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The Assassin and the Underworld, Page 2

Sarah J. Maas

  A passing servant saw her and bowed his head, eyes averted. Everyone who worked here knew more or less who she was, and would keep her identity secret on pain of death. Not that there was much of a point to it now, given that every single one of the Silent Assassins could identify her.

  Celaena took a ragged breath, running a hand through her hair. Before entering the city this morning, she’d stopped at a tavern just outside Rifthold to bathe, to wash her filthy clothes, to put on some cosmetics. She hadn’t wanted to stride into the Keep looking like a gutter rat. But she still felt dirty.

  She passed one of the upstairs drawing rooms, her brows rising at the sound of a pianoforte and laughing people inside. If Arobynn had company, then why had he been in his study, ever so busy, when she arrived?

  Celaena ground her teeth. So that nonsense where he’d made her wait while he finished his work …

  She clenched her hands into fists and was about to whirl and stomp back down the stairs to tell Arobynn that she was leaving and that he no longer owned her, when someone stepped into the elegantly appointed hall.

  Celaena froze as she saw Sam Cortland.

  Sam’s brown eyes were wide, his body rigid. As if it took some effort on his part, he shut the door to the hall washroom and strode toward her, past the teal velvet curtains hanging on the floor-to-ceiling windows, past the framed artwork on the walls, closer and closer. She remained still, taking in every inch of him before he stopped a few feet away.

  No missing limbs, no limp, no indication of anything haunting him. His chestnut hair had gotten a little longer, but it suited him. And he was tan—gloriously tan, as if he’d spent the whole summer basking in the sun. Hadn’t Arobynn punished him at all?

  “You’re back,” Sam said, as if he couldn’t quite believe that she stood before him.

  She lifted her chin, stuffing her hands in her pockets. “Obviously.”

  He tilted his head slightly to the side. “How was the desert?”

  There wasn’t a scratch on him. Of course, her face had healed, too, but … “Hot,” she said. Sam let out a breathy chuckle.

  It wasn’t that she was mad at him for being uninjured. She was so relieved she could have vomited, actually. She just never imagined that seeing him today would feel so … strange. And after what had happened with Ansel, could she honestly say that she trusted him?

  In the drawing room a few doors down, a woman let out a shrill giggle. How was it possible that she could have so many questions and yet so little to say?

  Sam’s eyes slipped from her face to her neck, his brows drawing together for a heartbeat as he saw the thin new scar. “What happened?”

  “Someone held a sword to my throat.”

  His eyes darkened, but she didn’t want to explain the long, miserable story. She didn’t want to talk about Ansel, and she certainly didn’t want to talk about what had happened with Arobynn that night they’d returned from Skull’s Bay.

  “Are you hurt?” Sam asked quietly, taking another step closer.

  It took her a moment to realize that his imagination had probably taken him to a far, far worse place when she said someone had held a blade to her throat.

  “No,” she said. “No, not like that.”

  “Then like what?” He was now looking more closely at her, at the almost invisible white line along her cheek—another gift from Ansel—at her hands, at everything. His lean, muscled body tensed. His chest had gotten broader, too.

  “Like none of your business, that’s what,” she retorted.

  “Tell me what happened,” he gritted out.

  She gave him one of those simpering little smiles that she knew he hated. Things hadn’t been bad between them since Skull’s Bay, but after so many years of treating him awfully, she didn’t know how to slide back into that newfound respect and camaraderie they’d discovered for each other. “Why should I tell you anything?”

  “Because,” he hissed, taking another step, “the last time I saw you, Celaena, you were unconscious on Arobynn’s carpet and so bloodied up that I couldn’t see your damn face.”

  He was close enough that she could touch him now. Rain continued beating against the hall windows, a distant reminder that there was still a world around them. “Tell me,” he said.

  I’ll kill you! Sam had screamed it at Arobynn as the King of the Assassins beat her. He’d roared it. In those horrible minutes, whatever bond had sprung up between her and Sam hadn’t broken. He’d switched loyalties—he’d chosen to stand by her, fight for her. If anything, that made him different from Ansel. Sam could have hurt or betrayed her a dozen times over, but he’d never jumped at the opportunity.

