Crown of Midnight, Page 2Sarah J. Maas
His nose grazed the nape of her neck. “Gods above, you smell horrible,” he muttered.
She hissed and shoved him, her face burning in earnest now. “Carrying around dead body parts for weeks isn’t exactly conducive to smelling nice! And maybe if I’d been given time for a bath instead of being ordered to report immediately to the king, I might have—” She stopped herself at the sight of his grin and smacked his shoulder. “Idiot.” Celaena linked arms with him, tugging him up the stairs. “Come on. Let’s go to my rooms so you can debrief me like a proper gentleman.”
Chaol snorted and nudged her with his elbow but didn’t let go.
After a joyous Fleetfoot calmed down enough for Celaena to speak without being licked, Chaol squeezed every last detail from her and left her with the promise to return for dinner in a few hours. And after she let Philippa fuss over her in the bath and bemoan the state of her hair and nails, Celaena collapsed onto her bed.
Fleetfoot leapt up beside her, curling in close to her side. Stroking the dog’s silky golden coat, Celaena stared at the ceiling, the exhaustion seeping out of her sore muscles.
The king had believed her.
And Chaol hadn’t once doubted her story as he inquired about her mission. She couldn’t quite decide if that made her feel smug, disappointed, or outright guilty. But the lies had rolled off her tongue. Nirall awoke right before she killed him, she had to slit his wife’s throat to keep her from screaming, and the fight was a tad messier than she would have liked. She’d thrown in real details, too: the second-floor hall window, the storm, the servant with the candle … The best lies were always mixed with truth.
Celaena clutched the amulet on her chest. The Eye of Elena. She hadn’t seen Elena since their last encounter in the tomb; hopefully, now that she was the King’s Champion, the ancient queen’s ghost would leave her alone. Still, in the months since Elena had given her the amulet for protection, Celaena had come to find its presence reassuring. The metal was always warm, as though it had a life of its own.
She squeezed it hard. If the king knew the truth about what she did—what she’d been doing these past two months …
She had embarked on the first mission intending to quickly dispatch the target. She’d prepared herself for the kill, told herself that Sir Carlin was nothing but a stranger and his life meant nothing to her. But when she got to his estate and witnessed the unusual kindness with which he treated his servants, when she saw him playing the lyre with a traveling minstrel he sheltered in his hall, when she realized whose agenda she was aiding … she couldn’t do it. She tried to bully and coax and bribe herself into doing it. But she couldn’t.
Still, she had to produce a murder scene—and a body.
She’d given Lord Nirall the same choice she’d given Sir Carlin: die right then, or fake his own death and flee—flee far, and never use his given name again. So far, of the four men she’d been assigned to dispatch, all had chosen escape.
It wasn’t hard to get them to part with their seal rings or other token items. And it was even easier to get them to hand over their nightclothes so she could slash them in accordance with the wounds she would claim to have given them. Bodies were easy to acquire, too.
Sick-houses were always dumping fresh corpses. It was never hard to find one that looked enough like her target—especially since the locations of the kills had been distant enough to give the flesh time to rot.
She didn’t know who the head of Lord Nirall actually belonged to—only that he had similar hair, and when she inflicted a few slashes on his face and let the whole thing decompose a bit, it did the job. The hand had also come from that corpse. And the lady’s hand … that had come from a young woman barely into her first bleeding, struck dead by a sickness that ten years ago a gifted healer could easily have cured. But with magic gone and those wise healers hanged or burned, people were dying in droves. Dying from stupid, once-curable illnesses. She rolled over to bury her face in Fleetfoot’s soft coat.
Archer. How was she going to fake his death? He was so popular, and so recognizable. She still couldn’t imagine him having a connection to whatever this underground movement was. But if he was on the king’s list, then perhaps in the years since she’d seen him Archer had used his talents to become powerful.
Yet what information could the movement possibly have on the king’s plans that would make it a true threat? The king had enslaved the entire continent—what more could he do?
