“You’re Ilias, and I’m Celaena.” She put a hand on her own chest. Then she took his extended hand and shook it. “It’s nice to meet you.”
His eyes were vivid in the torchlight, his hand firm and warm around hers. She let go of his fingers. The son of the Mute Master and the protégée of the King of the Assassins. If there was anyone here that was at all similar to her, she realized, it was Ilias. Rifthold might be her realm, but this was his. And from the easy way he carried himself, from the way she’d seen his companions gazing at him with admiration and respect, she could tell that he was utterly at home here—as if this place had been made for him, and he never needed to question his spot in it. A strange sort of envy wended its way through her heart.
Ilias suddenly began making a series of motions with his long, tan fingers, but Celaena laughed softly. “I have no idea what you’re trying to say.”
Ilias looked skyward and sighed through his nose. Throwing his hands in the air in mock defeat, he merely patted her on the shoulder before passing by—following his father, who had disappeared down the hall.
Though she walked back toward her room—in the other direction—she didn’t once believe that the son of the Mute Master wasn’t still watching her, making sure she wasn’t going to follow his father.
Not that you have anything to worry about, she wanted to shout over her shoulder. She couldn’t run six measly miles in the desert.
As she walked back to her room, Celaena had a horrible feeling that here, being Adarlan’s Assassin might not count for much.
Later that night, when she and Ansel were both in their beds, Ansel whispered into the darkness: “Tomorrow will be better. It might be only a foot more than today, but it will be a foot longer that you can run.”
That was easy enough for Ansel to say. She didn’t have a reputation to uphold—a reputation that might be crumbling around her. Celaena stared at the ceiling, suddenly homesick, strangely wishing Sam was with her. At least if she were to fail, she’d fail with him.
“So,” Celaena said suddenly, needing to get her mind off of everything—especially Sam. “You and Mikhail . . .”
Ansel groaned. “It’s that obvious? Though I suppose we don’t really make that much of an effort to hide it. Well, I try, but he doesn’t. He was rather irritated when he found out I suddenly had a roommate.”
“How long have you been seeing him?”
Ansel was silent for a long moment before answering. “Since I was fifteen.”
Fifteen! Mikhail was in his mid-twenties, so even if this had started almost three years ago, he still would have been far older than Ansel. It made her a little queasy.
“Girls in the Flatlands are married as early as fourteen,” Ansel said.
Celaena choked. The idea of being anyone’s wife at fourteen, let alone a mother soon after . . . “Oh,” was all she managed to get out.
When Celaena didn’t say anything else, Ansel drifted into sleep. With nothing else to distract her, Celaena eventually returned to thinking about Sam. Even weeks later, she had no idea how she’d somehow gotten attached to him, what he’d been shouting when Arobynn beat her, and why Arobynn had thought he’d need three seasoned assassins to restrain him that day.
Though Celaena didn’t want to admit it, Ansel was right. She did run farther the next day. And the day after that, and the one following that. But it still took her so long to get back that she didn’t have time to seek out the Master. Not that she could. He’d send for her. Like a lackey!
She did manage to find some time late in the afternoon to attend drills with Ansel. The only guidance she received there was from a few older-looking assassins who positioned her hands and feet, tapped her stomach, and slapped her spine into the correct posture. Occasionally, Ilias would train alongside her, never too close, but close enough for her to know his presence was more than coincidental.
Like the assassins in Adarlan, the Silent Assassins weren’t known for any skill in particular—save the uncannily quiet way they moved. Their weapons were mostly the same, though their bows and blades were slightly different in length and shape. But just watching them—it seemed that there was a good deal less . . . viciousness here.
Arobynn encouraged cutthroat behavior. Even when they were children, he’d set her and Sam against each other, use their victories and failures against them. He’d made her see everyone but Arobynn and Ben as a potential enemy. As allies, yes, but also as foes to be closely watched. Weakness was never to be shown at any cost. Brutality was rewarded. And education and culture were equally important—words could be just as deadly as steel.
But the Silent Assassins . . . Though they, too, might be killers, they looked to each other for learning. Embraced collective wisdom. Older warriors smiled as they taught the acolytes; seasoned assassins swapped techniques. And while they were all competitors, it appeared that an invisible link bound them together. Something had brought them to this place at the ends of the earth. More than a few, she discovered, were actually mute from birth. But all of them seemed full of secrets. As if the fortress and what it offered somehow held the answers they sought. As if they could find whatever they were looking for in the silence.
Still, even as they corrected her posture and showed her new ways to control her breathing, she tried her best not to snarl at them. She knew plenty—she wasn’t Adarlan’s Assassin for nothing. But she needed that letter of good behavior as proof of her training. These people might all be called upon by the Mute Master to give an opinion of her. Perhaps if she demonstrated that she was good enough in these practices, the Master might take notice of her.
