There would be no candles for these midnight deeds, no ivory horn to signal the start of this hunt. She dressed in her darkest tunic and slid a smooth black mask into her cloak pocket. All of her weapons, even the hairpins, had been removed from her rooms. She knew without checking that the doors and windows were being watched. Good. This was not the sort of hunt that began at the front door.
Celaena locked her bedroom and spared a glance at Fleetfoot, who cowered under the bed as she hauled open the secret door. The dog was still quietly whining as Celaena strode into the passage.
She didn’t need a light to make her way down to the tomb. She knew the path by memory now, each step, each turn.
Her cloak whispered against the steps. Down and down she went.
It was war upon them all. Let them tremble in fear at what they had awoken.
Moonlight spilled onto the landing, illuminating the open door of the tomb and Mort’s little bronze face.
“I’m sorry about your friend,” he said with surprising sorrow as she stalked toward him.
She didn’t reply. And she didn’t care how he knew. She just kept walking, through the door and between the sarcophagi, to the heap of treasure piled in the back.
Daggers, hunting knives—she took whatever she could strap onto her belt or tuck into her boots. She took a handful of gold and jewels and shoved that into a pocket, too.
“What are you doing?” Mort demanded from the hallway.
Celaena approached the stand that displayed Damaris, sword of Gavin, first King of Adarlan. The hollowed-out golden pommel glinted in the moonlight as she pulled the scabbard from the stand and strapped it across her back.
“That is a sacred sword,” Mort hissed, as though he could see inside.
Celaena smiled grimly as she stalked back to the door, flinging her hood over her head.
“Wherever you are going,” Mort went on, “whatever you plan to do, you debase that sword by taking it from here. Aren’t you afraid of angering the gods?”
Celaena just laughed quietly before she took the stairs, savoring each step, each movement that brought her closer to her prey.
She relished the burn in her arms as she hauled the sewer grate up, rotating the ancient wheel until it was fully raised, dripping with filth, and the water beneath the castle flowed freely into the small river outside. She tossed a piece of broken stone into the river beyond the archway, listening for guards.
Not a sound, not a scrape of armor or a whisper of warning.
An assassin had killed Nehemia, an assassin with a taste for the grotesque and a desire for notoriety. Finding Grave would take only a few questions.
She tied the chain around the lever, testing its strength, and checked to ensure that Damaris was tightly strapped to her back. Then, gripping the castle stones, she swung around the wall, slithering sideways. She didn’t bother to glance up at the castle as she eased around the bank of the river and dropped onto the frozen ground.
Then she vanished into the night.
Cloaked in darkness, Celaena stalked through the streets of Rifthold. She made no sound as she passed through dim alleys.
Only one place could provide the answers she wanted.
Sewage and puddles of excrement lay beneath every window of the slums, and the cobblestone streets were cracked and misshapen after many hard winters. The buildings leaned against each other, some so ramshackle that even the poorest citizens had abandoned them. On most streets, the taverns overflowed with drunks and whores and everyone else who sought temporary relief from their miserable lives.
It made no difference how many saw her. None would bother her tonight.
The cape billowed behind her, her face remaining expressionless beneath her obsidian mask as she moved through the streets. The Vaults was just a few blocks away.
Celaena’s gloved hands clenched. Once she found out where Grave was hiding, she’d turn his skin inside out. Worse than that, actually.
She stopped before a nondescript iron door in a quiet alley. Hired thugs stood watch outside; she flashed them the silver entrance fee, and they opened the door for her. In the subterranean warren below, one could find the cutthroats, the monsters, and the damned of Adarlan. The filth came here to exchange stories and make deals, and it was here that any whisper of Nehemia’s assassin would be found.
Grave had undoubtedly received a large fee for his services, and could be counted on to now be recklessly spending his blood money—a spree that would not go unnoticed. He wouldn’t have left Rifthold—oh, no. He wanted people to know he killed the princess; he wanted to hear himself named the new Adarlan’s Assassin. He wanted Celaena to know, too.
As she headed down the steps into the Vaults, the reek of ale and unwashed bodies hit her like a stone to the face. She hadn’t been in this sort of festering den for a long while.
