Seated in the council room of the Assassin’s Keep, Celaena Sardothien leaned back in her chair. “It’s past four in the morning,” she said, adjusting the folds of her crimson silk dressing gown and crossing her bare legs beneath the wooden table. “This had better be important.”
“Perhaps if you hadn’t been reading all night, you wouldn’t be so exhausted,” snapped a young man seated across from her. She ignored him and studied the four other people assembled in the underground chamber.
All male, all far older than she, and all refusing to meet her stare. A chill that didn’t have to do with the drafty room ran down her spine. Picking at her manicured nails, Celaena schooled her features into neutrality. The five assassins gathered at the long table—including herself—were five of Arobynn Hamel’s seven most trusted companions.
This meeting was undeniably important. She’d known that from the moment the serving girl pounded on her door, insisting Celaena come downstairs and not even bother to get dressed. When Arobynn summoned you, you didn’t keep him waiting. Thankfully, her sleepwear was as exquisite as her daytime wardrobe—and cost nearly as much. Still, being sixteen in a room with men made her keep an eye on the neckline of her robe. Her beauty was a weapon—one she kept honed—but it could also be a vulnerability.
Arobynn Hamel, King of the Assassins, lounged at the head of the table, his auburn hair shining in the light from the glass chandelier. His gray eyes met hers, and he frowned. It might have just been the late hour, but Celaena could have sworn that her mentor was paler than usual. Her stomach twisted.
“Gregori’s been caught,” Arobynn finally said. Well, that would explain one person missing from this meeting. “His mission was a trap. He’s now being held in the royal dungeons.”
Celaena sighed through her nose. This was why she’d been awakened? She tapped a slippered foot on the marble floor. “Then kill him,” she said.
She’d never liked Gregori, anyway. When she was ten, she’d fed his horse a bag of candy and he’d thrown a dagger at her head for it. She’d caught the dagger, of course, and ever since, Gregori had borne the scar on his cheek from her return throw.
“Kill Gregori?” demanded Sam, the young man seated at Arobynn’s left—a place that usually went to Ben, Arobynn’s second-in-command. Celaena knew very well what Sam Cortland thought of her. She’d known since they were children, when Arobynn took her in and declared her—not Sam—to be his protégée and heir. That hadn’t stopped Sam from trying to undermine her at every turn. And now, at seventeen, Sam was still a year older than she, and he still hadn’t forgotten that he would always be second best.
She bristled at the sight of Sam in Ben’s seat. Ben would probably throttle Sam for it when he arrived. Or she could just save Ben the effort and do it herself.
Celaena looked to Arobynn; why hadn’t he reprimanded Sam for sitting in Ben’s place? Arobynn’s face, still handsome despite the silver starting to show in his hair, remained impassive. She hated that unreadable mask, especially when controlling her own expressions—and temper—remained a tad difficult.
“If Gregori’s been caught,” Celaena drawled, brushing back a strand of her long, golden hair, “then the protocol’s simple: send an apprentice to slip something into his food. Nothing painful,” she added as the men around her tensed. “Just enough to silence him before he talks.”
Which Gregori might very well do, if he was in the royal dungeons. Most criminals who went in there never came out again. Not alive. And not in any recognizable shape.
The location of the Assassin’s Keep was a well-guarded secret, one she’d been trained to keep until her last breath. But even if she told anyone, they were unlikely to believe that an elegant manor house on a very respectable street in Rifthold was home to some of the greatest assassins in the world. What better place to hide than in the middle of the capital city?
“And if he’s already talked?” challenged Sam.
“And if Gregori’s already talked,” she said, “then kill everyone who heard.” Sam’s brown eyes flashed as she gave him a little smile that she knew made him irate. Celaena turned to Arobynn. “But you didn’t need to drag us here to decide this. You already gave the order, didn’t you?”
Arobynn nodded, his mouth a thin line. Sam choked back his objection and looked toward the crackling hearth beside the table. The firelight cast the smooth, elegant panes of Sam’s face into light and shadow—a face, she’d been told, that could have earned him a fortune if he’d followed in his mother’s footsteps. But Sam’s mother had opted instead to leave him with assassins, not courtesans, before she died.
Silence fell, and a roaring noise filled her ears as Arobynn took a breath. Something was wrong.
“What else?” she asked, leaning forward. The other assassins focused on the table. Whatever had happened, they knew. Why hadn’t Arobynn told her first?
Arobynn’s silver eyes became steel. “Ben was killed.”
Celaena gripped the arms of her chair. “What?” she demanded. Ben—Ben, the ever-smiling assassin who had trained her as often as Arobynn. Ben, who had once mended her shattered right hand. Ben, the seventh and final member of Arobynn’s inner circle. He was barely thirty years old. Celaena’s lips pulled back from her teeth. “What do you mean, ‘killed’?”
