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The Assassin's Blade, Page 3

Sarah J. Maas

  “Mind your own business.”

  Rolfe gave her a lazy smile.

  “I don’t mind Rolfe,” Sam mused later into the pitch darkness of their room. Celaena, who’d taken first watch, glared toward where his bed lay against the far wall.

  “Of course you don’t,” she grumbled, relishing the free air on her face. Seated on her bed, she leaned against the wall and picked at the threads on the blanket. “He told you to assassinate me.”

  Sam chuckled. “It is wise advice.”

  She rolled up the sleeves of her tunic. Even at night, this rotten place was scorching hot. “Perhaps it isn’t a wise idea for you to go to sleep, then.”

  Sam’s mattress groaned as he turned over. “Come on—you can’t take a bit of teasing?”

  “Where my life is concerned? No.”

  Sam snorted. “Believe me, if I came home without you, Arobynn would skin me alive. Literally. If I’m going to kill you, Celaena, it’ll be when I can actually get away with it.”

  She scowled. “I appreciate that.” She fanned her sweating face with a hand. She’d sell her soul to a pack of demons for a cool breeze right now, but they had to keep the window covered—unless she wanted some spying pair of eyes to discover what she looked like. Though, now that she thought about it, she’d love to see the look on Rolfe’s face if he found out the truth. Most already knew that she was a young woman, but if he knew he was dealing with a sixteen-year-old, his pride might never recover.

  They’d only be here for three nights; they could both go without a little sleep if it meant keeping her identity—and their lives—safe.

  “Celaena?” Sam asked into the dark. “Should I worry about going to sleep?”

  She blinked, then laughed under her breath. At least Sam took her threats somewhat seriously. She wished she could say the same for Rolfe. “No,” she said. “Not tonight.”

  “Some other night, then,” he mumbled. Within minutes, he was out.

  Celaena rested her head against the wooden wall, listening to the sound of his breathing as the long hours of the night stretched by.



  Even when her turn to sleep came, Celaena lay awake. In the hours she’d spent watching over their room, one thought had become increasingly problematic.

  The slaves.

  Perhaps if Arobynn had sent someone else—perhaps if it was just a business deal that she found out about later, when she was too busy to care—she might not have been so bothered by it. But to send her to retrieve a shipment of slaves … people who had done nothing wrong, only dared to fight for their freedom and the safety of their families …

  How could Arobynn expect her to do that? If Ben had been alive, she might have found an ally in him; Ben, despite his profession, was the most compassionate person she knew. His death left a vacancy that she didn’t think could ever be filled.

  She sweated so much that her sheets became damp, and slept so little that when dawn came, she felt like she’d been trampled by a herd of wild horses from the Eyllwe grasslands.

  Sam finally nudged her—a none-too-gentle prodding with the pommel of his sword. He said, “You look horrible.”

  Deciding to let that set the tone for the day, Celaena got out of bed and promptly slammed the bathroom door.

  When she emerged a while later, as fresh as she could get using only the washbasin and her hands, she understood one thing with perfect clarity.

  There was no way—no way in any realm of Hell—that she was going to bring those slaves to Rifthold. Rolfe could keep them for all she cared, but she wouldn’t be the one to transport them to the capital city.

  That meant she had two days to figure out how to ruin Arobynn and Rolfe’s deal.

  And find a way to come out of it alive.

  She slung her cape over her shoulders, silently bemoaning the fact that the yards of fabric concealed much of her lovely black tunic—especially its delicate golden embroidery. Well, at least her cape was also exquisite. Even if it was a bit dirty from so much traveling.

  “Where are you going?” Sam asked. He sat up from where he lounged on the bed, cleaning his nails with the tip of a dagger. Sam definitely wouldn’t help her. She’d have to find a way to get out of the deal on her own.

  “I have some questions to ask Rolfe. Alone.” She fastened her mask and strode to the door. “I want breakfast waiting for me when I return.”

  Sam went rigid, his lips forming a thin line. “What?”

  Celaena pointed to the hallway, toward the kitchen. “Breakfast,” she said slowly. “I’m hungry.”

