The Assassin and the DesertSarah J. Maas
There was nothing left in the world except sand and wind.
At least, that’s how it seemed to Celaena Sardothien as she stood atop the crimson dune and gazed across the desert. Even with the wind, the heat was stifling, and sweat made her many layers of clothes cling to her body. But sweating, her nomad guide had told her, was a good thing—it was when you didn’t sweat that the Red Desert became deadly. Sweat reminded you to drink. When the heat evaporated your perspiration before you could realize you were sweating, that’s when you could cross into dehydration and not know it.
Oh, the miserable heat. It invaded every pore of her, made her head throb and her bones ache. The muggy warmth of Skull’s Bay had been nothing compared to this. What she wouldn’t give for just the briefest of cool breezes!
Beside her, the nomad guide pointed a gloved finger toward the southwest. “The sessiz suikast are there.” Sessiz suikast. The Silent Assassins—the legendary order that she’d been sent here to train with.
“To learn obedience and discipline,” Arobynn Hamel had said. In the height of summer in the Red Desert was what he’d failed to add. It was a punishment. Two months ago, when Arobynn had sent Celaena along with Sam Cortland to Skull’s Bay on an unknown errand, they’d discovered that he’d actually dispatched them to trade in slaves. Needless to say, that hadn’t sat well with Celaena or Sam, despite their occupation. So they’d freed the slaves, deciding to damn the consequences. But now . . . As punishments went, this was probably the worst. Given the bruises and cuts that were still healing on her face a month after Arobynn had bestowed them, that was saying something.
Celaena scowled. She pulled the scarf a bit higher over her mouth and nose as she took a step down the dune. Her legs strained against the sliding sand, but it was a welcome freedom after the harrowing trek through the Singing Sands, where each grain had hummed and whined and moaned. They’d spent a whole day monitoring each step, careful to keep the sand beneath them ringing in harmony. Or else, the nomad had told her, the sands could dissolve into quicksand.
Celaena descended the dune, but paused when she didn’t hear her guide’s footsteps. “Aren’t you coming?”
The man remained atop the dune, and pointed again to the horizon. “Two miles that way.” His use of the common tongue was a bit unwieldy, but she understood him well enough.
She pulled down the scarf from her mouth, wincing as a gust of sand stung her sweaty face. “I paid you to take me there.”
“Two miles,” he said, adjusting the large pack on his back. The scarf around his head obscured his tanned features, but she could still see the fear in his eyes.
Yes, yes, the sessiz suikast were feared and respected in the desert. It had been a miracle that she’d found a guide willing to take her this close to their fortress. Of course, offering gold had helped. But the nomads viewed the sessiz suikast as little less than shadows of death—and apparently, her guide would go no farther.
She studied the westward horizon. She could see nothing beyond dunes and sand that rippled like the surface of a windblown sea.
“Two miles,” the nomad said behind her. “They will find you.”
Celaena turned to ask him another question, but he had already disappeared over the other side of the dune. Cursing him, she tried to swallow, but failed. Her mouth was too dry. She had to start now, or else she’d need to set up her tent to sleep out the unforgiving midday and afternoon heat.
Two miles. How long could that take?
Taking a sip from her unnervingly light waterskin, Celaena pulled her scarf back over her mouth and nose and began walking.
The only sound was the wind hissing through the sand.
Hours later, Celaena found herself using all of her self-restraint to avoid leaping into the courtyard pools or kneeling to drink at one of the little rivers running along the floor. No one had offered her water upon her arrival, and she didn’t think her current escort was inclined to do so either as he led her through the winding halls of the red sandstone fortress.
The two miles had felt more like twenty. She had been just about to stop and set up her tent when she’d crested a dune and the lush green trees and adobe fortress had spread before her, hidden in an oasis nestled between two monstrous sand dunes.
After all that, she was parched. But she was Celaena Sardothien, Adarlan’s greatest Assassin. She had a reputation to uphold.
She kept her senses alert as they walked farther into the fortress—taking in exits and windows, noting where sentries were stationed. They passed a row of open-air training rooms in which she could see people from all kingdoms and of all ages sparring or exercising or just sitting quietly, lost in meditation. They climbed a narrow flight of stairs that went up and up into a large building. The shade of the stairwell was wonderfully cool. But then they entered a long, enclosed hall, and the heat wrapped around her like a blanket.
For a fortress of supposedly silent assassins, the place was fairly noisy, with the clatter of weapons from the training rooms, the buzzing of insects in the many trees and bushes, the chatter of birds, the gurgle of all that crystal-clear water running through every room and hall.
They approached an open set of doors at the end of the hallway. Her escort—a middle-aged man flecked with scars that stood out like chalk against his tan skin—said nothing to her. Beyond the doors, the interior was a mixture of shadow and light. They entered a giant chamber flanked by blue-painted wooden pillars that supported a mezzanine on either side. A glance into the darkness of the balcony informed her that there were figures lurking there—watching, waiting. There were more in the shadows of the columns. Whoever they thought she was, they certainly weren’t underestimating her. Good.
