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The Assassin's Blade, Page 4

Sarah J. Maas

  The Eyllwe man had been stripped naked, his wiry body already bruised and bleeding.

  “This one fought back a bit,” said Captain Fairview. Though sweat gleamed on the slave’s skin, he kept his chin high, his eyes upon some distant sight. He must have been around twenty. Did he have a family?

  “Keep him in irons, though, and he’ll fetch a good price,” Fairview went on, wiping his face on the shoulder of his crimson tunic. The gold embroidery was fraying, and the fabric, which had probably once been rich with color, was faded and stained. “I’d send him to the market in Bellhaven. Lots of rich men there needing strong hands to do their building. Or women needing strong hands for something else entirely.” He winked in Celaena’s direction.

  Unyielding rage boiled up so fast the breath was knocked from her. She didn’t realize her hand was moving toward her sword until Sam knotted his fingers through hers. It was a casual-enough gesture, and to anyone else, it might have looked affectionate. But he squeezed her fingers tightly enough for her to know that he was well aware of what she was about to do.

  “How many of these slaves will actually be deemed useful?” Sam asked, releasing her gloved fingers. “Ours are all going to Rifthold, but you’re dividing this batch up?”

  Rolfe said, “You think your master is the first to strike a deal with me? We have other agreements in different cities. My partners in Bellhaven tell me what the wealthy are looking for, and I supply them. If I can’t think of a good place to sell the slaves, I’ll send them to Calaculla. If your master has leftovers, sending them to Endovier might be a good option. Adarlan’s stingy with what they’ll offer when buying slaves for the salt mines, but it’s better than making no money at all.”

  So Adarlan wasn’t just snatching prisoners from battlefields and their homes—they were buying slaves for the Salt Mines of Endovier, too.

  “And the children?” she asked, keeping her voice was neutral as possible. “Where do they go?”

  Rolfe’s eyes darkened a bit at that, glimmering with enough guilt that Celaena wondered if the slave trade had been a last resort for him. “We try to keep the children with their mothers,” he said quietly. “But at the auction block, we can’t control whether they’re separated.”

  She fought the retort on her tongue, and just said, “I see. Are they a burden to sell? And how many children can we expect in our shipment?”

  “We have about ten here,” Rolfe said. “Your shipment shouldn’t contain more than that. And they’re not a burden to sell, if you know where to sell them.”

  “Where?” Sam demanded.

  “Some wealthy households might want them for scullery maids or stableboys.” Though his voice remained steady, Rolfe studied the ground. “A brothel madam might show up at the auction, too.”

  Sam’s face went white with fury. If there was one thing that set him off, one subject she knew she could always rely upon to rile him, it was this.

  His mother, sold at eight to a brothel, had spent her too-short twenty-eight years clawing her way up from an orphan to one of the most successful courtesans in Rifthold. She’d had Sam only six years before she’d died—murdered by a jealous client. And though she’d amassed some money, it hadn’t been enough to liberate her from her brothel—or to provide for Sam. But she’d been a favorite of Arobynn’s, and when he’d learned that she wanted Sam to be trained by him, he’d taken the boy in.

  “We’ll take that into consideration,” Sam said sharply.

  It wasn’t enough for Celaena to ensure the deal fell apart. No, that wasn’t nearly enough. Not when all of these people were imprisoned here. Her blood pounded in her veins. Death, at least, was quick. Especially when dealt by her hand. But slavery was unending suffering.

  “Very well,” she said, lifting her chin. She had to get out of here—and get Sam out of here before he snapped. A deadly gleam was growing in his eyes. “I look forward to seeing our shipment tomorrow night.” She inclined her head toward the pens behind her. “When will these slaves be sent out?” It was such a dangerous, stupid question.

  Rolfe looked to Captain Fairview, who rubbed his dirty head. “This lot? We’ll divvy them up, and they’ll be loaded onto a new ship tomorrow, probably. They’ll sail around the same time you do, I bet. We need to assemble crews.” He and Rolfe started off on a conversation about manning the ships, and Celaena took that as her cue to leave.

