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The Assassin and the Desert, Page 2

Sarah J. Maas

  “Acolytes,” Ansel said in response to Celaena’s silent question. “Cleaning the rooms of the older assassins is part of their training. Teaches them responsibility and humility. Or something like that.” Ansel winked at a child who gaped up at her as she passed. Indeed, several of the children stared after Ansel, their eyes wide with wonder and respect; Ansel must be well regarded, then. None of them bothered to look at Celaena. She raised her chin.

  “And how old were you when you came here?” The more she knew the better.

  “I had barely turned thirteen,” Ansel said. “So I just missed having to do the drudgery work.”

  “And how old are you now?”

  “Trying to get a read on me, are you?”

  Celaena kept her face blank.

  “I just turned eighteen. You look about my age, too.”

  Celaena nodded. She certainly didn’t have to yield any information about herself. Even though Arobynn had ordered her not to hide her identity here, that didn’t mean she had to give away details. And at least Celaena had started her training at eight; she had several years on Ansel. That had to count for something. “Has training with the Master been effective?”

  Ansel gave her a rueful smile. “I wouldn’t know. I’ve been here for five years, and he’s still refused to train me personally. Not that I care. I’d say I’m pretty damn good with or without his expertise.”

  Well, that was certainly odd. How had she gone so long without working with the Master? Though, many of Arobynn’s assassins never received private lessons with him, either. “Where are you from, originally?” Celaena asked.

  “The Flatlands.” The Flatlands . . . Where in hell were the Flatlands? Ansel answered for her. “Along the coast of the Western Wastes—formerly known as the Witch Kingdom.”

  The Wastes were certainly familiar. But she’d never heard of the Flatlands.

  “My father,” Ansel went on, “is Lord of Briarcliff. He sent me here for training, so I might ‘make myself useful.’ But I don’t think five hundred years would be enough to teach me that.”

  Despite herself, Celaena chuckled. She stole another glance at Ansel’s armor. “Don’t you get hot in all that armor?”

  “Of course,” Ansel said, tossing her shoulder-length hair. “But you have to admit it’s rather striking. And very well suited for strutting about a fortress full of assassins. How else am I to distinguish myself?”

  “Where did you get it from?” Not that she might want some for herself; she had no use for armor like that.

  “Oh, I had it made for me.” So—Ansel had money, then. Plenty of it, if she could throw it away on armor. “But the sword”—Ansel patted the wolf-shaped hilt at her side—“belongs to my father. His gift to me when I left. I figured I’d have the armor match it—wolves are a family symbol.”

  They entered an open walkway, the heat of the midafternoon sun slamming into them with full force. Yet Ansel’s face remained jovial, and if the armor did indeed make her uncomfortable, she didn’t show it. Ansel looked her up and down. “How many people have you killed?”

  Celaena almost choked, but kept her chin high. “I don’t see how that is any of your concern.”

  Ansel chuckled. “I suppose it’d be easy enough to find out; you must leave some indication if you’re so notorious.” Actually, it was Arobynn who usually saw to it that word got out through the proper channels. She left very little behind once her job was finished. Leaving a sign felt somewhat . . . cheap. “I’d want everyone to know that I’d done it,” Ansel added.

  Well, Celaena did want everyone to know that she was the best, but something about the way Ansel said it seemed different from her own reasoning.

  “So, which of you looks worse?” Ansel asked suddenly. “You, or the person who gave those to you?” Celaena knew that she meant the fading bruises and cuts on her face.

  Her stomach tightened. It was getting to be a familiar feeling.

  “Me,” Celaena said quietly.

  She didn’t know why she admitted it. Bravado might have been the better option. But she was tired, and suddenly so heavy with the weight of that memory.

  “Did your master do that to you?” Ansel asked. This time, Celaena kept quiet, and Ansel didn’t push her.

  At the other end of the walkway, they took a spiral stone staircase down into an empty courtyard where benches and little tables stood in the shade of the towering date trees. Someone had left a book lying atop one of the wooden tables, and as they passed by, Celaena glimpsed the cover. The title was in a scrawling, strange script that she didn’t recognize.