Arobynn eyed her, and a glimmer of grief flashed across his face. Five years Ben’s senior, Arobynn had grown up with Ben. They’d been trained together; Ben had seen to it that his friend became the unrivaled King of the Assassins, and never questioned his place as Arobynn’s Second. Her throat closed up.
“It was supposed to be Gregori’s mission,” Arobynn said quietly. “I don’t know why Ben was involved. Or who betrayed them. They found his body near the castle gates.”
“Do you have his body?” she demanded. She had to see it—had to see him one last time, see how he’d died, how many wounds it had taken to kill him.
“No,” Arobynn said.
“Why the hell not?” Her fists clenched and unclenched.
“Because the place was swarming with guards and soldiers!” Sam burst out, and she whipped her head to him. “How do you think we learned about this in the first place?”
Arobynn had sent Sam to see why Ben and Gregori were missing?
“If we’d grabbed his body,” Sam said, refusing to back down from her glare, “it would have led them right to the Keep.”
“You’re assassins,” she growled at him. “You’re supposed to be able to retrieve a body without being seen.”
“If you’d been there, you would have done the same.”
Celaena pushed her chair back so hard it flipped over. “If I’d been there, I would have killed all of them to get Ben’s body back!” She slammed her hands on the table, rattling the glasses.
Sam shot to his feet, his hand on the hilt of his sword. “Oh, listen to you. Ordering us about like you run the Guild. But not yet, Celaena.” He shook his head. “Not yet.”
“Enough,” Arobynn snapped, rising from his chair.
Celaena and Sam didn’t move. None of the other assassins spoke, though they gripped their various weapons. She’d seen firsthand what fights at the Keep were like; the weapons were as much for the bearers’ own safety as they were to keep her and Sam from doing serious damage to each other.
“I said enough.”
If Sam took one step toward her, raised his sword a fraction of an inch, that concealed dagger in her robe would find itself a new home in his neck.
Arobynn moved first, grabbing Sam’s chin in one hand, forcing the young man to look at him. “Check yourself, or I’ll do it for you, boy,” he murmured. “You’re a fool for picking a fight with her tonight.”
Celaena bit down on her reply. She could handle Sam tonight—or any other night, for that matter. If it came down to a fight, she’d win—she always beat Sam.
But Sam released the hilt of his sword. After a moment, Arobynn removed his grip on Sam’s face, but didn’t step away. Sam kept his gaze on the floor as he strode to the far side of the council room. Crossing his arms, he leaned against the stone wall. She could still reach him—one flick of her wrist, and his throat would spout blood.
“Celaena,” Arobynn said, his voice echoing in the silent room.
Enough blood had been spilled tonight; they didn’t need another dead assassin.
Ben. Ben was dead and gone, and she’d never again run into him in the halls of the Keep. He’d never set her injuries with his cool, deft hands, never coax a laugh from her with a joke or a lewd anecdote.
“Celaena,” Arobynn warned again.
“I’m done,” Celaena snapped. She rolled her neck, running a hand through her golden hair. She stalked to the door, but paused on the threshold.
“Just so you know,” she said, speaking to all of them but still watching Sam, “I’m going to retrieve Ben’s body.” A muscle feathered in Sam’s jaw, though he wisely kept his eyes averted. “But don’t expect me to extend the same courtesy to the rest of you when your time comes.”
With that, she turned on her heel and ascended the spiral staircase to the manor above. Fifteen minutes later, no one stopped her when she slipped out the front gate and into the silent city streets.
Two months, three days, and about eight hours later, the clock on the mantel chimed noon. Captain Rolfe, Lord of the Pirates, was late. Then again, so were Celaena and Sam, but Rolfe had no excuse, not when they were already two hours behind schedule. Not when they were meeting in his office.
And it wasn’t her fault for being tardy. She couldn’t control the winds, and those skittish sailors had certainly taken their time sailing into the archipelago of the Dead Islands. She didn’t want to think about how much gold Arobynn had spent bribing a crew to sail into the heart of pirate territory. But Skull’s Bay was on an island, so they hadn’t really had a choice about their mode of transportation.
Celaena, concealed behind a far too stuffy black cloak, tunic, and ebony mask, rose from her seat before the Pirate Lord’s desk. How dare he make her wait! He knew precisely why they were here, after all.
Three assassins had been found murdered by pirate hands, and Arobynn had sent her to be his personal dagger—to extract retribution, preferably the gold kind, for what their deaths would cost the Assassins’ Guild.
“With every minute he makes us wait,” Celaena said to Sam, the mask making her words low and soft, “I’m adding an extra ten gold pieces to his debt.”
Sam, who didn’t wear a mask over his handsome features, crossed his arms and scowled. “You’ll do no such thing. Arobynn’s letter is sealed, and it’s going to remain that way.” His brown eyes narrowed at her.
Neither of them had been particularly happy when Arobynn announced that Sam would be sent to the Dead Islands with Celaena. Especially when Ben’s body—which Celaena had retrieved—had barely been in the ground for two months. The sting of losing him hadn’t exactly worn off.
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