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The Assassin and the Empire

Sarah J. Maas



  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve



  Throne of Glass Novellas

  To Alex, Susan, Amie, Kat, and Jane—

  for journeying with me from Skull’s Bay to Endovier


  Curled into the corner of a prison wagon, Celaena Sardothien watched the splotches of shadows and light play on the wall. Trees—just beginning to shift into the rich hues of autumn—seemed to peer at her through the small, barred window.

  She rested her head against the musty wooden wall, listening to the creak of the wagon, the clink of the shackles around her wrists and ankles, the rumbling chatter and occasional laughter of the guards who had been escorting the wagon along its route for two days now.

  But while she was aware of it all, she heard it through a deafening sort of silence that had settled over her like a cloak. It shut out everything. She knew she was thirsty, and hungry, and that her fingers were numb with cold, but she couldn’t feel it keenly.

  The wagon hit a rut, jostling her so hard that her head knocked into the wall. Even that pain felt distant.

  The freckles of light along the panels danced like falling snow.

  Like ash.

  Ash from a world burned into nothing—lying in ruins around her. She could taste the ash of that dead world on her chapped lips, settling on her leaden tongue.

  She preferred the silence. In the silence she couldn’t hear the worst question of all: had she brought this upon herself?

  The wagon passed under a particularly thick canopy of trees, blotting out the light. For a heartbeat, the silence peeled back long enough for that question to worm its way into her skull, into her skin, into her breath and her bones.

  And in the dark, she remembered.

  Chapter One

  Eleven Days Earlier

  Celaena Sardothien had been waiting for this night for the past year. Sitting on the wooden walkway tucked into the side of the gilded dome of the Royal Theater, she breathed in the music rising from the orchestra far below. Her legs dangled from the railing edge, and she leaned forward to rest her cheek on her folded arms.

  The musicians were seated in a semicircle on the stage. They filled the theater with such wondrous noise that Celaena sometimes forgot how to breathe. She had seen this symphony performed four times in the past four years—but she’d always gone with Arobynn. It had become their annual autumn tradition.

  Though she knew she shouldn’t, she let her eyes drift to the private box where, until last month, she’d always been seated.

  Was it from spite or sheer blindness that Arobynn Hamel now sat there, Lysandra at his side? He knew what this night meant to Celaena—knew how much she’d looked forward to it every year. And though Celaena hadn’t wanted to go with him—and never wanted anything to do with him again—tonight he’d brought Lysandra. As if this night didn’t mean anything to him at all.

  Even from the rafters, she could see the King of the Assassins holding the hand of the young courtesan, his leg resting against the skirts of her rose-colored gown. A month after Arobynn had won the Bidding for Lysandra’s virginity, it seemed that he was still monopolizing her time. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he’d worked out something with her madam to keep Lysandra until he tired of her.

  Celaena wasn’t sure if she pitied Lysandra for it.

  Celaena returned her attention to the stage. She didn’t know why she’d come here, or why she’d told Sam that she had “plans” and couldn’t meet him for dinner at their favorite tavern.

  In the past month, she hadn’t seen or spoken to Arobynn, nor had she wanted to. But this was her favorite symphony, the music so lovely that, to fill the yearlong wait between performances, she’d mastered a fair portion of it on the pianoforte.

  The symphony’s third movement finished, and applause thundered across the shimmering arc of the dome. The orchestra waited for the clapping to die down before it swept into the joyous allegro that led to the finale.

  At least in the rafters, she didn’t have to bother dressing up and pretending to fit in with the bejeweled crowd below. She had easily snuck in from the roof, and no one had once looked up to see the black-clad figure seated along the railing, nearly hidden from view by the crystal chandeliers that had been raised and dimmed for the performance.

  Up here, she could do what she liked. She could rest her head on her arms, or swing her legs in time with the music, or get up and dance if she wanted to. So what if she’d never again sit in that beloved box, so lovely with its red velvet seats and polished wooden banisters?

  The music braided through the theater, and each note was more brilliant than the last.

  She’d chosen to leave Arobynn. She’d paid off her debt to him, and Sam’s debt to him, and had moved out. She’d walked away from her life as Arobynn Hamel’s protégée. That had been her decision—and one she didn’t regret, not after Arobynn had so sorely betrayed her. He’d humiliated and lied to her, and used her blood money to win Lysandra’s Bidding just to spite her.

  Though she still fancied herself Adarlan’s Assassin, part of her wondered just how long Arobynn would allow her to keep the title before he named someone else his successor. But no one could truly replace her. Whether or not she belonged to Arobynn, she was still the best. She’d always be the best.

  Wouldn’t she?

  She blinked, realizing she’d somehow stopped hearing the music. She should change spots—move to a place where the chandeliers blocked out her view of Arobynn and Lysandra. She stood, her tailbone aching from sitting on the wood.

  Celaena took a step, the floorboards sagging under her black boots, but paused. Though it was as she’d remembered it, every note flawless, the music felt disjointed now. Even though she could play it from memory, it was suddenly like she’d never heard it before, or like her internal beat was now somehow off from the rest of the world.

