The Assassin and the UnderworldSarah J. Maas
Throne of Glass Novellas
The cavernous entrance hall of the Assassin’s Keep was silent as Celaena Sardothien stalked across the marble floor, a letter clutched between her fingers. No one had greeted her at the towering oak doors save the housekeeper, who’d taken her rain-sodden cloak—and, after getting a look at the wicked grin on Celaena’s face, opted not to say anything.
The doors to Arobynn Hamel’s study lay at the other end of the hall, and were currently shut. But she knew he was in there. Wesley, his manservant, stood guard outside, dark eyes unreadable as Celaena strode toward him. Though Wesley wasn’t an assassin, she had no doubt that he could wield the blades and daggers strapped to his massive body with deadly skill.
She also had no doubt that Arobynn had eyes at every gate in this city. The moment she’d stepped into Rifthold, he’d been alerted that she’d at last returned. She trailed mud from her wet, filthy boots as she made her way toward the study doors—and Wesley.
It had been three months since the night Arobynn had beaten her unconscious—punishment for ruining his slave-trade agreement with the Pirate Lord, Captain Rolfe. It had been three months since he’d shipped her off to the Red Desert to learn obedience and discipline and to earn the approval of the Mute Master of the Silent Assassins.
The letter clutched in her hand was proof that she had done it. Proof that Arobynn hadn’t broken her that night.
And she couldn’t wait to see the look on his face when she gave him the letter.
Not to mention when she told him about the three trunks of gold she’d brought with her, which were on their way up to her room at this moment. With a few words, she’d explain that her debt to him was now repaid, that she was going to walk out of the Keep and move into the new apartment she’d purchased. That she was free of him.
Celaena reached the other end of the hall, and Wesley stepped in front of the study doors. He looked about Arobynn’s age, and the slender scars on his face and hands suggested that the life he’d spent serving the King of the Assassins hadn’t been easy. She suspected there were more scars beneath his dark clothing—perhaps more brutal ones.
“He’s busy,” said Wesley, his hands hanging loosely at his sides, ready to reach for any of his weapons. She might be Arobynn’s protégée, but Wesley had always made it clear that if she became a threat to his master, he wouldn’t hesitate to end her. She didn’t need to see him in action to know he’d be an interesting opponent. She supposed that was why he did his training in private—and kept his personal history a secret, too. The less she knew about him, the more advantage Wesley would have if that fight ever came. Clever, and flattering, she supposed.
“Nice to see you, too, Wesley,” she said, flashing him a smile. He tensed, but didn’t stop her as she strode past him and flung open the doors of Arobynn’s study.
The King of the Assassins was seated at his ornate desk, poring over the stack of papers before him. Without so much as a hello, Celaena strode right up to the desk and tossed the letter onto the shining wooden surface.
She opened her mouth, the words near-bursting out of her. But Arobynn merely lifted a finger, smiling faintly, and returned to his papers. Wesley shut the doors behind her.
Celaena froze. Arobynn flipped the page, eyes rapidly scanning whatever document was in front of him, and made a vague wave with his hand. Sit.
With his attention still on the document he was reading, Arobynn picked up the Mute Master’s letter of approval and set it atop a nearby stack of papers. Celaena blinked. Once. Twice. He didn’t look up at her. He just kept reading. The message was clear enough: she was to wait until he was ready. And until then, even if she screamed until her lungs burst, he wouldn’t acknowledge her existence.
So Celaena sat down.
Rain plinked against the windows of the study. Seconds passed, then minutes. Her plans for a grand speech with sweeping gestures faded into silence. Arobynn read three other documents before he even picked up the Mute Master’s letter.
And as he read it, she could only think of the last time she’d sat in this chair.
She looked at the exquisite red carpet beneath her feet. Someone had done a splendid job of getting all the blood out. How much of the blood on the carpet had been hers—and how much of it had belonged to Sam Cortland, her rival and coconspirator in the destruction of Arobynn’s slave agreement? She still didn’t know what Arobynn had done to him that night. When she’d arrived just now, she hadn’t seen Sam in the entrance hall. But then again, she hadn’t seen any of the other assassins that lived here. So maybe Sam was busy. She hoped he was busy, because that would mean he was alive.
Arobynn finally looked at her, setting aside the Mute Master’s letter as if it were nothing more than a scrap of paper. She kept her back straight and her chin upheld, even as Arobynn’s silver eyes scanned every inch of her. They lingered the longest on the narrow pink scar across the side of her neck, inches away from her jaw and ear. “Well,” Arobynn said at last, “I thought you’d be tanner.”
She almost laughed, but she kept a tight rein on her features. “Head-to-toe clothes to avoid the sun,” she explained. Her words were quieter—weaker—than she wanted. The first words she’d spoken to him since he’d beaten her into oblivion. They weren’t exactly satisfying.
“Ah,” he said, his long, elegant fingers twisting a golden ring around his forefinger.
She sucked in a breath through her nose, remembering all that she’d been burning to say to him these past few months and during the journey back to Rifthold. A few sentences, and it would be over. More than eight years with him, finished with a string of words and a mountain of gold.