There were other continents, of course. Other continents with wealthy kingdoms—like Wendlyn, that faraway land across the sea. It had held out against his naval attacks so far, but she’d heard next to nothing about that war since before she’d gone to Endovier.
And why would a rebel movement care about kingdoms on another continent when they had their own to worry about? So the plans had to be about this land, this continent.
She didn’t want to know. She didn’t want to know what the king was doing, what he imagined for the empire. She’d use this month to figure out what to do with Archer and pretend she’d never heard that horrible word: plans.
Celaena fought a shudder. She was playing a very, very lethal game. And now that her targets were people in Rifthold—now that it was Archer … She’d have to find a way to play it better. Because if the king ever learned the truth, if he found out what she was doing …
He’d destroy her.
Celaena sprinted through the darkness of the secret passageway, her breathing ragged. She glanced over her shoulder to find Cain grinning at her, his eyes like burning coals.
No matter how fast she ran, his stalking gait easily kept him just behind her. After him flowed a wake of glowing green Wyrdmarks, their strange shapes and symbols illuminating the ancient blocks of stone. And behind Cain, its long nails scraping against the ground, lumbered the ridderak.
Celaena stumbled, but remained upright. Each step felt like she was wading through mud. She couldn’t escape him. He would catch her eventually. And once the ridderak got hold of her … She didn’t dare glance again at those too-big teeth that jutted out of its mouth or those fathomless eyes, gleaming with the desire to devour her bit by bit.
Cain chuckled, the sound grating on the stone walls. He was close now. Close enough that his fingers raked against the nape of her neck. He whispered her name, her true name, and she screamed as he—
Celaena awoke with a gasp, clutching the Eye of Elena. She scanned the room for denser shadows, for glowing Wyrdmarks, for signs that the secret door was open behind the tapestry that concealed it. But there was only the crackling of the dying fire.
Celaena sank back into her pillows. It was just a nightmare. Cain and the ridderak were gone, and Elena wouldn’t bother her again. It was over.
Fleetfoot, sleeping under the many layers of blankets, put her head on Celaena’s stomach. Celaena nestled down farther, wrapping her arms around the dog as she closed her eyes.
It was over.
In the chill mists of early morning, Celaena hurled a stick across the wide field of the game park. Fleetfoot took off through the pale grass like a bolt of golden lightning, so fast that Celaena let out a low, appreciative whistle. Beside her, Nehemia clicked her tongue, her eyes on the swift hound. With Nehemia so busy winning over Queen Georgina and gleaning information about the king’s plans for Eyllwe, dawn was usually the only time they could see each other. Did the king know that the princess was one of the spies he’d mentioned? He couldn’t, or else he’d never trust Celaena to be his Champion, not when their friendship was widely known.
“Why Archer Finn?” Nehemia mused in Eyllwe, keeping her voice low. Celaena had explained her latest mission, keeping the details brief.
Fleetfoot reached the stick and trotted back to them, her long tail wagging. Even though she wasn’t yet fully grown, the dog was already abnormally large. Dorian had never said what breed, exactly, he suspected her mother had mated with. Given Fleetfoot’s size, it could have been a wolf
hound. Or an actual wolf.
Celaena shrugged at Nehemia’s question, stuffing her hands into the fur-lined pockets of her cloak. “The king thinks … he thinks that Archer is a part of some secret movement against him. A movement here in Rifthold to get him off the throne.”
“Surely no one would be that bold. The rebels hide out in the mountains and forests and places where the local people can conceal and support them—not here. Rifthold would be a death trap.”
Celaena shrugged again just as Fleetfoot returned and demanded the stick be thrown again. “Apparently not. And apparently the king has a list of people whom he thinks are key players in this movement against him.”
“And you’re to … kill them all?” Nehemia’s creamy brown face paled slightly.
