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The Assassin and the Empire, Page 2

Sarah J. Maas

  Sam took a bite, poured a glass of water from the ewer she’d left sitting on the oak table, and leaned back in his chair. Behind him, the window above the sink revealed the glittering sprawl of the capital and the illuminated glass castle towering over them all.

  “Are you just not going to speak to me ever again?”

  She shot him a glare. “Moving is expensive. If we were to leave Rifthold, then we’d need a little more money just so we could have something to fall back on if we can’t get work right away.” Celaena thought about it. “One more contract each,” she said. “I might not be Arobynn’s protégée anymore, but I’m still Adarlan’s Assassin, and you’re … well, you’re you.” He gave her a dark look, and, despite herself, Celaena grinned. “One more contract,” she repeated, “and we could move. It’d help with the expenses—give us enough of a cushion.”

  “Or we could just say to hell with it and go.”

  “I’m not giving up everything just to slum it somewhere. If we leave, we’ll do it my way.”

  Sam crossed his arms. “You keep saying if—but what else is there to decide?”

  Again: nothing. Everything.

  She took a long breath. “How will we establish ourselves in a new city without Arobynn’s support?”

  Triumph flashed in Sam’s eyes. She leashed her irritation. She hadn’t said outright that she was agreeing to move, but her question was confirmation enough for both of them.

  Before he could answer, she went on: “We’ve grown up here, and yet in the past month, we haven’t been able to get any hires. Arobynn always handled those things.”

  “Intentionally,” Sam growled. “And we’d do just fine, I think. We’re not going to need his support. When we move, we’re leaving the Guild, too. I don’t want to be paying dues to them for the rest of my life, and I don’t want anything to do with that conniving bastard ever again.”

  “Yes, but you know that we need his blessing. We need to make … amends. And need him to agree to let us leave the Guild peacefully.” She almost choked on it, but managed to get the words out.

  Sam shot out of his seat. “Do I need to remind you what he did to us? What he’s done to you? You know that the reason we can’t find any hires is because Arobynn made sure word got out that we weren’t to be approached.”

  “Exactly. And it will only get worse. The Assassin’s Guild would punish us for leaving the Guild and beginning our own establishment elsewhere without Arobynn’s approval.”

  Which was true. While they’d paid their debts to Arobynn, they were still members of the Guild, and still obligated to pay them dues every year. Every assassin in the Guild answered to Arobynn. Obeyed him. Celaena and Sam had both been dispatched more than once to hunt down Guild members who had gone rogue, refused to pay their dues, or broken some sacred Guild rule. Those assassins had tried to hide, but it had only been a matter of time before they’d been found. And the consequences hadn’t been pleasant.

  Celaena and Sam had brought Arobynn and the Guild a lot of money and earned them a fair amount of notoriety, so their decisions and careers had been closely monitored. They were important to the Guild. Even with their debts paid, they’d still need permission to be allowed to leave. They’d be asked to pay a parting fee, if they were lucky. If not … well, it’d be a very dangerous request to make.

  “So,” she went on, “unless you want to wind up with your throat cut, we need to get Arobynn’s approval to break from the Guild before we leave. And since you seem in such a hurry to get out of the capital, we’ll go see him tomorrow.”

  Sam pursed his lips. “I’m not going to grovel. Not to him.”

  “Neither am I.” She stalked to the kitchen sink, bracing her hands on either side of it as she looked out the window. Rifthold. Could she truly leave it behind? She might hate it at times, but … this was her city. Leaving that, starting over in a new city somewhere on the continent … Could she do it?

  Footsteps thudded on the wooden floor, a warm breath caressed her neck, and then Sam’s arms slipped around her waist from behind. He rested his chin on the crook between her shoulder and neck, and they stared at the city.

  “I just want to be with you,” he murmured. “I don’t care where we go. That’s all I want.”