She braced herself to begin, but Arobynn spoke first.
“I’m sorry,” he said.
Yet again, the words vanished from her lips.
His eyes were intent on hers, and he stopped toying with his ring. “If I could take back that night, Celaena, I would.” He leaned over the edge of the desk, his hands now forming fists. The last time she’d seen those hands, they’d been smeared with her blood.
“I’m sorry,” Arobynn repeated. He was nearly twenty years her senior, and though his red hair had a few strands of silver, his face remained young. Elegant, sharp features, blazingly clear gray eyes … He might not have been the handsomest man she’d ever seen, but he was one of the most alluring.
“Every day,” he went on. “Every day since you left, I’ve gone to the temple of Kiva to pray for forgiveness.” She might have snorted at the idea of the King of the Assassins kneeling before a statue of the God of Atonement, but his words were so raw. Was it possible that he actually regretted what he had done?
“I shouldn’t have let my temper get the better of me. I shouldn’t have sent you away.”
“Then why didn’t you retrieve me?” It was out before she had a chance to control the snap in her voice.
Arobynn’s eyes narrowed slightly, as close to a wince as he’d let himself come, she supposed. “With the time it’d take for the messengers to track you down, you probably would have been on your way home, anyway.”
She clenched her jaw. An easy excuse.
He read the ire in her eyes—and her disbelief. “Allow me to make it up to you.” He rose from his leather chair and strod
e around the desk. His long legs and years of training made his movements effortlessly graceful, even as he swiped a box off the edge of the table. He sank to one knee before her, his face near level with hers. She’d forgotten how tall he was.
He extended the gift to her. The box in itself was a work of art, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, but she kept her face blank as she flipped open the lid.
An emerald-and-gold brooch glittered in the gray afternoon light. It was stunning, the work of a master craftsman—and she instantly knew what dresses and tunics it would best complement. He’d bought it because he also knew her wardrobe, her tastes, everything about her. Of all the people in the world, only Arobynn knew the absolute truth.
“For you,” he said. “The first of many.” She was keenly aware of each of his movements, and braced herself as he lifted a hand, carefully bringing it to her face. He brushed a finger from her temple down to the arc of her cheekbones. “I’m sorry,” he whispered again, and Celaena raised her eyes to his.
Father, brother, lover—he’d never really declared himself any of them. Certainly not the lover part, though if Celaena had been another sort of girl, and if Arobynn had raised her differently, perhaps it might have come to that. He loved her like family, yet he put her in the most dangerous positions. He nurtured and educated her, yet he’d obliterated her innocence the first time he’d made her end a life. He’d given her everything, but he’d also taken everything away. She could no sooner sort out her feelings toward the King of the Assassins than she could count the stars in the sky.
Celaena turned her face away, and Arobynn rose to his feet. He leaned against the edge of the desk, smiling faintly at her. “I’ve another gift, if you’d like it.”
All those months of daydreaming about leaving, about paying off her debts … Why couldn’t she open her mouth and just tell him?
“Benzo Doneval is coming to Rifthold,” Arobynn said. Celaena cocked her head. She’d heard of Doneval—he was an immensely powerful businessman from Melisande, a country far to the southwest, and one of Adarlan’s newer conquests.
“Why?” she asked quietly—carefully.
Arobynn’s eyes glittered. “He’s a part of a large convoy that Leighfer Bardingale is leading to the Capital. Leighfer is good friends with the former Queen of Melisande, who asked her to come here to plead their case before the King of Adarlan.” Melisande, Celaena recalled, was one of the few kingdoms whose royal family had not been executed. Instead, they’d handed over their crowns and sworn loyalty to the King of Adarlan and his conquering legions. She couldn’t tell what was worse: a quick beheading, or yielding to the King of Adarlan.
“Apparently,” Arobynn went on, “the convoy will attempt to demonstrate all that Melisande has to offer—culture, goods, wealth—in order to convince the king to grant them the permission and resources required to build a road. Given that the former Queen of Melisande is now a mere figurehead, I’ll admit that I’m impressed by her ambition—and her brazenness in asking the king.”
Celaena bit her lip, visualizing the map of their continent. “A road to connect Melisande to Fenharrow and Adarlan?” For years, trade with Melisande had been tricky due to its location. Bordered by near-impassable mountains and the Oakwald Forest, most of their trade had been reduced to whatever they could get out of their ports. A road might change all of that. A road could make Melisande rich—and influential.
Arobynn nodded. “The convoy will be here for a week, and they have parties and markets planned, including a gala three days from now to celebrate the Harvest Moon. Perhaps if the citizens of Rifthold fall in love with their goods, then the king will take their case seriously.”
“So what does Doneval have to do with the road?”
Arobynn shrugged. “He’s here to discuss business arrangements in Rifthold. And probably also to undermine his former wife, Leighfer. And to complete one very specific piece of business that made Leighfer want to dispatch him.”
Celaena’s brows rose. A gift, Arobynn had said.
“Doneval is traveling with some very sensitive documents,” Arobynn said so quietly that the rain lashing the window nearly drowned out his words. “Not only would you need to dispatch him, but you’d also be asked to retrieve the documents.”