“One by one,” Celaena said, throwing the stick as far as she could into the misty field. Fleetfoot shot off, dried grass and the remnants of the last snowstorm crunching beneath her huge paws. “He’ll only reveal one name at a time. A bit dramatic, if you ask me. But apparently they’re interfering with his plans.”
“What plans?” Nehemia said sharply.
Celaena frowned. “I was hoping you might know.”
“I don’t.” There was a tense pause. “If you learn anything …,” Nehemia began.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Celaena lied. She wasn’t even sure if she truly wanted to know what the king was up to—let alone share that information with anyone else. It was selfish, and stupid, perhaps, but she couldn’t forget the warning the king had given the day he crowned her Champion: if she stepped out of line, if she betrayed him, he’d kill Chaol. And then Nehemia, and then the princess’s family.
And all of this—every death she faked, every lie she told—put them at risk.
Nehemia shook her head but didn’t reply. Whenever the princess or Chaol or even Dorian looked at her like that, it was almost too much to bear. But they had to believe the lies, too. For their own safety.
Nehemia began wringing her hands, and her eyes grew distant. Celaena had seen that expression often in the past month. “If you’re fretting for my sake—”
“I’m not,” Nehemia said. “You can take care of yourself.”
“Then what is it?” Celaena’s stomach clenched. If Nehemia talked more about the rebels, she didn’t know how much of it she could take. Yes, she wanted to be free of the king—both as his Champion and as a child of a conquered nation—but she wanted nothing to do with whatever plots were brewing in Rifthold, and whatever desperate hope the rebels still savored. To stand against the king would be nothing but folly. They’d all be destroyed.
But Nehemia said, “Numbers in the Calaculla labor camp are swelling. Every day, more and more Eyllwe rebels arrive. Most consider it a miracle that they’re alive. After the soldiers butchered those five hundred rebels … My people are afraid.” Fleetfoot again returned, and it was Nehemia who took the stick from the dog’s mouth and chucked it into the gray dawn. “But the conditions in Calaculla …”
She paused, probably recalling the three scars that raked down Celaena’s back. A permanent reminder of the cruelty of the Salt Mines of Endovier—and a reminder that even though she was free, thousands of people still toiled and died there. Calaculla, the sister camp to Endovier, was rumored to be even worse.
“The king will not meet with me,” Nehemia said, now toying with one of her fine, slender braids. “I have asked him three times to discuss the conditions in Calaculla, and each time he claims to be occupied. Apparently, he’s too busy finding people for you to kill.”
Celaena blushed at the harshness in Nehemia’s tone. Fleetfoot returned again, but when Nehemia took the stick, the princess kept it in her hands.
“I must do something, Elentiya,” Nehemia said, using the name she’d given her on the night Celaena admitted that she was an assassin. “I must find a way to help my people. When does gathering information become a stalemate? When do we act?”
Celaena swallowed hard. That word—“act”—scared her more than she’d like to admit. Worse than the word “plans.” Fleetfoot sat at their feet, tail wagging as she waited for the stick to be thrown.
But when Celaena said nothing, when she promised nothing, just as she always did when Nehemia spoke about these things, the princess dropped the stick on the ground and quietly walked back to the castle.
Celaena waited until Nehemia’s footsteps faded and let out a long breath. She was to meet Chaol for their morning run in a few minutes, but after that … after that, she was going into Rifthold. Let Archer wait until this afternoon.
After all, the king had given her a month, and despite her own questions for Archer, she wanted to get off the castle grounds for a bit. She had blood money to burn.
Chaol Westfall sprinted through the game park, Celaena keeping pace beside him. The chill morning air was like shards of glass in his lungs; his breath clouded in front of him. They’d bundled up as best they could without weighing themselves down—mostly just layers of shirts and gloves—but even with sweat running down his body, Chaol was freezing.