  Sam opened his mouth, and she waited for the retort, but it never came. He bowed deeply. “As you wish,” he said. They swapped particularly vulgar gestures before she stalked down the hallway.

  Dodging puddles of filth, vomit, and the gods knew what else, Celaena found it just a tad difficult to match Rolfe’s long stride. With rain clouds gathering overhead, many of the people in the street—raggedy pirates swaying where they stood, prostitutes stumbling past after a long night, barefoot orphans running amok—had begun migrating into the various ramshackle buildings.

  Skull’s Bay wasn’t a beautiful city by any definition, and many of the leaning and sagging buildings seemed to have been constructed from little more than wood and nails. Aside from its denizens, the city was most famous for Ship-Breaker, the giant chain that hung across the mouth of the horseshoe-shaped bay.

  It had been around for centuries, and was so large that, as its name implied, it could snap the mast of any ship that came up against it. While mostly designed to discourage any attacks, it also kept anyone from sneaking off. And given that the rest of the island was covered with towering mountains, there weren’t many other places for a ship to safely dock. So, any ship that wanted to enter or exit the harbor had to wait for it to be lowered under the surface—and be ready to pay a hefty fee.

  “You have three blocks,” Rolfe said. “Better make them count.”

  Was he deliberately walking fast? Steadying her rising temper, Celaena focused on the jagged, lush mountains hovering around the city, on the glittering curve of the bay, on the hint of sweetness in the air. She’d found Rolfe just about to leave the tavern to go to a business meeting, and he’d agreed to let her ask questions as he walked.

  “When the slaves arrive,” she said, trying to sound as inconvenienced as possible, “will I get the chance to inspect them, or can I trust that you’re giving us a good batch?”

  He shook his head at her impertinence, and Celaena jumped over the outstretched legs of an unconscious—or dead—drunk in her path. “They’ll arrive tomorrow afternoon. I was planning to inspect them myself, but if you’re so worried about the quality of your wares, I’ll allow you to join me. Consider it a privilege.”

  She snorted. “Where? On your ship?” Better to get a good sense of how everything worked, and then build her plan from there. Knowing how things operated might create some ideas for how to make the deal fall apart with as little risk as possible.

  “I’ve converted a large stable at the other end of the town into a holding facility. I usually examine all the slaves there, but since you’re leaving the next morning, we’ll examine yours on the ship itself.”

  She clicked her tongue loudly enough for him to hear it. “And how long can I expect this to take?”

  He raised an eyebrow. “You have better things to do?”

  “Just answer the question.” Thunder rumbled in the distance.

  They reached the docks, which were by far the most impressive thing about the town. Ships of all shapes and sizes rocked against the wooden piers, and pirates scurried along the decks, tying down various things before the storm hit. On the horizon, lightning flashed above the lone watchtower perched along the northern entrance to the bay—the watchtower from which Ship-Breaker was raised and lowered. In the flash, she’d also seen the two catapults atop one of the tower landings. If Ship-Breaker didn’t destroy a boat, then those ca
tapults finished the job.

  “Don’t worry, Mistress Sardothien,” Rolfe said, striding past the various taverns and inns that lined the docks. They had two blocks left. “Your time won’t be wasted. Though getting through a hundred slaves will take a while.”

  A hundred slaves on one ship! Where did they all fit?

  “As long as you don’t try to fool me,” she snapped, “I’ll consider it time well spent.”

  “So you don’t find reasons to complain—and I’m sure you’ll try your best to do just that—I have another shipment of slaves being inspected at the holding facility tonight. Why don’t you join me? That way, you can have something to compare them to tomorrow.”

  That would be perfect, actually. Perhaps she could merely claim the slaves weren’t up to par and refuse to do business with him. And then leave, no harm done to either of them. She’d still have to face Sam—and then Arobynn—but … she’d figure them out later.

  She waved a hand. “Fine, fine. Send someone for me when it’s time.” The humidity was so thick she felt as if she were swimming through it. “And after Arobynn’s slaves are inspected?” Any bit of information could later be used as a weapon against him. “Are they mine to look after on the ship, or will your men be watching them for me? Your pirates might very well think they’re free to take whatever slaves they wish.”