  She closed her eyes, and leaned her head against his. He smelled of her lavender soap—her expensive lavender soap that she’d once warned him to never use again. He probably had no idea what soap she’d even been scolding him about. She’d have to start hiding her beloved toiletries and leave out something inexpensive for him. Sam wouldn’t be able to tell the difference, anyway.

  “I’m sorry I went to the Vaults,” he said onto her skin, planting a kiss beneath her ear.

  A shiver went down her spine. Though they’d been sharing the bedroom for the past month, they hadn’t yet crossed that final threshold of intimacy. She wanted to—and he certainly wanted to— but so much had changed so quickly. Something that monumental could wait a while longer. It didn’t stop them from enjoying each other, though.

  Sam kissed her ear, his teeth grazing her earlobe, and her heart stumbled a beat.

  “Don’t use kissing to swindle me into accepting your apology,” she got out, even as she tilted her head to the side to allow him better access.

  He chuckled, his breath caressing her neck. “It was worth a shot.”

  “If you go to the Vaults again,” she said as he nibbled on her ear, “I’ll hop in and beat you unconscious myself.”

  She felt him smile against her skin. “You could try.” He bit her ear—not hard enough to hurt, but enough to tell her that he’d now stopped listening.

  She whirled in his arms, glaring up at him, at his beautiful face illuminated by the glow of the city, at his eyes, so dark and rich. “And you used my lavender soap. Don’t ever do that—”

  But then Sam’s lips found hers, and Celaena stopped talking for a good while after that.

  Yet as they stood there, their bodies twining around each other, there was still one question that remained unasked—one question neither of them dared voice.

  Would Arobynn Hamel let them leave?

  Chapter Two

  When Celaena and Sam entered the Assassin’s Keep the next day, it was as if nothing had changed. The same trembling housekeeper greeted them at the door before scuttling away, and Wesley, Arobynn’s manservant, was standing in his familiar position outside the King of the Assassins’ study.

  They strode right up to the door, Celaena using every step, every breath, to take in details. Two blades strapped to Wesley’s back, one at his side, two daggers sheathed at his waist, the glint of one shining in his boot—probably one more hidden in the other boot, too. Wesley’s eyes were alert, keen—not a sign of exhaustion or sickness or anything that she could use to her advantage if it came to a fight.

  But Sam just strolled right up to Wesley, and despite how quiet he’d been on their long walk over here, he held out a hand and said, “Good to see you, Wesley.”

  Wesley shook Sam’s hand and gave a half smile. “I’d say you look good, boyo, but that bruise says otherwise.” Wesley looked at Celaena, who lifted her chin and huffed. “You look more or less the same,” he said, a challenging gleam in his eyes. He’d never liked her—never bothered to be nice. As if he’d always known that she and Arobynn would wind up on opposite sides, and that he’d be the first line of defense.

  She strode right past him. “And you still look like a jackass,” she said sweetly, and opened the doors to the study. Sam muttered an apology as Celaena entered the room and found Arobynn waiting for them.

  The King of the Assassins watched them with a smile, his hands steepled on the desk in front of him. Wesley shut the door behind Sam, and they silently took seats in the two chairs before Arobynn’s massive oak desk.

  One glance at Sam’s drawn face told her that he, too, was remembering the last time the two of them had been in here together. That night had ended with both of them beaten in
to unconsciousness at Arobynn’s hands. That had been the night that Sam’s loyalty had switched—when he’d threatened to kill Arobynn for hurting her. It had been the night that changed everything.

  Arobynn’s smile grew, a practiced, elegant expression disguised as benevolence. “As overjoyed as I am to see you in good health,” he said, “do I even want to know what brings the two of you back home?” Home—this wasn’t her home now, and Arobynn knew it. The word was just another weapon.

  Sam bristled, but Celaena leaned forward. They’d agreed that she would do the talking, since Sam was more likely to lose his temper where Arobynn was involved.

  “We have a proposal for you,” she said, keeping perfectly still. Coming face-to-face with Arobynn, after all his betrayals, made her stomach twist. When she’d walked out of this office a month ago, she’d sworn that she’d kill him if he bothered her again. And Arobynn, surprisingly, had kept his distance.