She’d get that letter. Even if she had to hold a dagger to his throat while he wrote it.
The attack by Lord Berick happened on her fifth night. There was no moon, and Celaena had no idea how the Silent Assassins spotted the thirty or so soldiers creeping across the dark dunes. Mikhail had burst into their room and whispered to come to the fortress battlements. Hopefully, this would turn out to be another opportunity to prove herself to the Master. With just over three weeks left, she was running out of options. But the Master wasn’t at the battlements. And neither were many of the assassins. She heard a woman question another, asking how Berick’s men had known that a good number of the assassins would be away that night, busy escorting some foreign dignitaries back to the nearest port. It was too convenient to be coincidental.
Crouched atop the parapet, an arrow nocked into her bow, Celaena peered through one of the crenels in the wall. Ansel, squatting beside her, also twisted to look. Up and down the battlements, assassins hid in the shadow of the wall, clothed in black and with bows in hand. At the center of the wall, Ilias knelt, his hands moving quickly as he conveyed orders down the line. It seemed more like the silent language of soldiers than the basic gestures used to represent the common tongue.
“Get your arrow ready,” Ansel murmured, dipping her cloth-covered arrow tip into the small bowl of oil between them. “When Ilias gives the signal, light it on the torch as fast as you can and fire. Aim for the ridge in the sand just below the soldiers.”
Celaena glanced into the darkness beyond the wall. Rather than give themselves away by extinguishing the lights of the fortress, the defenders had kept them on—which made focusing in the dark nearly impossible. But she could still make out the shapes against the starlit sky—thirty men on their stomachs, poised to do whatever they had planned. Attack the assassins outright, murder them in their sleep, burn the place to the ground . . .
“We’re not going to kill them?” Celaena whispered back. She weighed the weapon in her hands. The bow of the Silent Assassins was different—shorter, thicker, harder to bend.
Ansel shook her head, watching Ilias down the line. “No, though I wish we could.” Celaena didn’t particularly care for the casual way she said it, but Ansel went on. “We don’t want to start an all-out battle with Lord Berick. We just need to scare them off. Mikhail and Ilias
rigged that ridge last week; the line in the sand is a rope soaking in a trough of oil.”
Celaena was beginning to see where this was going. She dipped her arrow into the dish of oil, drenching the cloth around it thoroughly. “That’s going to be a long wall of fire,” she said, following the course of the ridge.
“You have no idea. It stretches around the whole fortress.” Ansel straightened, and Celaena glanced over her shoulder just in time to see Ilias’s arm make a neat, slicing motion.
Instantly, they were on their feet. Ansel reached the torch in the nearby bracket before Celaena did, and was at the battlements a heartbeat later. Swift as lightning.
Celaena nearly dropped her bow as she swiped her arrow through the flame and heat bit at her fingers. Lord Berick’s men started shouting, and over the crackle of the ignited arrows, Celaena heard twangs as the soldiers fired their own ammunition.
But Celaena was already at the wall, wincing as she drew the burning arrow back far enough for it to singe her fingers. She fired.
Like a wave of shooting stars, their flaming arrows went up, up, up, then dropped. But Celaena didn’t have time to see the ring of fire erupt between the soldiers and the fortress. She ducked against the wall, throwing her hands over her head. Beside her, Ansel did the same.
Light burst all around them, and the roar of the wall of flame drowned out the hollering of Lord Berick’s men. Black arrows rained from the sky, ricocheting off the stones of the battlements. Two or three assassins grunted, swallowing their screams, but Celaena kept her head low, holding her breath until the last of the enemy’s arrows had fallen.
When there was nothing but the muffled moaning of the injured assassins and the crackling of the wall of fire, Celaena dared to look at Ansel. The girl’s eyes were bright. “Well,” Ansel breathed, “wasn’t that fun?”
Celaena grinned, her heart racing. “Yes.” Pivoting, she spied Lord Berick’s men fleeing back across the dunes. “Yes, it was.”
Near dawn, when Celaena and Ansel were back in their room, a soft knock sounded. Ansel was instantly on her feet, and opened the door only wide enough for Celaena to spy Mikhail on the other side. He handed Ansel a sealed scroll. “You’re to go to Xandria today and give him this.” Celaena saw Ansel’s shoulders tense. “Master’s orders,” he added.
She couldn’t see Ansel’s face as she nodded, but Celaena could have sworn Mikhail brushed her cheek before he turned away. Ansel let out a long breath and shut the door. In the growing light of predawn, Celaena saw Ansel wipe the sleep from her eyes. “Care to join me?”