  If she’d been alone, she might have paused to flip through the book, just to see words printed in a language so different from anything she knew, but Ansel continued on toward a pair of carved wooden doors.

  “The baths. It’s one of the places here where silence is actually enforced, so try to keep quiet. Don’t splash too much, either. Some of the older assassins can get cranky about even that.” Ansel pushed one of the doors open. “Take your time. I’ll see to it that your things are brought to our room. When you’re done, just ask an acolyte to take you there. Dinner isn’t for a few hours; I’ll come by the room then.”

  Celaena gave her a long look. The idea of Ansel—or anyone—handling the weapons and gear she’d left at the gate wasn’t appealing. Not that she had anything to hide—though she did cringe inwardly at the thought of the guards pawing at her undergarments as they searched her bag. Her taste for very expensive and very delicate underwear wouldn’t do much for her reputation.

  But she was here at their mercy, and her letter of approval depended on her good behavior. And good attitude.

  So Celaena merely said “Thank you,” before striding past Ansel and into the herb-scented air beyond the doors.

  While the fortress had communal baths, they were thankfully separated between men and women, and at that point in the day, the women’s baths were empty.

  Hidden by towering palms and date trees sagging with the weight of their fruit, the baths were made from the same sea green and cobalt tiles that had formed the mosaic in the Master’s chamber, kept cool by white awnings jutting out from the walls of the building. There were multiple large pools—some steamed, some bubbled, some steamed and bubbled—but the one Celaena slipped into was utterly calm and clear and cold.

  Remembering Ansel’s warning about keeping quiet, Celaena stifled a groan as she submerged herself. She stayed under until her lungs ached. While modesty was a trait she’d learned to live without, she still kept herself low in the water, just in case. Of course, it had nothing to do with the fact that her ribs and arms were still peppered with fading bruises, and that the sight of them made her sick. Sometimes it was sick with anger; other times it was with sadness. Often, it was both. She wanted to go back to Rifthold—to see what had happened to Sam, to resume the life that had splintered in a few agonizing minutes. But she also dreaded it.

  At least, here at the edge of the world, that night—and all of Rifthold and the people it contained—seemed very far away.

  She stayed in the pool until her hands turned uncomfortably pruny.

  Ansel wasn’t in their tiny, rectangular room when Celaena arrived, though someone had unpacked Celaena’s belongings. Aside from her sword and daggers, some undergarments, and a few tunics, she hadn’t brought much—and hadn’t bothered to bring her finer clothing. Which she was grateful for, now that she’d seen how quickly the sand had worn through the bulky clothes the nomad had made her wear.

  There were two narrow beds, and it took her a moment to figure out which was Ansel’s. The red stone wall behind it was bare. Aside from the small iron wolf figurine on the bedside table, and a human-sized dummy that must be used to store Ansel’s extraordinary armor, Celaena would have had no idea that she was sharing a room with anyone.

  Peeking through Ansel’s chest of drawers was equally futile. Burgundy tunics and black pants, all neatly folded. The only things that offset the monoton
y were several white tunics—garb that many of the men and women had been wearing. Even the undergarments were plain—and folded. Who folded their undergarments? Celaena thought of her enormous closet back home, exploding with color and different fabrics and patterns, all tossed together. Her undergarments, while expensive, usually wound up in a heap in their drawer.

  Sam, probably, folded his undergarments. Though, depending on how much of him Arobynn had left intact, he might not even be able to now. Arobynn would never permanently maim her, but Sam might have fared worse. Sam had always been the expendable one.

  She shoved the thought away and nestled farther into the bed. Through the small window, the silence of the fortress lulled her to sleep.

  She’d never seen Arobynn so angry, and it was scaring the hell out of her. He didn’t yell, and he didn’t curse—he just went very still and very quiet. The only signs of his rage were his silver eyes, glittering with a deadly calm.

  She tried not to flinch in her chair as he stood from his giant wooden desk. Sam, seated beside her, sucked in a breath. She couldn’t speak; if she started talking, her trembling voice would betray her. She couldn’t endure that kind of humiliation.

  “Do you know how much money you’ve cost me?” Arobynn asked her softly.