  “Oh?” Arobynn leaned back in his chair.

  “We’re leaving Rifthold,” she said, her voice cool and calm. “And we’d like to leave the Guild, too. Ideally, we’d establish our own business in another city on the continent. Nothing that would rival the Guild,” she added smoothly, “just a private business for us to make ends meet.” She might need his approval, but she didn’t have to grovel.

  Arobynn looked from Celaena to Sam. His silver eyes narrowed on Sam’s split lip. “Lovers’ quarrel?”

  “A misunderstanding,” Celaena said before Sam could snap a retort. Of course Arobynn would refuse to immediately give them an answer. Sam gripped the wooden arms of his chair.

  “Ah,” Arobynn replied, still smiling. Still calm, and graceful, and deadly. “And where, exactly, are you living now? Somewhere nice, I hope. It wouldn’t do to have my best assassins living in squalor.”

  He’d make them play this game of exchanging niceties until he wanted to answer their question. Beside her, Sam was rigid in his seat. She could practically feel the hot rage rippling off of him as Arobynn said my assassins. Another razor-sharp use of words. She bit down on her own rising anger.

  “You look well, Arobynn,” she said. If he didn’t answer her questions, then she certainly wouldn’t answer his. Especially ones about their current location.

  Arobynn waved a hand, leaning back in his seat. “This Keep feels too empty without you both.”

  He said it with such conviction—as if they’d left just to spite him—that she wondered if he meant it, if he’d somehow forgotten what he’d done to her and how he’d treated Sam.

  “And now that you’re talking of moving away from the capital and leaving the Guild …” Arobynn’s face was unreadable. She kept her breathing even, kept her heartbeat from racing. A nonanswer to her question.

  She kept her chin high. “Then is it acceptable to the Guild if we leave?” Every word balanced on the edge of a blade.

  Arobynn’s eyes glittered. “You are free to move away.” Move away. He hadn’t said anything about leaving the Guild.

  Celaena opened her mouth to demand a clearer statement, but then—

  “Give us a damned answer.” Sam’s teeth were bared, his face white with anger.

  Arobynn looked at Sam, his smile so deadly that Celaena fought the urge to reach for a dagger. “I just did. You two are free to do whatever you want.”

  She had seconds, perhaps, before Sam truly exploded—before he’d start a brawl that would ruin everything. Arobynn’s smile grew, and Sam’s hands casually dropped to his sides—his fingers so, so near the hilts of his sword and dagger.


  “We’re willing to offer this much to leave the Guild,” Celaena interrupted, desperate for anything to get them from coming to blows. Gods above, she was aching for a fight, but not this one—not with Arobynn. Thankfully, both Arobynn and Sam turned to her as she named the sum. “That price is more than satisfactory for us to leave and set up our own business elsewhere.”

  Arobynn looked at her for a too-long moment before he made her a counteroffer.

  Sam shot to his feet. “Are you insane?”

  Celaena was too stunned to move. That much money … He had to know, somehow, how much she had left in the bank. Because paying him what he asked would wipe it out entirely. The only money they’d have would be Sam’s meager savings, and whatever she could get from the apartment—which might be hard to sell, given its location and unusual layout.

  She countered his offer with another, but he just shook his head and stared up at Sam. “You two are my best,” Arobynn said with maddening calm. “If you leave, then the respect and the money you’d provide the Guild would be lost. I have to account for that. This price is generous.”

  “Generous,” Sam hissed.

  But Celaena, her stomach churning, lifted her chin. She could keep throwing figures at him until she was blue in the face, but he’d obviously picked this number for a reason. He would not budge. It was one last slap in the face—one final twist of the knife meant only to punish her.

  “I accept,” she said, giving him a bland smile. Sam whipped his head around, but she kept her eyes on Arobynn’s elegant face. “I’ll have the funds transferred to your account immediately. And once that’s done, we’re leaving—and I expect to never be bothered by you or the Guild again. Understood?”