A narrow mosaic of green and blue glass tiles wove through the floor toward the dais, echoing the little rivers on the lower level. Atop the dais, seated among cushions and potted palms, was a white-robed man.
The Mute Master. She had expected him to be ancient, but he seemed to be around fifty. She kept her chin held high as they approached him, following the tile path in the floor. She couldn’t tell if the Master’s skin had always been that tan or if it was from the sun. He smiled slightly—he’d probably been handsome in his youth. Sweat oozed down Celaena’s spine. Though the Master had no visible weapons, the two servants fanning him with palm leaves were armed to the teeth. Her escort stopped a safe distance from the Master and bowed.
Celaena did the same, and when she raised herself, she removed the hood from over her hair. She was sure it was a mess, and disgustingly greasy after two weeks in the desert with no water to bathe in, but she wasn’t here to impress him with her beauty.
The Mute Master looked her up and down, and then nodded. Her escort nudged her with an elbow, and Celaena cleared her dry throat as she stepped forward.
She knew the Mute Master wouldn’t say anything; his self-imposed silence was well-known. It was incumbent upon her to make the introduction. Arobynn had told her exactly what to say—ordered her was more like it. There would be no disguises, no masks, no fake names. Since she had shown such disregard for Arobynn’s best interests, he no longer had any inclination to protect hers. She’d debated for weeks how she might find a way to protect her identity—to keep these strang
ers from knowing who she was—but Arobynn’s orders had been simple: she had one month to win the Mute Master’s respect. And if she didn’t return home with his letter of approval—a letter about Celaena Sardothien—she’d better find a new city to live in. Possibly a new continent.
“Thank you for granting me an audience, Master of the Silent Assassins,” she said, silently cursing the stiffness of her words.
She put a hand over her heart and dropped to both knees. “I am Celaena Sardothien, protégée of Arobynn Hamel, King of the Northern Assassins.” Adding “Northern” seemed appropriate; she didn’t think the Mute Master would be much pleased to learn that Arobynn called himself King of all the Assassins. But whether or not it surprised him, his face revealed nothing, though she sensed some of the people in the shadows shifting on their feet.
“My master sent me here to beseech you to train me,” she said, chafing at the words. Train her! She lowered her head so the Master wouldn’t see the ire on her face. “I am yours.” She tilted her palms face up in a gesture of supplication.
Warmth worse than the heat of the desert singed her cheeks. She kept her head down, her arms still upheld. Cloth rustled, then near-silent steps echoed through the chamber. At last, two bare, brown feet stopped before her.
A dry finger tilted her chin up, and Celaena found herself staring into the sea-green eyes of the Master. She didn’t dare move. With one movement, the Master could snap her neck. This was a test—a test of trust, she realized.
She willed herself into stillness, focusing on the details of his face to avoid thinking about how vulnerable she was. Sweat beaded along the border of his dark hair, which was cropped close to his head. It was impossible to tell what kingdom he hailed from; his hazelnut skin suggested Eyllwe. But his elegant, almond-shaped eyes suggested one of the countries in the distant southern continent. Regardless, how had he wound up here?
She braced herself as his long fingers pushed back the loose strands of her braided hair, revealing the yellowing bruises still lingering around her eyes and cheeks, and the narrow arc of the scab along her cheekbone. Had Arobynn sent word that she would be coming? Had he told him the circumstances under which she’d been packed off? The Master didn’t seem at all surprised by her arrival.
But the Master’s eyes narrowed, his lips forming a tight line as he looked at the remnants of the bruises on the other side of her face. She was lucky that Arobynn was skilled enough to keep his blows from permanently marring her face. A twinge of guilt went through her as she wondered if Sam had healed as well. In the three days following her beating, she hadn’t seen him around the Keep. She’d blacked out before Arobynn could deal with her companion. And since that night, even during her trip out here, everything had been a haze of rage and sorrow and bone-deep weariness, as if she were dreaming while awake.
She calmed her thundering heart just as the Master released her face and stepped back. He motioned with a hand for her to rise, which she did, to the relief of her aching knees.
The Master gave her a crooked smile. She would have echoed the expression—but an instant later he snapped his fingers, triggering four men to charge at her.
They didn’t have weapons, but their intent was clear enough. The first man, clad in the loose, layered clothing that everyone here wore, reached her and she dodged the sweeping blow aimed at her face. His arm shot past her, and she grabbed it by the wrist and bicep, locking and twisting his arm so he grunted with pain. She whirled him around, careening him into the second attacker hard enough that the two men went tumbling to the ground.
Celaena leapt back, landing where her escort had been standing only seconds before, careful to avoid crashing into the Master. This was another test—a test to see at what level she might begin her training. And if she was worthy.
Of course she was worthy. She was Celaena Sardothien, gods be damned.
The third man pulled out two crescent-shaped daggers from the folds of his beige tunic and slashed at her. Her layered clothing was too cumbersome for her to dart away fast enough, so as he swiped for her face, she bent back. Her spine strained, but the two blades passed overhead, slicing through an errant strand of her hair. She dropped to the ground and lashed out with a leg, sweeping the man off his feet.
