Aug 22 2012 4:00pm
After serving out a year of hard labor in the salt mines of Endovier for her crimes, 18-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien is dragged before the Crown Prince. Prince Dorian offers her her freedom on one condition: she must act as his champion in a competition to find a new royal assassin.
Her opponents are men—thieves and assassins and warriors from across the empire, each sponsored by a member of the king's council. If she beats her opponents in a series of eliminations, she'll serve the kingdom for three years and then be granted her freedom.
Celaena finds her training sessions with the captain of the guard, Westfall, challenging and exhilirating. But she's bored stiff by court life. Things get a little more interesting when the prince starts to show interest in her... but it's the gruff Captain Westfall who seems to understand her best.
Then one of the other contestants turns up dead... quickly followed by another. Can Celaena figure out who the killer is before she becomes a victim? As the young assassin investigates, her search leads her to discover a greater destiny than she could possibly have imagined.
After a year of slavery in the Salt Mines of Endovier, Celaena Sardothien was accustomed to being escorted everywhere in shackles and at sword-point. Most of the thousands of slaves in Endovier received similar treatment—though an extra half-dozen guards always walked Celaena to and from the mines. That was expected by Adarlan’s most notorious assassin. What she did not usually expect, however, was a hooded man in black at her side—as there was now.
He gripped her arm as he led her through the shining building in which most of Endovier’s officials and overseers were housed. They strode down corridors, up flights of stairs, and around and around until she hadn’t the slightest chance of finding her way out again.
At least, that was her escort’s intention, because she hadn’t failed to notice when they went up and down the same staircase within a matter of minutes. Nor had she missed when they zigzagged between levels, even though the building was a standard grid of hallways and stairwells. As if she’d lose her bearings that easily. She might have been insulted, if he wasn’t trying so hard.
They entered a particularly long hallway, silent save for their footsteps. Though the man grasping her arm was tall and fit, she could see nothing of the features concealed beneath his hood. Another tactic meant to confuse and intimidate her. The black clothes were probably a part of it, too. His head shifted in her direction, and Celaena flashed him a grin. He looked forward again, his iron grip tightening.
It was flattering, she supposed, even if she didn’t know what was happening, or why he’d been waiting for her outside the mine shaft. After a day of cleaving rock salt from the innards of the mountain, finding him standing there with six guards hadn’t improved her mood.
But her ears had pricked when he’d introduced himself to her overseer as Chaol Westfall, Captain of the Royal Guard, and suddenly, the sky loomed, the mountains pushed from behind, and even the earth swelled toward her knees. She hadn’t tasted fear in a while—hadn’t let herself taste fear. When she awoke every morning, she repeated the same words: I will not be afraid. For a year, those words had meant the difference between breaking and bending; they had kept her from shattering in the darkness of the mines. Not that she’d let the captain know any of that.
Celaena examined the gloved hand holding her arm. The dark leather almost matched the dirt on her skin.
She adjusted her torn and filthy tunic with her free hand and held in her sigh. Entering the mines before sunrise and departing after dusk, she rarely glimpsed the sun. She was frightfully pale beneath the dirt. It was true that she had been attractive once, beautiful even, but— Well, it didn’t matter now, did it?
They turned down another hallway, and she studied the stranger’s finely crafted sword. Its shimmering pommel was shaped like an eagle midflight. Noticing her stare, his gloved hand descended to rest upon its golden head. Another smile tugged at the corners of her lips.
“You’re a long way from Rifthold, Captain,” she said, clearing her throat. “Did you come with the army I heard thumping around earlier?” She peered into the darkness beneath his hood but saw nothing. Still, she felt his eyes upon her face, judging, weighing, testing. She stared right back. The Captain of the Royal Guard would be an interesting opponent. Maybe even worthy of some effort on her part.
Finally, the man raised his sword hand, and the folds of his cloak fell to conceal the blade. As his cloak shifted, she spied the gold wyvern embroidered on his tunic. The royal seal.