“What sort of documents?”
His silver eyes brightened. “Doneval wants to set up a slave-trade business between himself and someone in Rifthold. If the road is approved and built, he wants to be the first in Melisande to profit off the import and export of slaves. The documents, apparently, contain proof that certain influential Melisanders in Adarlan are opposed to the slave trade. Considering the lengths the King of Adarlan has already gone to punish those who speak against his policies … Well, knowing who stands against him regarding the slaves—especially when it seems like they’re taking steps to help free the slaves from his grasp—is information that the king would be extremely interested in learning. Doneval and his new business partner in Rifthold plan to use that list to blackmail those people into changing their minds—into stopping their resistance and investing with him to build the slave trade in Melisande. Or, if they refuse, Leighfer believes her former husband will make sure the king gets that list of names.”
Celaena swallowed hard. Was this a peace offering, then? Some indication that Arobynn actually had changed his mind about the slave trade and forgiven her for Skull’s Bay?
But to get tangled up in this sort of thing again … “What’s Bardingale’s stake in this?” she asked carefully. “Why hire us to kill him?”
“Because Leighfer doesn’t believe in slavery, and she wants to protect the people on that list—people who are preparing to take the necessary steps to soften the blow of slavery in Melisande. And possibly even smuggle captured slaves to safety.” Arobynn spoke like he knew Bardingale personally—like they were more than business partners.
“And Doneval’s partner in Rifthold? Who is it?” She had to consider all the angles before she accepted, had to think it through.
“Leighfer doesn’t know; her sources haven’t been able to find a name in Doneval’s coded correspondences with his partner. All she’s gleaned is that Doneval will exchange the documents with his new business partner six days from now at his rented house, at some point in the day. She’s uncertain what documents his partner is bringing to the table, but she’s betting that it’s a list of important people opposed to slavery in Adarlan. Leighfer says Doneval will probably have a private room in his house to do the swap—perhaps an upstairs study or something of the sort. She knows him well enough to guarantee that.”
She was beginning to see where this was going. Doneval was practically wrapped in a ribbon for her. All she had to do was find out what time the meeting would take place, learn his defenses, and figure out a way around them. “So I’m not only to take out Doneval, but also to wait until he’s done the exchange so I can get his documents and whatever documents his partner brings to the table?” Arobynn smiled slightly. “What about his partner? Am I to dispatch this person as well?”
Arobynn’s smile became a thin line. “Since we don’t know who he’ll be dealing with, you haven’t been contracted to eliminate them. But, it’s been strongly hinted that Leighfer and her allies want the contact dead as well. They might give you a bonus for it.”
She studied the emerald brooch in her lap. “And how well will this pay?”
“Extraordinarily well.” She heard the smile in his voice, but kept her attention on the lovely green jewel. “And I won’t take a cut of it. It’s all yours.”
She raised her head at that. There was a glimmer of pleading in his eyes. Perhaps he truly was sorry for what he’d done. And perhaps he’d picked this mission just for her—to prove, in his way, that he understood why she’d freed those slaves in Skull’s Bay. “I can assume Doneval is well guarded?”
“Very,” Arobynn said, fishing a letter from the desk behind him. “He’s waiting to do the deal until after the citywide celebrations,
so he can run home the next day.”
Celaena glanced toward the ceiling, as if she could see through the wood beams and into her room on the floor above, where her trunks of gold now sat. She didn’t need the money, but if she were going to pay off her debt to Arobynn, her funds would be severely depleted. And to take this mission wouldn’t just be about killing—it would be about helping others, too. How many lives would be destroyed if she didn’t dispatch Doneval and his partner and retrieve those sensitive documents?
Arobynn approached her again, and she rose from her chair. He brushed her hair back from her face. “I missed you,” he said.
He opened his arms to her, but didn’t make a further move to embrace her. She studied his face. The Mute Master had told her that people dealt with their pain in different ways—that some chose to drown it, some chose to love it, and some chose to let it turn into rage. While she had no regrets about freeing those two hundred slaves from Skull’s Bay, she had betrayed Arobynn in doing it. Perhaps hurting her had been his way of coping with the pain of that.
And even though there was no excuse in this world for what he had done, Arobynn was all she had. The history that lay between them, dark and twisted and full of secrets, was forged by more than just gold. And if she left him, if she paid off her debts right now and never saw him again …
She took a step back, and Arobynn casually lowered his arms, not at all fazed by her rejection. “I’ll think about taking on Doneval.” It wasn’t a lie. She always took time to consider her missions—Arobynn had always encouraged that.
“I’m sorry,” he said again.
Celaena just gave him another long look before she left.
Her exhaustion hit her the moment she began climbing the polished marble steps of the sweeping grand staircase. A month of hard travel—after a month of grueling training and heartache. Every time she saw the scar on her neck, or touched it, or felt her clothes brush against it, a tremor of pain went through her as she remembered the betrayal that had caused it. She’d believed Ansel was her friend—a life-friend, a friend of the heart. But Ansel’s need for revenge had been greater than anything else. Still, wherever Ansel now was, Celaena hoped that she was finally facing what had haunted her for so long.