“Run?” Celaena’s throat dried up at the thought of it. All around them, assassins—mostly the children, plus a few others a bit older than her—began running for the dunes, their buckets clacking along.
“Don’t tell me the infamous Celaena Sardothien can’t run three miles!”
“If you’ve been here for so many years, doesn’t the three miles seem like nothing now?”
Ansel rolled her neck like a cat stretching out in the sun. “Of course it does. But the running keeps me in shape. You think I was just born with these legs?” Celaena ground her teeth as Ansel gave her a fiendish grin. She’d never met anyone who smiled and winked so much.
Ansel began jogging, leaving the shade of the date trees overhead, kicking up a wave of red sand behind her. She glanced over her shoulder. “If you walk, it’ll take all day! And then you’ll certainly never impress anyone!” Ansel pulled her scarf over her nose and mouth and took off at a gallop.
Taking a deep breath, cursing Arobynn to hell, Celaena hooked the buckets onto the yoke and ran.
If it had been three flat miles, even three miles up grassy knolls, she might have made it. But the dunes were enormous and unwieldy, and Celaena made it one measly mile before she had to slow to a walk, her lungs near to combusting. It was easy enough to find the way—the dozens of footprints from the people racing ahead of her showed her where she needed to go.
She ran when she could and walked when she couldn’t, but the sun rose higher and higher, toward that dangerous noontime peak. Up one hill, down the other. One foot in front of the next. Bright flashes flitted across her vision, and her head pounded.
The red sand shimmered, and she draped her arms over the yoke. Her lips became filmy, cracking in places, and her tongue turned leaden in her mouth.
Each step made her head throb, and the sun rose higher and higher . . .
One more dune. Just one more dune.
But many more dunes later, she was still trudging along, following the smattering of footprints in the sand. Had she somehow tracked the wrong group?
Even as she thought it, assassins appeared atop the dune before her, already running back to the fortress, their buckets heavy with water.
She kept her head high as they passed her, and didn’t look any of them in the face. Most of them didn’t bother looking at her, though a few spared her a mortifyingly pitying glance. Their clothes were sodden.
She crested a dune so steep she had to use one hand to brace herself, and just when she was about to sink to her knees atop it, she heard splashing.
A small oasis, mostly just trees and a giant pool fed by a shimmering stream, was barely an eighth of a mile away.
She was Adarlan’s Assassin—at least she’d made it here.
In the shallows of the pool, many disciples splashed or bathed or just sat, cooling themselves. No one spoke—and hardly anyone gestured. Another of the Absolutely Silent places, then. She spotted Ansel with her feet in the water, tossing dates into her mouth. None of the others paid Celaena any heed. And for once, she was glad. Perhaps she should have found a way to defy Arobynn’s order and come here under an alias.
Ansel saw her and waved her over. If she gave her one look that hinted at her being so slow . . .
But Ansel merely held up a date, offering it to her.
Celaena, trying to control her panting, didn’t bother taking the date as she strode into the cool water until she was completely submerged.
Celaena drank an entire bucket before she was even halfway back to the fortress, and by the time she reached the sandstone complex and its glorious shade, she’d consumed all of the second.
At dinner, Ansel didn’t mention that it’d taken Celaena a long, long while to return. Celaena had had to wait in the shade of the palms until later in the afternoon to leave—and wound up walking the whole way back. She’d reached the fortress near dusk. A whole day spent “running.”
“Don’t look so glum,” Ansel whispered, taking a forkful of those delightful spiced grains. She was wearing her armor again. “You know what happened my first day out there?”
Some of the assassins seated at the long table gave knowing grins.
Ansel swallowed and braced her arms on the table. Even the gauntlets of her armor were delicately engraved with a wolf motif. “My first run, I collapsed. Mile two. Completely unconscious. Ilias found me on his way back and carried me here. In his arms and everything.” Ilias’s eyes met with Celaena’s, and he smiled at her. “If I hadn’t been about to die, I would have been swooning,” Ansel finished and the others grinned, some of them laughing silently.
