already in ruin, and I won’t be set on some fool’s errand.”

Mort’s eyes narrowed. Inside the tomb, the light had faded; the moon was almost fully covered now. “I am sorry for what you have lost,” he said in a voice that was not quite his. “And I am sorry about your parents’ deaths that night. It was—”

“Don’t you ever talk about my parents,” Celaena snarled, pointing a finger at his face. “I don’t give a damn if you’re magic or if you’re Elena’s lackey or if you’re just some figment of my imagination. You talk about my parents again, and I’ll hack this door to pieces. Understand?”

Mort just glowered at her. “You’re that selfish? That cowardly? Why did you come down here tonight, Celaena? To help us all? Or just to help yourself? Elena told me about you—about your past.”

“Shut your rutting face,” she snapped, and stormed up the stairs.

Chapter 7

Celaena awoke before dawn with a pounding headache. It took one look at the mostly melted candle on her nightstand to know that her encounter in the tomb hadn’t been some awful dream. Which meant that far beneath her room, there was a talking door knocker imbued with an ancient animation spell. And that Elena had yet again found a way to make her life infinitely more complicated.

Celaena groaned and buried her face in her pillow. She’d meant what she said last night. The world was beyond helping. Even if … even if she’d seen firsthand just how dangerous things could become—how much worse it could be. And that person in the hall …

She flipped onto her back, and Fleetfoot poked her cheek with a wet nose. Idly stroking the dog’s head, Celaena stared up at the ceiling and the pale gray light seeping through the curtains.

She didn’t want to admit it, but Mort was right. She’d gone to the tomb just to have Elena deal with the creature in the hallway—to be reassured that she wouldn’t have to do anything.

My plans, the king had said. And if Elena was warning her to uncover them, to find the source of his power … then they had to be bad. Worse than the slaves in Calaculla and Endovier, worse than putting down more rebels.

She watched the ceiling for another few moments, until two things became clear.

The first was that if she didn’t uncover this threat, it might be a fatal mistake. Elena had just said she had to find it. She hadn’t said anything about destroying it. Nothing about facing the king. Which was a relief, Celaena supposed.

And the second was that she needed to speak with Archer—to get closer and start figuring out a way to fake his death. Because if he truly was a part of this movement that knew what the king was up to, then perhaps he could save her the trouble of spying on the king and piecing together whatever clues she could find. But once she took that step toward approaching Archer … Well, then everything would certainly become a lethal game.

So Celaena quickly bathed and then dressed in her finest, warmest clothes before calling for Chaol.

It was time for her to conveniently run into Archer Finn.

Thanks to the snow from the night before, some poor souls had been conscripted into shoveling Rifthold’s most fashionable districts. Businesses stayed open year-round, and despite the slick sidewalks and slushy cobblestone streets, the capital city was just as vibrant that afternoon as it was at the height of summer.

Still, Celaena wished it were summer, since the wet streets soaked the hem of her ice-blue gown, and it was so cold that not even her white fur cloak could keep out the chill. As they walked down the crowded main avenue, she kept close to Chaol. He had been pestering her again to let him help with Archer, and inviting him along today was the most harmless thing she could do to get him off her back about it. She’d insisted he wear normal clothes instead of his captain’s uniform.

To him, that meant showing up in a black tunic.

Thankfully, no one paid them much heed—not when there were so many people, and so many stores. Oh, how she adored this avenue, where all the fine things in the world were sold and bartered! Jewelers, hatters, clothiers, confectioneries, cobblers … Unsurprisingly, Chaol stomped right past every shop window, not even glancing at the delights displayed inside.

As usual, there was a crowd outside the Willows—the tea court where she knew Archer was having his lunch. He seemed to dine here every day with a few other male courtesans. Of course, it had nothing to do with the fact that most of Rifthold’s elite patronesses also dined here.

She grabbed Chaol’s arm as they drew near the tea court. “If you walk up looking like you’re going to pummel someone,” she crooned, linking her elbow through his, “then he’ll certainly know something is amiss. And, again, do not say anything to him. Leave the talking and the charming to me.”

Chaol raised his brows. “So I’m just here for decoration?”

“Be grateful I consider you a worthy accessory.”

He grumbled something under his breath that she was fairly certain she would not want to hear, but still slowed his pace to a rather elegant walk.

Outside the arched stone-and-glass entrance to the tea court, fine carriages loitered in the street, people hopping in and out of them. They could have taken a carriage—should have taken a carriage, given how cold it was and the fact of her now-sodden gown. But she’d foolishly wanted to walk, to see the city on the arm of the Captain of the Guard, even if he spent the entire time looking like a threat was lurking around every corner and down every alley. Come to think of it, a carriage probably would have made a better entrance, too.