  Rolfe clenched the hilt of his sword. It glinted in the muted light, and she admired the intricate pommel, shaped like a sea dragon’s head. “If I give the order that no one is to touch your slaves, then no one will touch them,” Rolfe said through his teeth. His annoyance was an unexpected delight. “However, I’ll arrange to have a few guards on the ship, if that will make you sleep easier. I wouldn’t want Arobynn to think I don’t take his investment seriously.”

  They approached a blue-painted tavern, where several men in dark tunics lounged out front. At the sight of Rolfe, they straightened, saluting him. His guards? Why hadn’t anyone escorted him through the streets?

  “That will be fine,” she said crisply. “I don’t want to be here any longer than necessary.”

  “I’m sure you’re eager to return to your clients in Rifthold.” Rolfe stopped in front of the faded door. The sign above it, swinging in the growing storm winds, said THE SEA DRAGON. It was also the name of his famed ship, which was docked just behind them, and really didn’t look all that spectacular, anyway. Perhaps this was the Pirate Lord’s headquarters. And if he was making her and Sam stay at that tavern a few blocks away, then perhaps he trusted them as little as they trusted him.

  “I think I’m more eager to return to civilized society,” she said sweetly.

  Rolfe let out a low growl and stepped onto the threshold of the tavern. Inside, it was all shadows and murmuring voices—and reeked of stale ale. Other than that, she could see nothing.

  “One day,” Rolfe said, too quietly, “someone’s really going make you pay for that arrogance.” Lightning made his green eyes flicker. “I just hope I’m there to see it.”

  He shut the tavern door in her face.

  Celaena smiled, and her smile grew wider as fat drops of rain splattered on the rust-colored earth, instantly cooling the muggy air.

  That had gone surprisingly well.

  “Is it poisoned?” she asked Sam, plopping down on her bed as a clap of thunder shook the tavern to its foundations. The teacup rattled in its saucer, and she breathed in the smell of fresh-baked bread, sausage, and porridge as she threw back her hood and removed her mask.

  “By them, or by me?” Sam was sitting on the floor, his back against the bed.

  Celaena sniffed all her food. “Do I detect … belladonna?”

  Sam gave her a flat stare, and Celaena smirked as she tore a bite from the bread. They sat in silence for a few minutes, the only sounds the scrape of her utensils against the chipped plates, the drumming of the rain on the roof, and the occasional groan of a thunderhead breaking.

  “So,” Sam said. “Are you going to tell me what you’re planning, or should I warn Rolfe to expect the worst?”

  She sipped daintily at her tea. “I don’t have the faintest idea what you’re talking about, Sam Cortland.”

  “What sort of ‘questions’ did you ask him?”

  She set down her teacup. Rain lashed the shutters, muffling the clink of her cup against the saucer. “Polite ones.”

  “Oh? I didn’t think you knew what polite meant.”

  “I can be polite when it pleases me.”

  “When it gets you what you want, you mean. So what is it you want from Rolfe?”

  She studied her companion. He certainly didn’t seem to have any qualms about the deal. While he might not trust Rolfe, it didn’t bother him that a hundred innocent souls were about to be traded like cattle. “I wanted to ask him more about the map on his hands.”

  “Damn it, Celaena!” Sam slammed his fist onto the wooden floor. “Tell me the truth!”

  “Why?” she asked, giving him a pout. “And how do you know I’m not telling the truth?”

  Sam got to his feet and began pacing the length of their small room. He undid the top button of his black tunic, revealing the skin beneath. Something about it felt strangely intimate, and Celaena found herself quickly looking away from him.

  “We’ve grown up together.” Sam stopped at the foot of her bed. “You think I don’t know how to tell when you’re cooking up some scheme? What do you want from Rolfe?”

  If she told him, he’d do everything in his power to prevent her from ruining the deal. And having one enemy was enough. With her plan still unformed, she had to keep Sam out of it. Besides, if worse came to worst, Rolfe might very well kill Sam for being involved. Or simply for knowing her.