  Celaena’s palms began sweating. It was worth it, she told herself. Freeing those two hundred slaves was worth it. No matter what was about to happen, she’d never regret doing it.

  “It’s not her fault,” Sam cut in, and she flashed him a warning glare. “We both thought it was—”

  “Don’t lie to me, Sam Cortland,” Arobynn growled. “The only way you became involved in this was because she decided to do it—and it was either let her die trying, or help her.”

  Sam opened his mouth to object, but Arobynn silenced him with a sharp whistle through his teeth. His office doors opened. Wesley, Arobynn’s manservant, peered in. Arobynn kept his eyes on Celaena as he said, “Get Tern, Mullin, and Harding.”

  This wasn’t a good sign. She kept her face neutral, though, as Arobynn continued watching her. Neither she nor Sam dared speak in the long minutes that passed. She tried not to shake.

  At last, the three assassins—all men, all cut from muscle and armed to the teeth, filed in. “Shut the door,” Arobynn said to Harding, the last one to enter. Then he told the others, “Hold him.”

  Instantly, Sam was dragged out of his chair, his arms pinned back by Tern and Mullin. Harding took a step in front of them, his fist flexing.

  “No,” Celaena breathed as she met Sam’s wide-eyed stare. Arobynn wouldn’t be that cruel—he wouldn’t make her watch as he hurt Sam. Something tight and aching built in her throat.

  But Celaena kept her head high, even as Arobynn said quietly to her, “You are not going to enjoy this. You will not forget this. And I don’t want you to.”

  She whipped her head back to Sam, a plea for Harding not to hurt him on her lips.

  She sensed the blow only a heartbeat before Arobynn struck her.

  She toppled out of her chair and didn’t have time to raise herself properly before Arobynn grabbed her by the collar and swung again, his first connecting with her cheek. Light and darkness reeled. Another blow, hard enough that she felt the warmth of her blood on her face before she felt the pain.

  Sam began screaming something. But Arobynn hit her again. She tasted blood, yet she didn’t fight back, didn’t dare to. Sam struggled against Tern and Mullin. They held him firm, Harding putting a warning arm in front of Sam to block his path.

  Arobynn hit her—her ribs, her jaw, her gut. And her face. Again and again and again. Careful blows—blows meant to inflict as much pain as possible without doing permanent damage. And Sam kept roaring, shouting words she couldn’t quite hear over the agony.

  The last thing she remembered was a pang of guilt at the sight of her blood staining Arobynn’s exquisite red carpet. And then darkness, blissful darkness, full of relief that she hadn’t seen him hurt Sam.

  Chapter Three

  Celaena dressed in the nicest tunic she’d brought—which wasn’t really anything to admire, but the midnight blue and gold did bring out the turquoise hues in her eyes. She went so far as to apply some cosmetics to her eyes, but opted to avoid putting anything on the rest of her face. Even though the sun had set, the heat remained. Anything she put on her skin would likely slide right off.

  Ansel made good on her promise to retrieve her before dinner and pestered Celaena with questions about her journey during the walk to the dining hall. As they walked, there were some areas where Ansel talked normally, others where she kept her voice at a whisper, and others where she signaled not to speak at all. Celaena couldn’t tell why certain rooms demanded utter silence and others did not—they all seemed the same to her. Still exhausted despite her nap, and unsure when she could speak, Celaena kept her answers brief. She wouldn’t have minded missing dinner and just sleeping all night.

  Staying alert as they entered the hall was an effort of will. Yet even with her exhaustion, she instinctively scanned the room. There were three exits—the giant doors through which they entered, and two servants’ doors on either end. The hall was packed wall-to-wall with long wooden tables and benches, full of people of all ages, all nationalities. At least seventy of them in total. None of them looked at Celaena as Ansel ambled toward a table near the front of the room. If they knew who she was, they certainly didn’t care. She tried not to scowl.

  Ansel slid into place at a table and patted the empty spot on the bench beside her. The nearest assassins looked up from their meal—some had been talking quietly and others were silent—as Celaena stood before them.

  Ansel waved a hand in Celaena’s direction. “Celaena, this is everyone. Everyone, this is Celaena. Though I’m sure you gossips know everything about her already.” She spoke softly, and even though some assassins in the hall were talking, everyone around them seemed to hear her just fine. Even the clank of their utensils seemed hushed.

