Celaena sprinted through the darkness of the secret passageway, her breathing ragged. She glanced over her shoulder to find Cain grinning at her, his eyes like burning coals.
No matter how fast she ran, his stalking gait easily kept him just behind her. After him flowed a wake of glowing green Wyrdmarks, their strange shapes and symbols illuminating the ancient blocks of stone. And behind Cain, its long nails scraping against the ground, lumbered the ridderak.
Celaena stumbled, but remained upright. Each step felt like she was wading through mud. She couldn’t escape him. He would catch her eventually. And once the ridderak got hold of her … She didn’t dare glance again at those too-big teeth that jutted out of its mouth or those fathomless eyes, gleaming with the desire to devour her bit by bit.
Cain chuckled, the sound grating on the stone walls. He was close now. Close enough that his fingers raked against the nape of her neck. He whispered her name, her true name, and she screamed as he—
Celaena awoke with a gasp, clutching the Eye of Elena. She scanned the room for denser shadows, for glowing Wyrdmarks, for signs that the secret door was open behind the tapestry that concealed it. But there was only the crackling of the dying fire.
Celaena sank back into her pillows. It was just a nightmare. Cain and the ridderak were gone, and Elena wouldn’t bother her again. It was over.
Fleetfoot, sleeping under the many layers of blankets, put her head on Celaena’s stomach. Celaena nestled down farther, wrapping her arms around the dog as she closed her eyes.
It was over.
In the chill mists of early morning, Celaena hurled a stick across the wide field of the game park. Fleetfoot took off through the pale grass like a bolt of golden lightning, so fast that Celaena let out a low, appreciative whistle. Beside her, Nehemia clicked her tongue, her eyes on the swift hound. With Nehemia so busy winning over Queen Georgina and gleaning information about the king’s plans for Eyllwe, dawn was usually the only time they could see each other. Did the king know that the princess was one of the spies he’d mentioned? He couldn’t, or else he’d never trust Celaena to be his Champion, not when their friendship was widely known.
“Why Archer Finn?” Nehemia mused in Eyllwe, keeping her voice low. Celaena had explained her latest mission, keeping the details brief.
Fleetfoot reached the stick and trotted back to them, her long tail wagging. Even though she wasn’t yet fully grown, the dog was already abnormally large. Dorian had never said what breed, exactly, he suspected her mother had mated with. Given Fleetfoot’s size, it could have been a wolfhound. Or an actual wolf.
Celaena shrugged at Nehemia’s question, stuffing her hands into the fur-lined pockets of her cloak. “The king thinks … he thinks that Archer is a part of some secret movement against him. A movement here in Rifthold to get him off the throne.”
“Surely no one would be that bold. The rebels hide out in the mountains and forests and places where the local people can conceal and support them—not here. Rifthold would be a death trap.”
Celaena shrugged again just as Fleetfoot returned and demanded the stick be thrown again. “Apparently not. And apparently the king has a list of people whom he thinks are key players in this movement against him.”
“And you’re to … kill them all?” Nehemia’s creamy brown face paled slightly.
“One by one,” Celaena said, throwing the stick as far as she could into the misty field. Fleetfoot shot off, dried grass and the remnants of the last snowstorm crunching beneath her huge paws. “He’ll only reveal one name at a time. A bit dramatic, if you ask me. But apparently they’re interfering with his plans.”
“What plans?” Nehemia said sharply.
Celaena frowned. “I was hoping you might know.”
“I don’t.” There was a tense pause. “If you learn anything …,” Nehemia began.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Celaena lied. She wasn’t even sure if she truly wanted to know what the king was up to—let alone share that information with anyone else. It was selfish, and stupid, perhaps, but she couldn’t forget the warning the king had given the day he crowned her Champion: if she stepped out of line, if she betrayed him, he’d kill Chaol. And then Nehemia, and then the princess’s family.
And all of this—every death she faked, every lie she told—put them at risk.
Nehemia shook her head but didn’t reply. Whenever the princess or Chaol or even Dorian looked at her like that, it was almost too much to bear. But they had to believe the lies, too. For their own safety.
Nehemia began wringing her hands, and her eyes grew distant. Celaena had seen that expression often in the past month. “If you’re fretting for my sake—”
“I’m not,” Nehemia said. “You can take care of yourself.”
“Then what is it?” Celaena’s stomach clenched. If Nehemia talked more about the rebels, she didn’t know how much of it she could take. Yes, she wanted to be free of the king—both as his Champion and as a child of a conquered nation—but she wanted nothing to do with whatever plots were brewing in Rifthold, and whatever desperate hope the rebels still savored. To stand against the king would be nothing but folly. They’d all be destroyed.
But Nehemia said, “Numbers in the Calaculla labor camp are swelling. Every day, more and more Eyllwe rebels arrive. Most consider it a miracle that they’re alive. After the soldiers butchered those five hundred rebels … My people are afraid.” Fleetfoot again returned, and it was Nehemia who took the stick from the dog’s mouth and chucked it into the gray dawn. “But the conditions in Calaculla …”
She paused, probably recalling the three scars that raked down Celaena’s back. A permanent reminder of the cruelty of the Salt Mines of Endovier—and a reminder that even though she was free, thousands of people still toiled and died there. Calaculla, the sister camp to Endovier, was rumored to be even worse.
“The king will not meet with me,” Nehemia said, now toying with one of her fine, slender braids. “I have asked him three times to discuss the conditions in Calaculla, and each time he claims to be occupied. Apparently, he’s too busy finding people for you to kill.”
Celaena blushed at the harshness in Nehemia’s tone. Fleetfoot returned again, but when Nehemia took the stick, the princess kept it in
“I must do something, Elentiya,” Nehemia said, using the name she’d given her on the night Celaena admitted that she was an assassin. “I must find a way to help my people. When does gathering information become a stalemate? When do we act?”
Celaena swallowed hard. That word—“act”—scared her more than she’d like to admit. Worse than the word “plans.” Fleetfoot sat at their feet, tail wagging as she waited for the stick to be thrown.
But when Celaena said nothing, when she promised nothing, just as she always did when Nehemia spoke about these things, the princess dropped the stick on the ground and quietly walked back to the castle.
Celaena waited until Nehemia’s footsteps faded and let out a long breath. She was to meet Chaol for their morning run in a few minutes, but after that … after that, she was going into Rifthold. Let Archer wait until this afternoon.
After all, the king had given her a month, and despite her own questions for Archer, she wanted to get off the castle grounds for a bit. She had blood money to burn.