“What do you care for the armies of Adarlan?” he replied. How lovely it was to hear a voice like her own—cool and articulate—even if he was a nasty brute!
“Nothing,” she said, shrugging. He let out a low growl of annoyance.
Oh, it’d be nice to see his blood spill across the marble. She’d lost her temper once before—once, when her first overseer chose the wrong day to push her too hard. She still remembered the feeling of embedding the pickax into his gut, and the stickiness of his blood on her hands and face. She could disarm two of these guards in a heartbeat. Would the captain fare better than her late overseer? Contemplating the potential outcomes, she grinned at him again.
“Don’t you look at me like that,” he warned, and his hand drifted back toward his sword. Celaena hid her smirk this time. They passed a series of wooden doors that she’d seen a few minutes ago. If she wanted to escape, she simply had to turn left at the next hallway and take the stairs down three flights. The only thing all the intended disorientation had accomplished was to familiarize her with the building. Idiots.
“Where are we going again?” she said sweetly, brushing a strand of her matted hair from her face. When he didn’t reply, she clenched her jaw.
The halls echoed too loudly for her to attack him without alerting the whole building. She hadn’t seen where he’d put the key to her irons, and the six guards who trailed them would be nuisances. Not to mention the shackles.
They entered a hallway hung with iron chandeliers. Outside the windows lining the wall, night had fallen; lanterns kindled so bright they offered few shadows to hide in.
From the courtyard, she could hear the other slaves shuffling toward the wooden building where they slept. The moans of agony amongst the clank of chains made a chorus as familiar as the dreary work songs they sang all day. The occasional solo of the whip added to the symphony of brutality Adarlan had created for its greatest criminals, poorest citizens, and latest conquests.
While some of the prisoners were people accused of attempting to practice magic—not that they could, given that magic had vanished from the kingdom—these days, more and more rebels arrived at Endovier. Most were from Eyllwe, one of the last countries still fighting Adarlan’s rule. But when she pestered them for news, many just stared at her with empty eyes. Already broken. She shuddered to consider what they’d endured at the hands of Adarlan’s forces. Some days, she wondered if they would have been better off dying on the butchering blocks instead. And if she might have been better off dying that night she’d been betrayed and captured, too.
But she had other things to think about as they continued their walk. Was she finally to be hanged? Sickness coiled in her stomach. She was important enough to warrant an execution from the Captain of the Royal Guard himself. But why bring her inside this building first?
At last, they stopped before a set of red and gold glass doors so thick that she couldn’t see through them. Captain Westfall jerked his chin at the two guards standing on either side of the doors, and they stomped their spears in greeting.
The captain’s grip tightened until it hurt. He yanked Celaena closer, but her feet seemed made of lead and she pulled against him. “You’d rather stay in the mines?” he asked, sounding faintly amused.
“Perhaps if I were told what this was all about, I wouldn’t feel so inclined to resist.”
“You’ll find out soon enough.” Her palms became sweaty. Yes, she was going to die. It had come at last.
The doors groaned open to reveal a throne room. A glass chandelier shaped like a grapevine occupied most of the ceiling, spitting seeds of diamond fire onto the windows along the far side of the room. Compared to the bleakness outside those windows, the opulence felt like a slap to the face. A reminder of how much they profited from her labor.
“In here,” the Captain of the Guard growled, and shoved her with his free hand, finally releasing her. Celaena stumbled, her callused feet slipping on the smooth floor as she straightened herself. She looked back to see another six guards appear.
Fourteen guards, plus the captain. The gold royal emblem embroidered on the breast of black uniforms. These were members of the Royal Family’s personal guard: ruthless, lightning-swift soldiers trained from birth to protect and kill. She swallowed tightly.
Lightheaded and immensely heavy all at once, Celaena faced the room. On an ornate redwood throne sat a handsome young man. Her heart stopped as everyone bowed.
She was standing in front of the Crown Prince of Adarlan.