  Celaena scanned the faces of those around her; they all seemed to be watching her with benign, if not amused, curiosity. Carefully, all too aware of each of her movements, Celaena sat on the bench and surveyed the table. Platters of grilled, fragrant meats; bowls full of spherical, spiced grains; fruits and dates; and pitcher after pitcher of water.

  Ansel helped herself, her armor glinting in the light of the ornate glass lanterns dangling from the ceiling, and then piled the same food on Celaena’s plate. “Just start eating,” she whispered. “It all tastes good, and none of it is poisoned.” To emphasize her point, Ansel popped a cube of charred lamb into her mouth and chewed. “See?” she said between bites. “Lord Berick might want to kill us, but he knows better than to try to get rid of us through poisons. We’re far too skilled to fall for that sort of thing. Aren’t we?” The assassins around her grinned.

  “Lord Berick?” Celaena asked, now staring at her plate and all the food on it.

  Ansel made a face, gobbling down some saffron-colored grains. “Our local villain. Or I suppose we’re his local villains, depending on who is telling the story.”

  “He’s the villain,” said a curly-haired, dark-eyed man across from Ansel. He was handsome in a way, but had a smile far too much like Captain Rolfe’s for Celaena’s liking. He couldn’t have been older than twenty-five. “No matter who is telling the story.”

  “Well, you are ruining my story, Mikhail,” Ansel said, but grinned at him. He tossed a grape at Ansel, and she caught it in her mouth with ease. Celaena still didn’t touch her food. “Anyway,” Ansel said, dumping more food onto Celaena’s plate, “Lord Berick rules over the city of Xandria, and claims that he rules this part of the desert, too. Of course, we don’t quite agree with that, but . . . To shorten a long and frightfully dull story, Lord Berick has wanted us all dead for years and years. The King of Adarlan set an embargo on the Red Desert after Lord Berick failed to send troops into Eyllwe to crush some rebellion, and Berick has been dying to get back in t
he king’s good graces ever since. He somehow got it into his thick skull that killing all of us—and sending the head of the Mute Master to Adarlan on a silver platter—would do the trick.”

  Ansel took another bite of meat and went on. “So, every now and then, he tries some tactic or other: sending asps in baskets, sending soldiers posing as our beloved foreign dignitaries”—she pointed to a table at the end of the hall, where the people were dressed in exotic clothing—“sending troops in the dead of night to fire flaming arrows at us . . . Why, two days ago, we caught some of his soldiers trying to dig a tunnel beneath our walls. Ill-conceived plan from the start.”

  Across the table, Mikhail chuckled. “Nothing’s worked yet,” he said. Hearing the noise of their conversation, an assassin at a nearby table pivoted to raise a finger to her lips, shushing them. Mikhail gave them an apologetic shrug. The dining hall, Celaena gleaned, must be a silence-is-requested-but-not-required sort of place.

  Ansel poured a glass of water for Celaena, then one for herself, and spoke more quietly. “I suppose that’s the problem with attacking an impenetrable fortress full of skilled warriors: you have to be smarter than us. Though . . . Berick is almost brutal enough to make up for it. The assassins that have fallen into his hands came back in pieces.” She shook her head. “He enjoys being cruel.”

  “And Ansel knows that firsthand,” Mikhail chimed in, though his voice was little more than a murmur. “She’s had the pleasure of meeting him.”

  Celaena raised a brow, and Ansel made a face. “Only because I’m the most charming of you lot. The Master sometimes sends me to Xandria to meet with Berick—to try to negotiate some sort of accord between us. Thankfully, he still won’t dare violate the terms of parlay, but . . . one of these days, I’ll pay for my courier duties with my hide.”

  Mikhail rolled his eyes at Celaena. “She likes to be dramatic.”

  “That I do.”

  Celaena gave them both a weak smile. It had been a few minutes, and Ansel certainly wasn’t dead. She bit into a piece of meat, nearly moaned at the array of tangy-smoky spices, and set about eating. Ansel and Mikhail began chattering to each other, and Celaena took the opportunity to glance down the table.