  A half smile tugged at a corner of her lips. She’d missed him. Seeing the expression on her face, he gave her a bewildered sort of grin. She swallowed, feeling the words bubbling up through her—I missed you—but the door to the drawing room opened.

  “Sam!” a dark-haired, green-eyed young woman chided, laughter on her lips. “There you—” The girl’s eyes met Celaena’s. Celaena stopped smiling as she recognized her.

  A feline sort of smirk spread across the young woman’s stunning features, and she slipped out of the doorway and slunk over to them. Celaena took in each swish of her hips, the elegant angle of her hand, the exquisite dress that dipped low enough to reveal her generous bosom. “Celaena,” she cooed, and Sam eyed the two girls warily as she stopped beside him. Too close beside him for a casual acquaintance.

  “Lysandra,” Celaena echoed. She’d met Lysandra when they were both ten, and in the seven years that they’d known each other, Celaena couldn’t recall a time when she didn’t want to beat in the girl’s face with a brick. Or throw her out a window. Or do any of a number of things she’d learned from Arobynn.

  It didn’t help that Arobynn had spent a good deal of money assisting Lysandra in her rise from street orphan to one of the most anticipated courtesans in Rifthold’s history. He was good friends with Lysandra’s madam—and had been Lysandra’s doting benefactor for years. Lysandra and her madam remained the only courtesans aware that the girl Arobynn called his “niece” was actually his protégée. Celaena had never learned why Arobynn had told them, but whenever she complained about the risk of Lysandra revealing her identity, he seemed certain she would not. Celaena, not surprisingly, had trouble believing it; but perhaps threats from the King of the Assassins were enough to keep even the loud-mouthed Lysandra silent.

  “I thought you’d been packed off to the desert,” Lysandra said, running a shrewd eye over Celaena’s clothes. Thank the Wyrd she’d bothered to change at that tavern. “Is it possible the summer passed that quickly? I guess when you’re having so much fun …”

  A deadly, vicious sort of calm filled Celaena’s veins. She’d snapped once at Lysandra—when they were thirteen and Lysandra had snatched a lovely lace fan right out of Celaena’s hands. The ensuing fight had sent them tumbling down a flight of stairs. Celaena had spent a night in the Keep’s dungeon for the welts she’d left on Lysandra’s face by beating her with the fan itself.

  She tried to ignore how close the girl stood to Sam. He’d always been kind to the courtesans, and they all adored him. His mother had been one of them, and had asked Arobynn—a patron of hers—to look after her son. Sam had only been six when she was murdered by a jealous client. Celaena crossed her arms. “Should I bother to ask what you’re doing here?”

  Lysandra gave her a knowing smile. “Oh, Arobynn”—she purred his name like they were the most intimate of friends—“threw me a luncheon in honor of my upcoming Bidding.”

  Of course he did. “He invited your future clients here?”

  “Oh, no.” Lysandra giggled. “This is just for me and the girls. And Clarisse, of course.” She used her madam’s name, too, like a weapon, a word meant to crush and dominate—a word that whispered: I am more important than you; I have more influence than you; I am everything and you are nothing.

  “Lovely,” Celaena replied. Sam still
hadn’t said anything.

  Lysandra lifted her chin, looking down her delicately freckled nose at Celaena. “My Bidding is in six days. They expect me to break all the records.”

  Celaena had seen a few young courtesans go through the Bidding process—girls trained until they were seventeen, when their virginity was sold to the highest bidder.

  “Sam,” Lysandra went on, putting a slender hand on his arm, “has been so helpful with making sure all the preparations are ready for my Bidding party.”

  Celaena was surprised at the swiftness of her desire to rip that hand right off Lysandra’s wrist. Just because he sympathized with the courtesans didn’t mean he had to be so … friendly with them!

  Sam cleared his throat, straightening. “Not that helpful. Arobynn just wanted to make sure that the vendors and location were secure.”

  “Important clientele must be given the best treatment,” Lysandra trilled. “I do wish I could tell you who will be in attendance, but Clarisse would kill me. It’s extraordinarily hush-hush and need-to-know.”