The main chamber was strategically lit: a chandelier hung in the center of the room, but there was little light to be found along the walls for those who sought not to be seen. All laughter halted as she strode between the tables. Red-rimmed eyes followed her every step.
She didn’t know the identity of the new crime lord who ruled over this place, and didn’t care. Her business wasn’t with him, not tonight. She didn’t allow herself to look at the many fighting pits that occupied the distant end of the chamber—pits where crowds were still gathered, cheering for whoever fought with fists and feet within.
She’d been to the Vaults before, many times in those final days before her capture. Now that Ioan Jayne and Rourke Farran were dead, the place seemed to have passed into new ownership without losing any of its depravity.
Celaena walked right up to the barkeep. He didn’t recognize her, but she didn’t expect him to—not when she’d been so careful to hide her identity all those years.
The barkeep was already pale, and his sparse hair had become even sparser over the past year and a half. He tried to peer beneath her cowl as she halted at the bar, but the mask and hood kept her features hidden.
“Drink?” he asked, wiping sweat from his brow. Everyone in the bar was still watching her, either discreetly or outright.
“No,” she said, her voice contorted and deep beneath the mask.
The barkeep gripped the edge of the counter. “You—you’re back,” he said quietly, as more heads turned. “You escaped.”
So he did recognize her, then. She wondered if the new owners held a grudge against her for killing Ioan Jayne—and how many bodies she’d have to leave in her wake if they decided to start a fight right here, right now. What she planned to do tonight already broke enough rules, crossed too many lines.
She leaned on the bar, crossing one ankle over the other. The barkeep mopped his brow again and poured her a brandy. “On the house,” he said, sliding it to her. She caught it in her hand, but didn’t drink it. He wet his lips, then asked, “How—how did you escape?”
People leaned back in their chairs, straining to hear. Let them spread rumors. Let them hesitate before crossing her path. She hoped Arobynn heard, too. She hoped he heard and stayed the hell away from her.
“You’ll soon discover that,” she said. “But I have need of you.” His brows lifted. “Me?”
“I have come to inquire after a man.” Her voice was scratchy and hollow. “A man who recently earned a large sum of gold. For the assassination of the Eyllwe princess. He goes by the name of Grave. I need to know where he is.”
“I don’t know anything.” The barkeep’s face turned even paler.
She reached into a pocket and pulled out a glittering fistful of ancient jewels and gold. All eyes watched them now.
“Allow me to repeat my question, barkeep.”
The assassin who called himself Grave ran.
He didn’t know how long she’d been hunting him. It had been well over a week since he’d killed the princess; a week, and no one had even looked his way. He thought he’d gotten away with it—and had even started wondering whether he should have been more creative with the body, if he should have left some sort of calling card behind. But all that had changed tonight.
He’d been drinking at the counter of his favorite tavern when the packed room had suddenly gone quiet. He’d turned to see her in the doorway as she called out his name, looking more wraith than human. His name hadn’t even finished echoing in the room before he burst into a sprint, escaping through the back exit and into the alley. He couldn’t hear
footsteps, but he knew she was behind him, melting in and out of shadows and mist.
He took alleys and side streets, leaping over walls, zigzagging across the slums. Anything to shake her, to wear her down. He’d make his final stand in a quiet street. There, he would take out the blades strapped to his skin and make her pay for the way she’d humiliated him in the competition. The way she had sneered at him, the way she’d broken his nose and tossed her handkerchief onto his chest.
Haughty, stupid bitch.
He staggered as he rounded a corner, his breath ragged and raw. He had only three daggers hidden on him. He’d make them count, though. When she’d appeared at the tavern, he had immediately taken note of the broadsword hovering over one of her shoulders and the assortment of gleaming, wicked-looking blades strapped to her hips. But he could make her pay, even if he only had a few blades.
Grave was halfway down the cobblestone alley when he realized it was a dead end, the far wall too high to climb. Here, then. He’d soon have her begging for mercy before he cut her into little, little pieces. Drawing one of his daggers, he smiled and turned to the open street behind him.