  With a final look at the slave still standing there, Celaena strode out of the warehouse that stank of fear and death.

  “Celaena, wait!” Sam called, panting as he walked after her.

  She couldn’t wait. She’d just started walking, and walking, and walking, and now, as she reached the empty beach far from the lights of Skull’s Bay, she wouldn’t stop walking until she reached the water.

  Not too far down the curve in the bay, the watchtower stood guard, Ship-Breaker hanging across the water for the duration of the night. The moon illuminated the powder-fine sand and turned the calm sea into a silver mirror.

  She removed her mask and dropped it behind her, then ripped off her cloak, boots, and tunic. The damp breeze kissed her bare skin, fluttering her delicate white undershirt.


  Bath-warm waves flooded past her, and she kicked up a spray of water as she kept walking. Before she could get deeper than her calves, Sam grabbed her arm.

  “What are you doing?” he demanded. She yanked on her arm, but he held firm.

  In a single, swift movement, she twirled, swinging her other arm. But he knew the move—because he’d practiced it right alongside her for years—and he caught her other hand. “Stop,” he said, but she swept her foot. She caught him behind the knee, sending him tumbling down. Sam didn’t release her, and water and sand sprayed as they hit the ground.

  Celaena landed on top of him, but Sam didn’t pause for a moment. Before she could give him a sharp elbow to the face, he flipped her. The air whooshed out of her lungs. Sam lunged for her, and she had the sense to bring her feet up just as he leapt. She kicked him square in the stomach. He cursed as he dropped to his knees. The surf broke around him, a shower of silver.

  She sprang into a crouch, the sand hissing beneath her feet as she made to tackle him.

  But Sam had been waiting, and he twisted away, catching her by the shoulders and throwing her to the ground.

  She knew she’d been caught before he even finished slamming her into the sand. He pinned her wrists, his knees digging into her thighs to keep her from getting her legs under her again.

  “Enough!” His fingers dug painfully into her wrists. A rogue wave reached them, soaking her.

  She thrashed, her fingers curling, straining to draw blood, but they couldn’t reach his hands. The sand shifted enough that she could scarcely get a steady surface to support herself, to flip him. But Sam knew her—he knew her movements, knew what tricks she liked to pull.

  “Stop,” he said, his breathing ragged. “Please.”

  In the moonlight, his handsome face was strained. “Please,” he repeated hoarsely.

  The sorrow—the defeat—in his voice made her pause. A wisp of cloud passed over the moon, illuminating the strong panes of his cheekbones, the curve of his lips—the kind of rare beauty that had made his mother so successful. Far above his head, stars flickered faintly, nearly invisible in the glow of the moon.

  “I’m not going to let go until you promise to stop attacking me,” Sam said. His face was inches away, and she felt the breath of every one of his words on her mouth.

  She took an uneven breath, then another. She had no reason to attack Sam. Not when he’d kept her from gutting that pirate in the warehouse. Not when he’d gotten so riled about the slave children. Her legs trembled with pain.

  “I promise,” she mumbled.

  “Swear it.”

  “I swear on my life.”

  He watched her for a second longer, then slowly eased off her. She waited until he was standing, then got to her feet. Both of
them were soaked and crusted with sand, and she was fairly certain her hair had come half out of her braid and she looked like a raging lunatic.

  “So,” he said, taking off his boots and tossing them onto the sand behind them. “Are you going to explain yourself?” He rolled his pants up to the knees and took a few steps into the surf.

  Celaena began pacing, waves splattering at her feet. “I just …,” she began, but waved an arm, shaking her head fiercely.

  “You what?” His words were almost drowned out by the crashing waves.

  She whirled to face him. “How can you bear to look at those people and not do anything?”

  “The slaves?”

  She resumed her pacing. “It makes me sick. It makes me … makes me so mad I think I might …” She couldn’t finish the thought.