  It was enough. One more word out of the courtesan’s mouth, and Celaena was fairly certain she’d punch Lysandra’s teeth down her throat. Celaena angled her head, her fingers curling into a fist. Sam saw the familiar gesture and pried Lysandra’s hand off his arm. “Go back to the luncheon,” he told her.

  Lysandra gave Celaena another one of those smiles, which she then turned on Sam. “When are you coming back in?” Her full, red lips formed a pout.

  Enough, enough, enough.

  Celaena turned on her heel. “Enjoy your quality company,” she said over her shoulder.

  “Celaena,” Sam said.

  But she wouldn’t turn back around, not even when she heard Lysandra giggle and whisper something, not even when all she wanted in the entire world was to grab her dagger and throw, as hard as she could, right toward Lysandra’s impossibly beautiful face.

  She’d always hated Lysandra, she told herself. Always hated her. Her touching Sam like that, speaking to Sam like that, it didn’t change things. But …

  Though Lysandra’s virginity was unquestionable—it had to be—there were plenty of other things that she could still do. Things that she might have done with Sam …

  Feeling sick and furious and small, Celaena reached her bedroom and slammed the door hard enough to rattle the rain-splattered windows.

  Chapter Two

  The rain didn’t stop the next day, and Celaena awoke to a grumble of thunder and a servant setting a long, beautifully wrapped box on her dresser. She opened the gift as she drank her morning cup of tea, taking her time with the turquoise ribbon, doing her best to pretend to herself that she wasn’t that interested in what Arobynn had sent her. None of these presents came close to earning any sort of forgiveness. But she couldn’t contain her squeal when she opened the box and found two gold hair combs glinting up at her. They were exquisite, formed like sharp fish fins, each point accentuated with a sliver of sapphire.

  She nearly upset her breakfast tray as she rushed from the table by the window to the rosewood vanity. With deft hands, she dragged one of the combs through her hair, sweeping it back before she nimbly flipped it into place. She quickly repeated it on the other side of her head, and when she had finished, she beamed at her reflection. Exotic, beguiling, imperious.

  Arobynn might be a bastard, and he might associate with Lysandra, but he had damn good taste. Oh, it was so nice to be back in civilization, with her beautiful clothes and shoes and jewels and cosmetics and all the luxuries she’d had to spend the summer without!

  Celaena examined the ends of her hair and frowned. The frown deepened when her attention shifted to her hands—to her shredded cuticles and jagged nails. She let out a low hiss, facing the windows along one wall of her ornate bedroom. It was early autumn—that meant rain usually hung around Rifthold for a good couple of weeks.

  Through the low-hanging clouds and the slashing rain, she could see the rest of the capital city gleaming in the gray light. Pale stone houses stood tucked together, linked by broad avenues that stretched from the alabaster walls to the docks along the eastern quarter of the city, from the teeming city center to the jumble of crumbling buildings in the slums at the southern edge, where the Avery River curved inland. Even the emerald roofs on each building seemed cast in silver. The glass castle towered over them all, its upper turrets shrouded in mist.

  The convoy from Melisande couldn’t have picked a worse time to visit. If they wanted to have street festivals, they’d find few participants willing to brave the merciless downpour.

  Celaena slowly removed the combs from her hair. The convoy would arrive today, Arobynn had told her last night over a private dinner. She still hadn’t given him an answer about whether she’d take down Doneval in five days, and he hadn’t pushed her about it. He had been kind and gracious, serving her food himself, speaking softly to her like she was some frightened pet.

  She glanced again at her hair and nails. A very unkempt, wild-looking pet.

  She stood, striding to her dressing room. She’d decide what to do about Doneval and his agenda later. For now, not even the rain would keep her from a little pampering.

  The shop she favored for her upkeep was ecstatic to see her—and utterly horrified at the state of her hair. And nails. And her eyebrows! She couldn’t have bothered to pluck her eyebrows while she was away? Half a day later—her hair cut and shining, her nails soft and gleaming—Celaena braved the sodden city streets.

  Even with the rain, people found excuses to be out and about as the giant convoy from Melisande arrived. She paused beneath the awning of a flower shop where the owner was standing on the threshold to watch the grand procession. The Melisanders snaked along the broad avenue that stretched from the western gate of the city all the way to the castle doors.