Entry to the Willows required a hard-to-attain membership; Celaena had taken her tea there several times while growing up, thanks to Arobynn Hamel’s name. She could still recall the clink of porcelain, the hushed gossip, the mint-and-cream painted room, and the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked an exquisite garden.

“We’re not going in there,” Chaol said, and it wasn’t exactly a question.

She gave him a feline grin. “You aren’t afraid of a bunch of stuffy old ladies and giggling young women, are you?” He glared at her, and she patted his arm. “Weren’t you listening when I explained my plan? We’re just going to pretend that we’re waiting for our table. So don’t fret: you won’t have to fight off all the mean little ladies clawing at you.”

“The next time we train,” he said as they eased through the throng of beautifully dressed women, “remind me to wallop you.”

An elderly woman turned to glare at him, and Celaena gave her an apologetic and exasperated look, as if to say, Men! She then promptly dug her nails into Chaol’s thick winter tunic and hissed, “This is the part where you shut your mouth and pretend to be a woolly-headed bit of decoration. Shouldn’t be too hard for you.”

His returning pinch told her that he was really going to make her sweat the next time they were in the training room. She grinned.

After finding a spot just below the steps that led up to the double doors, Celaena glanced at her pocket watch. Archer had begun dining at two, and usually the meal was over within ninety minutes, which meant he’d be leaving any second now. She made a good show of pretending to rummage through her small coin purse, and Chaol, mercifully, kept quiet, observing the crowd around them, as if these fancy women might attack them at any moment.

A few minutes passed, and her gloved hands grew numb as people continued walking into and out of the tea court, so often that no one bothered to notice that they were the only ones who weren’t about to go in. But then the front doors opened, and Celaena caught a glimpse of bronze hair and a dazzling smile, and she moved.

Chaol played along with expert skill, escorting her up the steps, up, up, until—

“Oomph!” she cried, slamming into a broad, muscled shoulder. Chaol even pulled her to him, a supporting hand on her back to keep her from toppling down the stairs. She looked up through her lashes, and then—

A blink, two blinks.

The exquisite face gaping at her broke into a grin. “Laena?”

She’d planned to smile anyway, but when she heard his old pet name for her … “Archer!”

She felt Chaol stiffen slightly, but she didn’t bother to glance at him. It was hard to look away from Archer, who had been and still was the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. Not handsome—beautiful. His skin glowed golden even in the height of winter, and his green eyes …

Gods above and Wyrd save me.

His mouth was a work of art, too, all sensual lines and softness that begged to be explored.

As if emerging from a daze, Archer suddenly shook his head. “We should get off the steps,” he said, extending a broad hand to gesture to the street below them. “Unless you and your companion have a reservation—”

“Oh, we’re a few minutes early, anyway,” she said, letting go of Chaol’s arm to walk back onto the street. Archer followed beside her, giving her a glance at his clothes—expertly tailored tunic and pants, knee-high boots, a heavy cloak. None of it screamed wealth, but she could tell it was all expensive. Unlike some of the flashier and softer male courtesans, Archer’s appeal had always been more ruggedly masculine.

The broad, muscled shoulders and powerful frame; the knowing smile; even his beautiful face radiated a sense of maleness that had her struggling to remember what she’d planned to say.

Even Archer seemed to be searching for words as they faced each other on the street, a few steps away from the busy crowd.

“It’s been a while,” she began, smiling again. Chaol remained a step away, utterly silent. And unsmiling.

Archer stuffed his hands into his pockets. “I almost didn’t recognize you. You were just a girl when I saw you last. You were … Gods above, you were thirteen, I think.”

She couldn’t help herself—she looked up at him from beneath lowered lashes and purred, “I’m not thirteen anymore.”

Archer gave her a slow, sensual smile as he took her in from head to toe before saying, “It would certainly seem that way.”

“You filled out a bit more, too,” she said, returning the favor of surveying him.

Archer grinned. “Comes with the profession.” He angled his head to the side, then flicked his magnificent eyes to Chaol, who now stood with his arms crossed. She still remembered how adept Archer had been at taking in details. It was probably part of the reason he’d become the top male courtesan in Rifthold. And a formidable opponent when Celaena was training at the Assassins’ Keep.

She glanced at Chaol, who was too busy staring down Archer to notice her attention. “He knows everything,” she told Archer. Some tension flowed out of Archer’s shoulders, but the surprise and amusement were also wearing off, replaced by hesitant pity.