Blue mist drifted by, and a rat scurried across the narrow passage. There was no noise, only the sounds of distant revelry. Perhaps he had lost her. Those royal fools had made the biggest mistake of their lives when they crowned her Champion. His client had said as much when he’d hired Grave.
He waited a moment, still watching the open street entrance, and then allowed himself to breathe, surprised to find that he was a little disappointed.
King’s Champion findeed. It hadn’t been hard to lose her at all. And now he would go home, and he’d receive another job offer in a matter of days. And then another. And another. His client had promised him that the offers would come. Arobynn Hamel would curse the day he had rejected Grave from the Assassins Guild for being too cruel with his prey.
Grave chuckled, flipping his dagger in his hands. Then she appeared.
She came through the fog, no more than a sliver of darkness. She didn’t run—she just walked with that insufferable swagger. Grave surveyed the buildings surrounding them. The stone was too slippery, and there were no windows.
One step at a time, she approached. He would really, really enjoy making her suffer as much as the princess had.
Smiling, Grave retreated to the end of the alley, only stopping when his back hit the stone wall. In a narrower space, he could overpower her. And in this forgotten street, he could take his own sweet time doing what he wanted.
Still she approached, and the sword at her back whined as she drew it. The moonlight glinted off the long blade. Probably a gift from her princeling lover.
Grave pulled his second dagger from his boot. This wasn’t a frilly, ridiculous competition run by nobility. Here, any rules applied.
She didn’t say anything when she neared.
And Grave didn’t say anything to her as he rushed at her, swiping for her head with both blades.
She stepped aside, dodging him with maddening ease. Grave lunged again. But faster than he could follow she ducked and slashed her sword across his shins.
He hit the wet ground before he felt the pain. The world flashed black and gray and red, and agony tore at him. A dagger still left in his hand, he scuttled backward toward the wall. But his legs wouldn’t respond, and his arms strained to pull him through the damp filth.
“Bitch,” he hissed. “Bitch.” He hit the wall, blood pouring from his legs. Bone had been sliced. He would not be able to walk. He could still find a way to make her pay, though.
She stopped a few feet away and sheathed her sword. She drew a long, jeweled dagger.
He swore at her, the filthiest word he could think of.
She chuckled, and faster than a striking asp, she had one of his arms against the wall, the dagger glinting.
Pain ripped through his right wrist, then his left as it, too, was slammed into the stone. Grave screamed—truly screamed—as he found his arms pinned to the wall by two daggers.
His blood was nearly black in the moonlight. He thrashed, cursing her again and again. He would bleed to death unless he pulled his arms from the wall.
With otherworldly silence, she crouched before him and lifted his chin with another dagger. Grave panted as she brought her face close to his. There was nothing beneath the cowl—nothing of this world. She had no face.
“Who hired you?” she asked, her voice like gravel.
“To do what?” he asked, almost sobbing. Maybe he could feign innocence. He could talk his way out, convince this arrogant whore he had nothing to do with it …
She turned the dagger, pressing it into his neck. “To kill Princess Nehemia.”
“N-n-no one. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
And then, without even an intake of breath, she buried another dagger he hadn’t realized she’d been holding into his thigh. So deep he felt the reverberation as it hit the cobblestones beneath. His scream shattered out of him, and Grave writhed, his wrists rising farther on the blades.
“Who hired you?” she asked again. Calm, so calm. “Gold,” Grave moaned. “I have gold.”
She drew yet another dagger and shoved it into his other thigh, piercing again to the stone. Grave shrieked—shrieked to gods who did not save him. “Who hired you?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about!”
After a heartbeat, she withdrew the daggers from his thighs. He almost soiled himself at the pain, at the relief.
“Thank you.” He wept, even as he thought of how he would punish her. She sat back on her heels and stared at him. “Thank you.”
But then she brought up another dagger, its edge serrated and glinting, and hovered it close to his hand.
“Pick a finger,” she said. He trembled and shook his head. “Pick a finger.”
“P-please.” A wet warmth filled the seat of his pants. “Thumb it is.”
“N-no. I … I’ll tell you everything!” Still, she brought the blade closer, until it rested against the base of his thumb. “Don’t! I’ll tell you everything!”