Chaol knew Celaena was freezing, too—her nose was tipped with pink, color stood high on her cheeks, and her ears shone bright red. Noticing his stare, she flashed him a grin, those stunning turquoise eyes full of light. “Tired?” she teased. “I knew you weren’t bothering to train while I was away.”
He let out a breathy chuckle. “You certainly didn’t train while you were on your mission. This is the second time this morning that I’ve had to slow my pace for you.”
A blatant lie. She kept up with him easily now, nimble as a stag bounding through the woods. Sometimes he found it immensely hard not to watch her—to watch the way she moved.
“Keep telling yourself that,” she said, and ran a little faster.
He increased his speed, not wanting her to leave him behind. Servants had cleared a path through the snow blanketing the game park, but the ground was still icy and treacherous underfoot.
He’d been realizing it more and more recently—how much he hated it when she left him behind. How he hated her setting off on those cursed missions and not contacting him for days or weeks. He didn’t know how or when it had happened, but he’d somehow started caring whether she came back or not. And after all that they’d already endured together …
He’d killed Cain at the duel. Killed him to save her. Part of him didn’t regret it; part of him would do it again in a heartbeat. But the other part still woke him up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat that felt too much like Cain’s blood.
She looked over at him. “What’s wrong?”
He fought the rising guilt. “Keep your eyes on the path or you’ll slip.”
For once, she obeyed him. “You want to talk about it?”
Yes. No. If there were anyone who could understand the guilt and rage he grappled with when he thought about how he’d killed Cain, it would be her. “How often,” he said in between breaths, “do you think about the people you’ve killed?”
She whipped her gaze to him, then slowed. He didn’t feel like stopping, and might have kept running, but she grabbed his elbow and forced him to pause. Her lips formed a thin line. “If you think passing judgment on me before I’ve had breakfast is in any way a good idea—”
“No,” he interrupted, panting hard. “No—I didn’t mean it like …” He swallowed a few breaths. “I wasn’t judging.” If he could just get his damn breath back, he could explain what he’d meant.
Her eyes were as frozen as the park around him, but then she tilted her head to the side. “Is this about Cain?”
Hearing her speak the name made him clench his jaw, but he managed a nod.
The ice in her eyes melted completely. He hated the sympathy in her face, the understanding.
He was the Captain of the Guard—he was bound to have killed someone at some point. He’d already seen and done enough in the name of the king; he’d fought men, hurt them. So he shouldn’
t even be having these feelings, and especially shouldn’t be telling her. There was a line between them, somewhere, and he was fairly certain that he’d been toeing it more and more these days.
“I’ll never forget the people I’ve killed,” she said. Her breath curled in the air between them. “Even the ones I killed to survive. I still see their faces, still remember the exact blow it took to kill them.” She looked to the skeletal trees. “Some days, it feels like another person did those things. And most of those lives I’m glad I ended. No matter the cause, though, it—it still takes away a little piece of you each time. So I don’t think I’ll ever forget them.”
Her gaze found his again, and he nodded.
“But, Chaol,” she said, and tightened her grip on his arm, a grip he hadn’t realized she’d still been holding, “what happened with Cain—that wasn’t an assassination, or even a cold-blooded murder.” He tried to step back, but she held firm. “What you did wasn’t dishonorable—and I’m not just saying that because it was my life you were saving.” She paused for a long moment. “You will never forget killing Cain,” she said at last, and when her eyes met his, his heart pounded so hard he could feel it across his whole body. “But I will never forget what you did to save me, either.”
The urge to lean into her warmth was staggering. He made himself step back, away from the grip of her hand, made himself nod again. There was a line between them. The king might not think twice about their friendship, but crossing that final line could be deadly for both of them; it could make the king question his loyalty, his position, everything.
And if it ever came down to having to choose between his king and Celaena … He prayed to the Wyrd that he’d never be faced with that decision. Staying firmly on this side of the line was the logical choice. The honorable one, too, since Dorian … He’d seen the way Dorian still looked at her. He wouldn’t betray his friend like that.