  Celaena glanced again at the familiar box far below—where Arobynn was now draping a long, elegant arm along the back of Lysandra’s seat. Her old seat, the one closest to the stage.

  It was worth it, though. She was free, and Sam was free, and Arobynn … He had done his best to hurt her, to break her. Going without these luxuries was a cheap price to pay for a life without him lording over her.

  The music worked itself into the frenzy of its climax, becoming a whirlwind of sound that she found herself walking through—not toward a new seat, but toward the small door that led onto the roof.

  The music roared, each note a pulse of air against her skin. Celaena threw the hood of her cloak over her head as she slipped out the door and into the night beyond.

  It was nearing eleven when Celaena unlocked the door to her apartment, breathing in the already familiar scents of home. She’d spent much of the past month furnishing the spacious apartment—hidden on the upper floor of a warehouse in the slums—that she now shared with Sam.

  He’d offered again and again to pay for half of the apartment, but each time, she ignored him. It wasn’t because she didn’t want his money—though she truly didn’t—but rather because, for the first time ever, this was a place that was hers. And though she cared deeply for Sam, she wanted to keep it that way.

  She slipped inside, taking in the great room that greeted her: to the left, a shining oak dining table large enough to fit eight upholstered chairs around
it; to her right, a large red couch, two armchairs, and a low-lying table set before the darkened fireplace.

  The cold fireplace told her enough. Sam wasn’t home.

  Celaena might have gone into the adjacent kitchen to devour the remaining half of the berry tart Sam hadn’t finished at lunch—might have kicked off her boots and reclined before a floor-to-ceiling window to take in the stunning nighttime view of the capital. She might have done any number of things had she not spied the note atop the small table beside the front door.

  I’ve gone out, it said in Sam’s handwriting. Don’t wait up.

  Celaena crumpled the note in her fist. She knew exactly where he’d gone—and exactly why he didn’t want her to wait up.

  Because if she were asleep, then she most likely wouldn’t see the blood and bruises on him when he staggered in.

  Swearing viciously, Celaena threw the crumpled note on the ground and stalked out of the apartment, slamming the door shut behind her.

  If there was a place in Rifthold where the scum of the capital could always be found, it was the Vaults.

  On a relatively quiet street of the slums, Celaena flashed her money to the thugs standing outside the iron door and entered the pleasure hall. The heat and reek hit her almost immediately, but she didn’t let it crack her mask of cold calm as she descended into a warren of subterranean chambers. She took one look down at the teeming crowd around the main fighting pit and knew exactly who was causing them to cheer.

  She swaggered down the stone steps, her hands in easy reach of the swords and daggers sheathed at the belt slung low over her hips. Most people would have opted to wear even more weapons to the Vaults—but Celaena had been here often enough to see the threats the usual clientele posed, and she knew she could look after herself just fine. Still, she kept her hood over her head, concealing most of her face in shadow. Being a young woman in a place like this wasn’t without its obstacles—especially when a good number of men came here for the other entertainment offered by the Vaults.

  As she reached the bottom of the narrow stairs, the reek of unwashed bodies, stale ale, and worse things hit her full-on. It was enough to turn her stomach, and she was grateful that she hadn’t eaten anything recently.

  She slipped through the crowd packed around the main pit, trying not to look to the exposed rooms on either side—to the girls and women who weren’t fortunate enough to be sold into an upper-class brothel like Lysandra. Sometimes, when Celaena was feeling particularly inclined to make herself miserable, she’d wonder if their fate would have been hers had Arobynn not taken her in. She’d wonder if she’d gaze into their eyes and see some version of herself staring back.

  So it was easier not to look.

  Celaena pushed past the men and women assembled around the sunken pit, keeping alert for grasping hands eager to part her from her money—or one of her exquisite blades.

  She leaned against a wooden pillar and stared into the pit.

  Sam moved so fast the hulking man in front of him didn’t stand a chance, dodging each knock-out blow with power and grace—some of it natural, some learned from years of training at the Assassin’s Keep. Both of them were shirtless, and Sam’s toned chest gleamed with sweat and blood. Not his blood, she noticed—the only injuries she could see were his split lip and a bruise on his cheek.

  His opponent lunged, trying to tackle Sam to the sandy floor. But Sam whirled, and as the giant stumbled past, Sam drove his bare foot into his back. The man hit the sand with a thud that Celaena felt through the filthy stone floor. The crowd cheered.

  Sam could have rendered the man unconscious in a heartbeat. He could have snapped his neck just now, or ended the fight any number of ways. But from the half-wild, self-satisfied gleam in Sam’s eyes, Celaena knew he was playing with his opponent. The injuries on his face had probably been intentional mistakes—to make it look like a somewhat even fight.

  Fighting in the Vaults wasn’t just about knocking out your opponent—it was about making a show out of it. Seeing the crowd near savage with elation, Celaena was certain Sam had been giving them one hell of a performance. And, judging by the blood on Sam, it seemed like this performance was probably one of several encores.

  A low growl rippled through her. There was only one rule in the Vaults: no weapons, just fists. But you could still get horribly hurt.