  “Maybe I’m just unable to resist how handsome he is,” she said.

  Sam went rigid. “He’s twelve years older than you.”

  “So?” He didn’t think she was serious, did he?

  He gave her a look so scathing it could have turned her to ash, and he stalked to the window, ripping his cloak down.

  “What are you doing?”

  He flung open the wooden shutters to reveal a sky full of rain and forked lightning. “I’m sick of suffocating. And if you’re interested in Rolfe, he’s bound to find out what you look like at some point, isn’t he? So why bother slowly roasting to death?”

  “Shut the window.” He only crossed his arms. “Shut it,” she growled.

  When he made no move to close the window, she jumped to her feet, upsetting the tray of food on her mattress, and shoved him aside hard enough for him to take a step back. Keeping her head down, she shut the window and shutters and threw his cape over the whole thing.

  “Idiot,” she seethed. “What’s gotten into you?”

  Sam stepped closer, his breath hot on her face. “I’m tired of all the melodrama and nonsense that happens whenever you wear that ridiculous mask and cloak. And I’m even more tired of you ordering me around.”

  So that’s what this was about. “Get used to it.”

  She made to turn to her bed, but he grabbed her wrist. “Whatever plan you’re concocting, whatever bit of intrigue you’re about to drag me into, just remember that you’re not head of the Assassins’ Guild yet. You still answer to Arobynn.”

  She rolled her eyes, yanking her wrist out of his grasp. “Touch me again,” she said, striding to her bed and picking up the spilled food, “and you’ll lose that hand.”

  Sam didn’t speak to her after that.



  Dinner with Sam was silent, and Rolfe appeared at eight to bring them both to the holding facility. Sam didn’t even ask where they were going. He just played along, as if he’d known the whole time.

  The holding facility was an enormous wooden warehouse, and even from down the block, something about the place made Celaena’s instincts scream at her to get away. The sharp reek of unwashed bodies didn’t hit her until they stepped inside. Blinking against the brightn
ess of the torches and crude chandeliers, it took her a few heartbeats to sort out what she was seeing.

  Rolfe, striding ahead of them, didn’t falter as he passed cell after cell packed with slaves. Instead, he walked toward a large open space in the rear of the warehouse, where a nut-brown Eyllwe man stood before a cluster of four pirates.

  Beside her, Sam let out a breath, his face wan. If the smell wasn’t bad enough, the people in the cells, clinging to the bars or cowering against the walls or clutching their children—children—ripped at every shred of her being.

  Aside from some occasional muffled weeping, the slaves were silent. Some of their eyes widened at the sight of her. She’d forgotten how she must appear—faceless, cloak waving behind her, striding past them like Death itself. Some of the slaves even sketched invisible marks in the air, warding off whatever evil they thought she was.

  She took in the locks on the pens, counting the number of people crammed into each cell. They hailed from all the kingdoms on the continent. There were even some orange-haired, gray-eyed mountain clansmen—wild-looking men who tracked her movements. And women—some of them barely older than Celaena herself. Had they been fighters, too, or just in the wrong place at the wrong time?

  Celaena’s heart pounded faster. Even after all these years, people still defied Adarlan’s conquest. But what right did Adarlan—or Rolfe, or anyone—have to treat them like this? Conquest wasn’t enough; no, Adarlan had to break them.

  Eyllwe, she’d heard, had taken the brunt of it. Though their king had yielded his power to the King of Adarlan, Eyllwe soldiers still could be found fighting in the rebel groups that plagued Adarlan’s forces. But the land itself was too vital for Adarlan to abandon. Eyllwe boasted two of the most prosperous cities on the continent; its territory—rich in farmland, waterways, and forests—was a crucial vein in trade routes. Now, it seemed, Adarlan had decided that it might make money off its people, too.

  The men standing around the Eyllwe prisoner parted as Rolfe approached, bowing their heads. She recognized two of the men from dinner the previous night: the short, bald Captain Fairview and the one-eyed, hulking Captain Blackgold. Celaena and Sam stopped beside Rolfe.