  “Might what?” Splashing steps sounded, and she looked over her shoulder to find him approaching. He crossed his arms, bracing for a fight. “Might do something as foolish as attacking Rolfe’s men in their own warehouse?”

  It was now or never. She hadn’t wanted to involve him, but … now that her plans had changed, she needed his help.

  “I might do something as foolish as freeing the slaves,” she said.

  Sam went so still that he might have been turned into stone. “I knew you were thinking up something—but freeing them …”

  “I’m going to do it with or without you.” She’d only intended to ruin the deal, but from the moment she’d walked into that warehouse tonight, she’d known she couldn’t leave the slaves there.

  “Rolfe will kill you,” Sam said. “Or Arobynn will, if Rolfe doesn’t first.”

  “I have to try,” she said.

  “Why?” Sam stepped close enough that she needed to tilt her head back to see his face. “We’re assassins. We kill people. We destroy lives every day.”

  “We have a choice,” she breathed. “Maybe not when we were children—when it was Arobynn or death—but now … Now you and I have a choice in the things we do. Those slaves were just taken. They were fighting for their freedom, or lived too close to a battlefield, or some mercenaries passed through their town and stole them. They’re innocent people.”

  “And we weren’t?”

  Something icy pierced her heart at the glimmer of memory. “We kill corrupt officials and adulterous spouses; we make it quick and clean. These are entire families being ripped apart. Every one of these people used to be somebody.”

  Sam’s eyes glowed. “I’m not disagreeing with you. I don’t like the idea of this at all. Not just the slaves, but Arobynn’s involvement. And those children …” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “But we’re just two people—surrounded by Rolfe’s pirates.”

  She gave him a crooked grin. “Then it’s good that we’re the best. And,” she added, “it’s good that I’ve been asking him so many questions about his plans for the next two days.”

  Sam blinked. “You realize this is the most reckless thing you’ve ever done, right?”

  “Reckless, but maybe the most meaningful, too.”

  Sam stared at her long enough for heat to flood her cheek, as if he could see right inside of her—see everything. The fact that he didn’t turn away from whatever he saw made her blood thrum in her veins. “I suppose if we’re going to die, it should be for a noble cause,” he said.

  She snorted, using it as an excuse to step away from him. “We’re not going to die. At least, not if we follow my plan.”

  He groaned. “You already have a plan?”

  She grinned, then told him everything. When she finished, he only scratched his head. “Well,” he admitted, sitting on the sand, “I suppose that’d work. We’d have to time it right, but …”

  “But it could work.” She sat beside him.

  “When Arobynn finds out …”

  “Leave Arobynn to me. I’ll figure out how to deal with him.”

  “We could always just … not return to Rifthold,” Sam suggested.

  “What, run away?”

  Sam shrugged. Though he kept his eyes on the waves, she could have sworn a blush darkened his cheeks. “He might very well kill us.”

  “If we ran away, he’d hunt us for the rest of our lives. Even if we took different names, he’d find us.” As if she could leave her entire life behind! “He’s invested too much money in us—and we’ve yet to pay him back entirely. He’d see it as a bad investment.”

  Sam’s gaze drifted northward, as if he could see the sprawling capital city and its towering glass castle. “I think there’s more at work here than this trade agreement.”

  “What do you mean?”

  Sam traced circles in the sand between them. “I mean, why send the two of us here in the first place? His excuse for sending us was a lie. We’re not instrumental to this deal. He could just as easily have sent two other assassins who aren’t at each other’s throats all the time.”

  “What are you implying?”

  Sam shrugged. “Perhaps Arobynn wanted us out of Rifthold right now. Needed to get us out of the city for a month.”

  A chill went through her. “Arobynn wouldn’t do that.”

  “Wouldn’t he?” Sam asked. “Did we ever find out why Ben was there the night Gregori got captured?”

  “If you’re implying that Arobynn somehow set Ben up to—”

  “I’m not implying anything. But some things don’t add up. And there are questions that haven’t been answered.”