Celaena blushed, suddenly too aware of Ilias’s attention, and took a sip from her cup of lemon water. As the meal wore on, her blush remained as Ilias continued flicking his eyes toward her.
She tried not to preen too much. But then she remembered how miserably she’d performed today—how she hadn’t even gotten a chance to train—and the swagger died a bit.
She kept an eye on the Master, who dined at the center of the room, safely ensconced within rows of his deadly assassins. He sat at a table of acolytes, whose eyes were so wide that Celaena could only assume his presence at their table was an unexpected surprise.
She waited and waited for him to stand, and when he did, Celaena made her best attempt to look casual as she, too, stood and bid everyone goodnight. As she turned away, she noticed that Mikhail took Ansel’s hand and held it in the shadows beneath the table.
The Master was just leaving the hall when she caught up to him. With everyone still eating, the torch-lit halls were empty. She took a loud step, unsure if he’d appreciate if she tried being mute, and how, exactly, to address him.
The Master paused, his white clothes rustling around him. He offered her a little smile. Up close, she could certainly see his resemblance to his son. There was a pale line around one of his fingers—perhaps where a wedding ring had once been. Who was Ilias’s mother?
Of course, it wasn’t at all the time for questions like that. Ansel had told her to try to impress him—to make him think she wanted to be here. Perhaps silence would work. But how to communicate what needed to be said? She gave him her best smile, even though her heart raced, and began making a series of motions, mostly just her best impression of running with the yoke, and a lot of shaking her head and frowning that she hoped he’d take to mean “I came here to train with you, not with the others.”
The Master nodded, as if he already knew. Celaena swallowed, her mouth still tasting of those spices they used to season their meat. She gestured between the two of them several times, taking a step closer to indicate her wanting to work only with him. She might have been more aggressive with her motions, might have really let her temper and exhaustion get the better of her, but . . . that confounded letter!
The Master shook his head.
Celaena ground her teeth, and tried the gesturing between the two of them again.
He shook his head once
more, and bobbed his hands in the air, as if he were telling her to slow down—to wait. To wait for him to train her.
She reflected the gesture, raising an eyebrow as if to say, “Wait for you?” He nodded. How on earth to ask him “until when?” She exposed her palms, beseeching, doing her best to look confused. Still, she couldn’t keep the irritation from her face. She was only here for a month. How long would she have to wait?
The Master understood her well enough. He shrugged, an infuriatingly casual gesture, and Celaena clenched her jaw. So Ansel had been right—she was to wait for him to send for her. The Master gave her that kind smile and turned on his heel, resuming his walk. She took a step toward him, to beg, to shout, to do whatever her body seized up to do, but someone grabbed her arm.
She whirled, already reaching for her daggers, but found herself looking into Ilias’s sea-green eyes.
He shook his head, his gaze darting from the Master to her and back again. She was not to follow him.
So perhaps Ilias hadn’t paid attention to her out of admiration, but because he didn’t trust her. And why should he? Her reputation didn’t exactly lend itself to trust. He must have followed her out of the hall the moment he saw her trailing his father. Had their positions been reversed—had he been visiting Rifthold—she wouldn’t have dared leave him alone with Arobynn.
“I have no plans to hurt him,” she said softly. But Ilias gave her a half smile, his brows rising as if to ask if she could blame him for being protective of his father.
He slowly released her arm. He wore no weapons at his side, but she had a feeling he didn’t need them. He was tall—taller than Sam, even—and broad-shouldered. Powerfully built, yet not bulky. His smile spread a bit more as he extended his hand toward her. A greeting.
“Yes,” she said, fighting her own smile. “I don’t suppose we’ve been properly introduced.”
He nodded, and put his other hand on his heart. Scars peppered his hand—small, slender scars that suggested years of training with blades.