  His opponent staggered to his feet, but Sam had finished waiting.

  The poor brute didn’t even have time to raise his hands as Sam lashed out with a roundhouse kick. His foot slammed into the man’s face hard enough for the impact to sound over the shouts of the crowd.

  The opponent reeled sideways, blood spurting from his mouth. Sam struck again, a punch to the gut. The man doubled over, only to meet Sam’s knee to his nose. His head snapped skyward, and he stumbled back, back, back—

  The crowd screamed its triumph as Sam’s fist, coated in blood and sand, connected with the man’s exposed face. Even before he finished swinging, Celaena knew it was a knockout punch.

  The man hit the sand and didn’t move.

  Panting, Sam lifted his bloodied arms to the surrounding crowd.

  Celaena’s ears nearly shattered at the answering roar. She gritted her teeth as the master of ceremonies strode onto the sand, proclaiming Sam the victor.

  It wasn’t fair, really. No matter what opponents they threw his way, any person that went up against Sam would lose.

  Celaena had half a mind to hop into the pit and challenge Sam herself.

  That would be a performance the Vaults would never forget.

  Her fingers gripped her arms. She hadn’t had a contract in the month since she’d left Arobynn, and though she and Sam continued training as best they could … Oh, the urge to jump into that pit and take them all down was overwhelming. A wicked smile spread across her face. If they thought Sam was good, then she’d really give the crowd something to scream for.

  But then Sam, still basking in the crowd, spotted her leaning against the pillar. His triumphant grin remained, but she saw a glimmer of displeasure flash in his brown eyes.

  She inclined her head toward the exit. The gesture told him all he needed to know: unless he wanted her to get into the pit with him, he was done for tonight, and she’d meet him on the street when he was done collecting his earnings.

  And then the real fight would begin.

  “Should I be relieved or worried that you haven’t said anything?” Sam asked her as they strode through the backstreets of the capital, weaving their way home.

  Celaena dodged a puddle that could have been either rainwater or urine. “I’ve been thinking of ways to begin that don’t involve screaming.”

  Sam snorted, and she ground her teeth. A bag of coins jangled at his waist. Although the hood of his cloak was pulled up over his head, she could still clearly see his split lip.

  She fisted her hands. “You promised you wouldn’t go back there.”

  Sam kept his eyes on the narrow alley ahead of them, always alert, always watching for any source of danger. “I didn’t promise. I said I’d think about it.”

  “People die in the Vaults!” She said it louder than she meant to, her words echoing off the alley walls.

  “People die because they’re fools in search of glory. They’re not trained assassins.”

  “Accidents still happen. Any of those men could have snuck in a blade.”

  He let out a quick, harsh laugh, full of pure male arrogance. “You really think so little of my abilities?”

  They turned down another street, where a group of people were smoking pipes outside a dimly lit tavern. Celaena waited until they were past them before speaking. “Risking yourself for a few coins is absurd.”

  “We need whatever money we can get,” Sam said quietly.

  She tensed. “We have money.” Some money, less and less each day.

  “It won’t last forever. Not when we haven’t been able to get any other contracts. And especially not with your lifestyle.�

  “My lifestyle!” she hissed. But it was true. She could rough it, but her heart lay in luxury—in fine clothes and delicious food and exquisite furnishings. She’d taken for granted how much of that had been provided for her at the Assassin’s Keep. Arobynn might have kept a detailed list of the expenses she owed him, but he’d never charged them for their food, or their servants, or their carriages. And now that she was on her own …

  “The Vaults are easy fights,” Sam said. “Two hours there, and I can make decent money.”

  “The Vaults are a festering pile of shit,” she snapped. “We’re better than that. We can make our money elsewhere.” She didn’t know where, or how, exactly, but she could find something better than fighting in the Vaults.

  Sam paused, grabbing her arm, making her stop to face him. “Then what if we left Rifthold?” Though her own hood covered most of her features, she raised her brows at him. “What’s keeping us here?”

  Nothing. Everything.

  Unable to answer him, Celaena shook off his grasp and continued walking.

  It was an absurd idea, really. Leaving Rifthold. Where would they even go? It was nonsense.

  They reached the warehouse and were quickly up the rickety wooden stairs at the back and inside the apartment on the second floor.

  She didn’t say anything to him as she tossed off her cloak and boots, lit some candles, and went into the kitchen to down a piece of bread slathered in butter. And he didn’t say anything as he strode into the bathing room and washed himself. The running water was a luxury the previous owner had spent a fortune on—and had been the biggest priority for Celaena when she was looking for places to live.

  Benefits like running water were plentiful in the capital, but not widespread elsewhere. If they left Rifthold, what sorts of things would she have to go without?

  She was still contemplating that when Sam padded into the kitchen, all traces of blood and sand washed away. His bottom lip was still swollen, and he had a bruise on his cheek, not to mention his raw knuckles, but he looked to be in one piece.

  Sam slid into one of the chairs at the small kitchen table and cut himself a piece of bread. Buying food for the house took up more time than she’d realized it would, and she’d been debating hiring a housekeeper, but … that’d cost money. Everything cost money.