  Celaena rose to her feet. She had to get far away from here. Coming back had been a big mistake. But she wouldn’t let Arobynn see that he’d won another round. She shoved her hands in her pockets to hide how they were starting to tremble.

  Arobynn grinned at her, and she realized he already knew. “Understood.”

  “You had no right to accept his offer,” Sam raged, his face so set with fury that people along the broad city avenue practically jumped out of his way. “No right to do that without consulting me. You didn’t even bargain!”

  Celaena peered into the shop windows as she walked by. She loved the shopping district in the heart of the capital—the clean sidewalks lined with trees, the main avenue leading right up to the marble steps of the Royal Theater, the way she could find anything from shoes to perfumes to jewelry to fine weapons.

  “If we pay that, then we definitely need to find a contract before we leave!”

  If we pay that. She said, “I am paying that.”

  “Like hell you are.”

  “It’s my money, and I can do what I want with it.”

  “You paid for your debt and mine already—I’m not letting you give him another copper. We can find some way around paying this parting fee.”

  They walked past the crowded entrance of a popular tea court, where finely dressed women were chatting with each other in the warm autumn sun.

  “Is the issue that he demanded so much money, or that I’m paying it?”

  Sam pulled up short, and though he didn’t look twice at the tea court ladies, they certainly looked at him. Even with anger rolling off him, Sam was beautiful. And too angry to notice that this was not the spot to argue.

  Celaena grabbed his arm, yanking him along. She felt the eyes of the ladies on her as she did so. She couldn’t help a flicker of smugness as they took in her dark blue tunic with its exquisite gold embroidery along the lapels and cuffs, her fitted ivory pants, and her knee-high brown boots, made with butter-soft leather. While most women—especially the wealthy or noble-born ones—opted to wear dresses and miserable corsets, pants and tunics were common enough that her fine clothing wouldn’t have escaped the appreciation of the women idling outside the tea courts.

  “The issue,” Sam said through his teeth, “is that I’m sick of playing his power games, and I’d just as soon cut his throat as pay that money.”

  “Then you’re a fool. If we leave Rifthold on bad terms, we’ll never be able to settle anywhere—not if we want to keep our current occupation. And even if we decided to find honest professions instead, I’d always wonder if he or the Guild would show up one day and demand that money. So if I have to give him every last copper in my b
ank account to ensure that I can sleep in peace for the rest of my life, so be it.”

  They reached the enormous intersection at the heart of the shopping district, where the domed Royal Theater rose up above streets packed with horses and wagons and people.

  “Where do we draw the line?” Sam asked her quietly. “When do we say enough?”

  “This is the last time.”

  He let out a derisive snort. “I’m sure it is.” He turned down one of the avenues—in the opposite direction from home.

  “Where are you going?”

  He looked over his shoulder. “I need to clear my head. I’ll see you at home.” She watched him cross the busy avenue, watched until he was swallowed up by the hustle of the capital.

  Celaena began walking, too, wherever her feet took her. She passed by the steps of the Royal Theater and kept walking, the shops and vendors blurring together. The day was blossoming into a truly lovely example of autumn—the air was crisp, but the sun was warm.

  In some ways, Sam was right. But she’d dragged him into this mess—she’d been the one who had started things in Skull’s Bay. Though he claimed to have been in love with her for years, if she’d only kept her distance these past few months, he wouldn’t be in this situation. Perhaps, if she’d been smart, she would have just broken his heart and let him remain with Arobynn. Having him hate her was easier than this. She was … responsible for him now. And that was terrifying.

  She cared for him more than she’d ever cared for anyone. Now that she’d ruined the career he’d worked for his whole life, she’d hand over all her money to make sure that he could at least be free. But she couldn’t just explain that she paid for everything because she felt guilty. He’d resent that.

  Celaena paused her walking and found herself at the other end of the broad avenue, across the street from the gates to the glass castle. She hadn’t realized she’d walked so far—or been so lost in her thoughts. She usually avoided coming this close to the castle.