  There were the usual jugglers and fire-eaters, whose jobs were made infinitely harder by the confounded rain; the dance-girls whose billowing pants were sodden up to the knees; and then the line of Very Important, Very Wealthy People, who were all bundled under cloaks and didn’t sit quite as tall as they’d probably imagined they would.

  Celaena tucked her numbed fingers into her tunic pockets. Brightly painted covered wagons ambled past. Their hatches had all been shut against the weather—and that meant Celaena would start back to the Keep immediately.

  Melisande was known for its tinkerers; for clever hands that created clever little devices. Clockwork so fine you could swear it was alive, musical instruments so clear and lovely they could shatter your heart, toys so charming you’d believe magic hadn’t vanished from the continent. If the wagons that contained those things were all shut, then she had no interest in watching a parade of soaked, miserable people.

  Crowds were still flocking toward the main avenue, so Celaena took to narrow, winding alleys to avoid them. She wondered if Sam was making his way to see the procession—and if Lysandra was with him. So much for Sam’s unwavering loyalty to her. How long had it taken after she’d gone to the desert before he and Lysandra had become dear, dear friends?

  Things had been better when she relished the thought of gutting him. Apparently, Sam was just as susceptible to a pretty face as Arobynn was. She didn’t know why she’d thought he would be different. She scowled and walked faster, her freezing arms crossed over her chest as she hunched her shoulders against the rain.

  Twenty minutes later, she was dripping water all over the marble floor of the Keep’s entranceway. And one minute after that, she was dripping water all over Arobynn’s study carpet as she told him that she would take on Doneval, his slave-trade blackmail documents, and whoever his coconspirator might be.

  The next morning, Celaena looked down at herself, her mouth caught between a smile and a frown. The neck-to-toe black outfit was all made from the same, dark fabric—as thick as leather, but without the sheen. It was like a suit of armor, only skintight and made from some strange cloth, not metal. She could feel the weight of her weapo
ns where they were concealed—so neatly that even someone patting her down might think they were merely ribbing—and she swung her arms experimentally.

  “Careful,” the short man in front of her said, his eyes wide. “You might take off my head.”

  Behind them, Arobynn chuckled from where he leaned against the paneled wall of the training room. She hadn’t asked questions when he’d summoned her, then told her to put on the black suit and matching boots that were lined with fleece.

  “When you want to unsheathe the blades,” the inventor said, taking a large step back, “it’s a downward sweep, and an extra flick of the wrist.” He demonstrated the motion with his own scrawny arm, and Celaena echoed it.

  She grinned as a narrow blade shot out of a concealed flap in her forearm. Permanently attached to the suit, it was like having a short sword welded to her arm. She made the same motion with the other wrist, and the twin blade appeared. Some internal mechanism had to be responsible for it—some brilliant contraption of springs and gears. She gave a few deadly swings in the air in front of her, reveling in the whoosh-whoosh-whoosh of the swords. They were finely made, too. She raised her brows in admiration. “How do they go back?”

  “Ah, a little more difficult,” the inventor said. “Wrist angled up, and press this little button here. It should trigger the mechanism that—there you go.” She watched the blade slide back into the suit, then released and returned the blade several times.

  The deal with Doneval and his partner was in four days; just long enough for her to try out the new suit. Four days was plenty to figure out his house’s defenses and learn what time the meeting would take place, especially since she already knew that it was occurring in some private study.

  At last she looked at Arobynn. “How much is it?”

  He pushed off the wall. “It’s a gift. As are the boots.” She knocked a toe against the tiled floor, feeling the jagged edges and grooves of the soles. Perfect for climbing. The sheepskin interior would keep her feet at body temperature, the inventor had said, even if she got them utterly soaked. She’d never even heard of a suit like this. It would completely change the way she conducted her missions. Not that she needed the suit to give her an edge. But she was Celaena Sardothien, gods be damned, so didn’t she deserve the very best equipment? With this suit, no one would question her place as Adarlan’s Assassin. Ever. And if they did … Wyrd help them.