The fourth man, though, had come up behind her, a curved blade flashing in his hand as he made to plunge it through her head. She rolled, and the sword struck stone, sparking.
By the time she got to her feet, he’d raised the sword again. She caught his feint to the left before he struck at her right. She danced aside. The man was still swinging when she drove the base of her palm straight into his nose and slammed her other fist into his gut. The man dropped to the floor, blood gushing from his nose. She panted, the air ragged in her already-burning throat. She really, really needed water.
None of the four men on the ground moved. The Master began smiling, and it was then that the others gathered around the chamber stepped closer to the light. Men and women, all tan, though their hair showed the range of the various kingdoms on the continent. Celaena inclined her head. None of them nodded back. Celaena kept one eye on the four men before her as they got to their feet, sheathed their weapons, and stalked back to the shadows. Hopefully they wouldn’t take it personally.
She scanned the shadows again, bracing herself for more assailants. Nearby, a young woman watched her, and she flashed Celaena a conspirator’s grin. Celaena tried not to look too interested, though the girl was one of the most stunning people she’d ever beheld. It wasn’t just her wine-red hair or the color of her eyes, a red brown Celaena had never seen before. No, it was the girl’s armor that initially caught her interest: ornate to the point of probably being useless, but still a work of art.
The right shoulder was fashioned into a snarling wolf’s head, and her helmet, tucked into the crook of her arm, featured a wolf hunched over the noseguard. Another wolf’s head had been molded into the pommel of her broadsword. On anyone else, the armor might have looked flamboyant and ridiculous, but on the girl . . . There was a strange, boyish sort of innocence to her, and that was what made her so striking.
Still, Celaena wondered how it was possible not to be sweltering to death inside all that armor.
The Master clapped Celaena on the shoulder and beckoned to the girl to come forward. Not to attack—a friendly invitation. The girl’s armor clinked as it moved, but her boots were near-silent.
The Master used his hands to form a series of motions between the girl and Celaena. The girl bowed low, then gave her that wicked grin again. “I’m Ansel,” she said, her voice bright, amused. She had a barely perceptible lilt to her accent that Celaena couldn’t place. “Looks like we’re sharing a room while you’re here.” The Master gestured again, his calloused, scarred fingers creating rudimentary gestures that Ansel could somehow decipher. “Say, how long will that be, actually?”
Celaena fought her frown. “One month.” She inclined her head to the Master. “If you allow me to stay that long.”
With the month that it took to get here, and the month it would take to get home, she’d be away from Rifthold three months before she returned.
The Master merely nodded and walked back to the cushions atop the dais. “That means you can stay,” Ansel whispered, and then touched Celaena’s shoulder with an armor-clad hand. Apparently not all the assassins here were under a vow of silence—or had a sense of personal space. “You’ll start training tomorrow,” Ansel went on. “At dawn.”
The Master sank onto the cushions, and Celaena almost sagged with relief. Arobynn had made her think that convincing him to train her would be nearly impossible. Fool. Pack her off to the desert to suffer, would he!
“Thank you,” Celaena said to the Master, keenly aware of the eyes watching her in the hall as she bowed again. He waved her away.
“Come,” Ansel said, her hair shimmering in a ray of sunlight. “I suppose you’ll want a bath b
efore you do anything else. I certainly would, if I were you.” Ansel gave her a smile that stretched the splattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose and cheeks.
Celaena glanced sidelong at the girl and her ornate armor, and followed her from the room. “That’s the best thing I’ve heard in weeks,” she said with a grin.
Alone with Ansell as they strode through the halls, Celaena keenly felt the absence of the long daggers usually sheathed in her belt. But they’d been taken from her at the gate, along with her sword and her pack. She let her hands dangle at her sides, ready to react to the slightest movement from her guide. Whether or not Ansel noticed Celaena’s readiness to fight her, the girl swung her arms casually, her armor clanking with the movement.
Her roommate. That was an unfortunate surprise. Sharing a room with Sam for a few nights was one thing. But a month with a complete stranger? Celaena studied Ansel out of the corner of her eye. She was slightly taller, but Celaena couldn’t see much else about her, thanks to the armor. She’d never spent much time around other girls, save the courtesans that Arobynn invited to the Keep for parties or took to the theater, and most of them were not the sort of person that Celaena cared to know. There were no other female assassins in Arobynn’s guild. But here . . . in addition to Ansel, there had been just as many women as men. In the Keep, there was no mistaking who she was. Here, she was just another face in the crowd.
For all she knew, Ansel might be better than her. The thought didn’t sit well.
“So,” Ansel said, her brows rising. “Celaena Sardothien.”
Ansel shrugged—or at least shrugged as well as she could, given the armor. “I thought you’d be . . . more dramatic.”
“Sorry to disappoint,” Celaena said, not sounding very sorry at all. Ansel steered them up a short staircase, then down a long hall. Children popped in and out of the rooms along the passage, buckets and brooms and mops in hand. The youngest looked about eight, the eldest about twelve.