“How’d you get out?” Archer asked carefully—still not mentioning anything about her profession or Endovier, despite her reassurance that Chaol knew.

“I was let out. By the king. I work for him now.”

Archer eyed Chaol again, and she took a step toward the courtesan. “He’s a friend,” she said softly. Was it suspicion or fear in his eyes? And was it merely because she worked for a tyrant that the world feared, or because he’d actually turned rebel and had something to hide? She kept herself as casual as possible, as unthreatening and relaxed as anyone might be upon encountering an old friend.

Archer asked, “Does Arobynn know you’re back?”

That was not a question she’d prepared for, or wanted to hear. She shrugged. “He has eyes everywhere; I’d be surprised if he didn’t know.”

Archer nodded solemnly. “I’m sorry. I heard about Sam—and about what happened at Farran’s house that night.” He shook his head, closing his eyes. “I’m just—sorry.”

Even though her heart twisted at his words, she nodded. “Thank you.”

She put a hand on Chaol’s arm, suddenly needing just to touch him, to make sure he was still there. Needing to stop talking about this, too, she sighed and pretended to look interested in the glass doors at the top of the steps.

“We should go inside,” she lied. She gave Archer a smile. “I know I was a miserable little brat when you trained at the Keep, but … do you want to have dinner with me tomorrow? I have the night off.”

“You certainly had your moments back then.” Archer returned her smile and sketched a bow. “I’ll have to move some appointments around, but I’d be delighted.” He reached into his cloak and pulled out a cream-colored card, engraved with his name and address. “Just send word about where and when, and I’ll be there.”

Celaena had been quiet since Archer left, and Chaol hadn’t tried to initiate conversation with her, though he was near bursting to say something.

He didn’t even know where to start.

During the whole exchange, all he’d really been able to think about was how much he wanted to slam Archer’s pretty face against the stone building.

Chaol wasn’t a fool. He knew some of her smiles and blushing hadn’t been acted. And though he had no claim on her—though making a claim would be the stupidest thing he could ever do—the thought of her being susceptible to Archer’s charms made him want to have a little chat with the courtesan.

Rather than head back to the castle, she began walking through the wealthy district in the heart of the city, her steps unhurried. After nearly thirty minutes of silence, Chaol figured he’d cooled his temper enough to be civil. “Laena?” he demanded.

Slightly civil, at least.

The gold streaks in her turquoise eyes were bright in the afternoon sun. “Of all the things we said back there, that is what bothered you most?”

It did. Wyrd keep him, it bothered the hell out of him.

“When you said you knew him, I didn’t realize you meant that well.” He fought the strange, sudden temper that was honing itself again. Even if she’d been charmed by his looks, she was going to kill Archer, he had to remind himself.

“My history with Archer will allow me to get him to provide information about whatever this rebel movement is,” she said, looking up at the fine houses they passed. The residential streets were tranquil despite the bustling city center only a few blocks down. “He’s one of the few people who actually likes me, you know. Or he did years ago. It shouldn’t be too hard to get some inkling of what this group might be planning against the king—or who the other members might be.”

Part of him, he knew, should be ashamed for finding some relief in the fact that she was going to kill him. He was a better man than that—and he certainly wasn’t the territorial type.

And the gods knew he had no claim on her. He’d seen the look on her face when Archer had mentioned Sam.

He’d heard of Sam Cortland’s death in passing. He’d never known that Celaena and Sam had crossed paths, that Celaena had ever … ever loved that fiercely. On the night she was captured, she hadn’t been out to collect cold coin for a contract—no, she’d gone into that house to get revenge for the sort of loss he couldn’t begin to imagine.

They walked down the street, her side nearly pressed against his. He fought against the urge to lean into her, to tuck her in closer.

“Chaol?” she said after a few minutes.


“You know I absolutely hate it when he calls me Laena, don’t you?”

A smile tugged at his lips, along with a flicker of relief. “So the next time I want to piss you off …”

“Don’t you even think about it.”

His smile spread, and the flicker of relief turned to something that punched him in the gut when she smiled back.

Chapter 8

She had planned to spend the rest of the day following Archer from a distance, but as they walked from the tea court, Chaol informed her that the king had ordered her to assist with guard duty at a state dinner that night. And though she could think of a thousand excuses to get out of it, any suspicious behavior on her part could draw the wrong sort of attention. If she was actually going to listen to Elena this time, she needed the king—she needed his entire empire—to think she was his obedient servant.