  “We’re not supposed to question Arobynn,” she murmured.

  “And since when do you ever follow orders?”

  She stood. “Let’s get through the next few days. Then we’ll consider whatever conspiracy theories you’re inventing.”

  Sam was on his feet in an instant. “I don’t have any theories. Just questions that you should be asking yourself, too. Why did he want us gone this month?”

  “We can trust Arobynn.” Even as the words left her mouth, she felt stupid for saying them.

  Sam stooped to pick up his boots. “I’m going back to the tavern. Are you coming?”

  “No. I’m staying here for a little longer.”

  Sam gave her an appraising look, but nodded. “We’re to examine Arobynn’s slaves on their ship at four tomorrow afternoon. Try not to stay out here the whole night. We need all the rest we can get.”

  She didn’t reply, and turned away before she could watch him head toward the golden lights of Skull’s Bay.

  She walked along the curve of the shoreline, all the way to the lone watchtower. After studying it from the shadows—the two catapults near its top, the giant chain anchored above them—she continued on. She walked until there was nothing in the world but the grumble and hiss of the waves, the sigh of the sand beneath her feet, and the glare of the moon on the water.

  She walked until a surprisingly cold breeze swept past her. She halted.

  Slowly, Celaena turned north, toward the source of the breeze, which smelled of a faraway land she hadn’t seen in eight years. Pine and snow—a city still in winter’s grasp. She breathed it in, staring across the leagues of lonely, black ocean, seeing, somehow, that distant city that had once, long ago, been her home. The wind ripped the strands of hair from her braid, lashing them across her face. Orynth. A city of light and music, watched over by an alabaster castle with an opal tower so bright it could be viewed for miles.

  The moonlight vanished behind a thick cloud. In the sudden dark, the stars glowed brighter.

  She knew all the constellations by heart, and she instinctively sought out the Stag, Lord of the North, and the immovable star that crowned his head.

  Back then, she hadn’t had any choice. When Arobynn offered her this path, it was either that, or death. But now …

  She took a shuddering breath. No, she was as limited in her choices as she’d been when she was eight years old. She was Adarlan’s Assassin, Arobynn Hamel’s protégée and heir—and she would always be.

  It was a long walk back to the tavern.



  After yet another miserably hot and sleepless night, Celaena spent the following day with Sam, walking through the streets of Skull’s Bay. They kept their pace leisurely, pausing at various vendors’ carts and popping into the occasional shop, but all the while tracing each step of their plan, going over every detail that they’d need to orchestrate perfectly.

  From the fishermen along the docks, they learned that the rowboats tied to the piers belonged to nobody in particular, and that tomorrow’s morning tide came in just after sunrise. Not advantageous, but better than midday.

  From flirting with the harlots along the main street, Sam learned that every once in a while, Rolfe covered the tab for all the pirates in his service, and the revelry lasted for days. Sam also picked up a few other pointers that he refused to tell Celaena about.

  And from the half-drunk pirate languishing in an alley, Celaena learned how many men guarded the slave ships, what manner of weapons they carried, and where the slaves were kept.

  When four o’clock rolled around, Celaena and Sam were standing aboard the ship Rolfe had promised them, watching and counting as the slaves stumbled onto the wide deck. Ninety-three. Mostly men, most of them young. The women were a broader range of ages, and there were only a handful of children, just as Rolfe had said.

  “Do they meet your refined tastes?” Rolfe asked as he approached.

  “I thought you said there’d be more,” she replied coldly, keeping her eyes upon the chained slaves.

  “We had an even hundred, but seven died on the journey.”

  She bit back the anger that flared. Sam, knowing her far too well for her liking, cut in. “And how many can we expect to lose on the journey to Rifthold?” His face was relatively neutral, though his brown eyes flashed with annoyance. Fine—he was a good liar. As good as she was, maybe.

  Rolfe ran a hand through his dark hair. “Don’t you two ever stop questioning? There’s no way of predicting how many slaves you’ll lose. Just keep them watered and fed.”