“Acolytes,” Ansel said in response to Celaena’s silent question. “Cleaning the rooms of the older assassins is part of their training. Teaches them responsibility and humility. Or something like that.” Ansel winked at a child who gaped up at her as she passed. Indeed, several of the children stared after Ansel, their eyes wide with wonder and respect; Ansel must be well regarded, then. None of them bothered to look at Celaena. She raised her chin.
“And how old were you when you came here?” The more she knew the better.
“I had barely turned thirteen,” Ansel said. “So I just missed having to do the drudgery work.”
“And how old are you now?”
“Trying to get a read on me, are you?”
Celaena kept her face blank.
“I just turned eighteen. You look about my age, too.”
Celaena nodded. She certainly didn’t have to yield any information about herself. Even though Arobynn had ordered her not to hide her identity here, that didn’t mean she had to give away details. And at least Celaena had started her training at eight; she had several years on Ansel. That had to count for something. “Has training with the Master been effective?”
Ansel gave her a rueful smile. “I wouldn’t know. I’ve been here for five years, and he’s still refused to train me personally. Not that I care. I’d say I’m pretty damn good with or without his expertise.”
Well, that was certainly odd. How had she gone so long without working with the Master? Though, many of Arobynn’s assassins never received private lessons with him, either. “Where are you from, originally?” Celaena asked.
“The Flatlands.” The Flatlands . . . Where in hell were the Flatlands? Ansel answered for her. “Along the coast of the Western Wastes—formerly known as the Witch Kingdom.”
The Wastes were certainly familiar. But she’d never heard of the Flatlands.
“My father,” Ansel went on, “is Lord of Briarcliff. He sent me here for training, so I might ‘make myself useful.’ But I don’t think five hundred years would be enough to teach me that.”
Despite herself, Celaena chuckled. She stole another glance at Ansel’s armor. “Don’t you get hot in all that armor?”
“Of course,” Ansel said, tossing her shoulder-length hair. “But you have to admit it’s rather striking. And very well suited for strutting about a fortress full of assassins. How else am I to distinguish myself?”
“Where did you get it from?” Not that she might want some for herself; she had no use for armor like that.
“Oh, I had it made for me.” So—Ansel had money, then. Plenty of it, if she could throw it away on armor. “But the sword”—Ansel patted the wolf-shaped hilt at her side—“belongs to my father. His gift to me when I left. I figured I’d have the armor match it—wolves are a family symbol.”
They entered an open walkway, the heat of the midafternoon sun slamming into them with full force. Yet Ansel’s face remained jovial, and if the armor did indeed make her uncomfortable, she didn’t show it. Ansel looked her up and down. “How many people have you killed?”
Celaena almost choked, but kept her chin high. “I don’t see how that is any of your concern.”
Ansel chuckled. “I suppose it’d be easy enough to find out; you must leave some indication if you’re so notorious.” Actually, it was Arobynn who usually saw to it that word got out through the proper channels. She left very little behind once her job was finished. Leaving a sign felt somewhat . . . cheap. “I’d want everyone to know that I’d done it,” Ansel added.
Well, Celaena did want everyone to know that she was the best, but something about the way Ansel said it seemed different from her own reasoning.
“So, which of you looks worse?” Ansel asked suddenly. “You, or the person who gave those to you?” Celaena knew that she meant the fading bruises and cuts on her face.
Her stomach tightened. It was getting to be a familiar feeling.
“Me,” Celaena said quietly.
She didn’t know why she admitted it. Bravado might have been the better option. But she was tired, and suddenly so heavy with the weight of that memory.
“Did your master do that to you?” Ansel asked. This time, Celaena kept quiet, and Ansel didn’t push her.
At the other end of the walkway, they took a spiral stone staircase down into an empty courtyard where benches and little tables stood in the shade of the towering date trees. Someone had left a book lying atop one of the wooden tables, and as they passed by, Celaena glimpsed the cover. The title was in a scrawling, strange script that she didn’t recognize.
If she’d been alone, she might have paused to flip through the book, just to see words printed in a language so different from anything she knew, but Ansel continued on toward a pair of carved wooden doors.
“The baths. It’s one of the places here where silence is actually enforced, so try to keep quiet. Don’t splash too much, either. Some of the older assassins can get cranky about even that.” Ansel pushed one of the doors open. “Take your time. I’ll see to it that your things are brought to our room. When you’re done, just ask an acolyte to take you there. Dinner isn’t for a few hours; I’ll come by the room then.”
Celaena gave her a long look. The idea of Ansel—or anyone—handling the weapons and gear she’d left at the gate wasn’t appealing. Not that she had anything to hide—though she did cringe inwardly at the thought of the guards pawing at her undergarments as they searched her bag. Her taste for very expensive and very delicate underwear wouldn’t do much for her reputation.
But she was here at their mercy, and her letter of approval depended on her good behavior. And good attitude.
So Celaena merely said “Thank you,” before striding past Ansel and into the herb-scented air beyond the doors.
While the fortress had communal baths, they were thankfully separated between men and women, and at that point in the day, the women’s baths were empty.
Hidden by towering palms and date trees sagging with the weight of their fruit, the baths were made from the same sea green and cobalt tiles that had formed the mosaic in the Master’s chamber, kept cool by white awnings jutting out from the walls of the building. There were multiple large pools—some steamed, some bubbled, some steamed and bubbled—but the one Celaena slipped into was utterly calm and clear and cold.
Remembering Ansel’s warning about keeping quiet, Celaena stifled a groan as she submerged herself. She stayed under until her lungs ached. While modesty was a trait she’d learned to live without, she still kept herself low in the water, just in case. Of course, it had nothing to do with the fact that her ribs and arms were still peppered with fading bruises, and that the sight of them made her sick. Sometimes it was sick with anger; other times it was with sadness. Often, it was both. She wanted to go back to Rifthold—to see what had happened to Sam, to resume the life that had splintered in a few agonizing minutes. But she also dreaded it.
At least, here at the edge of the world, that night—and all of Rifthold and the people it contained—seemed very far away.
She stayed in the pool until her hands turned uncomfortably pruny.
Ansel wasn’t in their tiny, rectangular room when Celaena arrived, though someone had unpacked Celaena’s belongings. Aside from her sword and daggers, some undergarments, and a few tunics, she hadn’t brought much—and hadn’t bothered to bring her finer clothing. Which she was grateful for, now that she’d seen how quickly the sand had worn through the bulky clothes the nomad had made her wear.
There were two narrow beds, and it took her a moment to figure out which was Ansel’s. The red stone wall behind it was bare. Aside from the small iron wolf figurine on the bedside table, and a human-sized dummy that must be used to store Ansel’s extraordinary armor, Celaena would have had no idea that she was sharing a room with anyone.
Peeking through Ansel’s chest of drawers was equally futile. Burgundy tunics and black pants, all neatly folded. The only things that offset the monoton
y were several white tunics—garb that many of the men and women had been wearing. Even the undergarments were plain—and folded. Who folded their undergarments? Celaena thought of her enormous closet back home, exploding with color and different fabrics and patterns, all tossed together. Her undergarments, while expensive, usually wound up in a heap in their drawer.
Sam, probably, folded his undergarments. Though, depending on how much of him Arobynn had left intact, he might not even be able to now. Arobynn would never permanently maim her, but Sam might have fared worse. Sam had always been the expendable one.