The state dinner was in the Great Hall, and it took all of Celaena’s self-control to keep from sprinting to the long table in the center of the room and horking down the food right off the plates of the gathered councilmen and preening nobility. Roasted lamb rubbed with thyme and lavender, duck glazed with orange sauce, pheasant swimming in green-onion gravy … Truly, it wasn’t fair.

Chaol had stationed her by a pillar near the glass patio doors. Though she wasn’t wearing the royal guards’ black uniform with the gold embroidered wyvern across the chest, she blended in well enough in her dark clothes. At least she was so far away from it all that no one could hear her stomach grumbling.

Other tables had been set up, too—full of lesser nobility who had been invited to join, all impeccably dressed for the occasion. Most of the attention—of the guards, of the nobility—remained on the center table, where the king and queen sat with their innermost court. Duke Perrington, the hulking brute, also sat there, and Dorian and Roland were nearby, chatting with the precious, pampered men who made up the king’s council. Men who had bled other kingdoms dry to pay for the clothes and jewels and gold in this room. Not that she was much better, in some regards.

Though she tried to avoid looking at the king, every time she did steal a glance at him, she wondered why he bothered attending these events when he could do away with this nonsense altogether. She gleaned nothing, though. And she didn’t think for a moment that he’d be stupid enough to reveal anything about his true agenda in front of all these people.

Chaol stood at attention at the column nearest the king’s chair, his eyes darting everywhere, always alert. He had his best men here tonight—all handpicked by him that afternoon. He didn’t seem to realize that no one would be so suicidal as to attack the king and his court at such a public event. She’d tried explaining that, but Chaol had just glared at her and told her not to cause trouble.

As if she’d be that suicidal.

The meal ended with the king standing up and bidding his guests farewell, the auburn-haired Queen Georgina dutifully and silently following him out of the Great Hall. The other guests remained, but now milled about from table to table, chatting with far more ease than they had while the king was present.

Dorian was on his feet, Roland still beside him as they spoke to three remarkably pretty young courtiers. Roland said something that set the girls giggling and blushing behind their lace fans, and Dorian’s lips stretched toward a smile.

He couldn’t like Roland. She had nothing more than gut feeling and Chaol’s story to go by, but … there was something about Roland’s emerald eyes that made her want to pull Dorian as far away from him as possible. Dorian was playing a dangerous game, too, she realized. As Crown Prince, he had to walk a careful line with certain people. Perhaps she’d speak to Chaol about it.

Celaena frowned. Telling Chaol could lead to tedious explanations. Maybe she’d just warn Dorian herself once this dinner was over. She had ended things with him romantically, but she still cared about him. Despite his history with women, he was everything that a prince should be: intelligent, kind, charming. Why hadn’t Elena approached him for her tasks?

Dorian couldn’t possibly know what his father was up to—no, he couldn’t act the way he did if he knew that his father had such sinister intent. And maybe he shouldn’t ever know.

No matter what she felt for him, Dorian would rule. And maybe his father would someday reveal his power and force Dorian to make a choice about what sort of ruler he wanted to become. But she was in no hurry to have Dorian make that choice; not yet. When he did, she could only pray that he would be a better king than his father.

Dorian knew Celaena was watching him. She’d been stealing glances at him throughout the whole insufferable dinner. But she’d also been looking at Chaol, and when she did, he could have sworn that her whole face changed—became softer, more contemplative.

She lounged against a pillar by the patio doors, cleaning her nails with a dagger. Thank the Wyrd his father had left, because he was fairly certain the king would have flayed her for it.

Roland said something else to the three ladies in front of them—girls whose names Dorian had heard and immediately forgotten—and they giggled again. Roland certainly rivaled him for charm. And it seemed that Roland’s mother had come with him to find the young lord a bride—a girl with land and money that would add to Meah’s importance. Dorian didn’t have to ask Roland to know that until his wedding night, his cousin would enjoy all of the benefits of living in the castle as a young lord.

Listening to him flirt, watching him grin at these girls, Dorian didn’t know whether he wanted to punch Roland or walk away. But years of living in this festering court kept Dorian from doing anything but looking gloriously bored.

He glanced at Celaena again, only to see her watching Chaol, whose eyes were in turn fixed on Roland. Sensing Dorian’s attention, Celaena met his gaze.

Nothing. Not a hint of emotion. Dorian’s temper flared, so fast that he found himself struggling for control. Especially as she looked away again—and her focus returned to the captain. And stayed there. Enough.

Not bothering to say good-bye to Roland or the girls, he strode out of the Great Hall. He had better, more important things to worry about than what Celaena felt for his friend. He was the Crown Prince of the largest empire in the world. His entire existence was bound to the crown and the glass throne that would someday be his. She’d ended things because of that crow