She kept close to Ansel as they walked along, the red-haired girl weaving through the crowd with a kind of casual grace that Celaena, despite herself, envied. No matter how many people shoved into Ansel, or stepped in her path, or cursed her for stepping in theirs, she didn’t falter, and her boyish grin only grew. Many people stopped to stare at her red hair and matching eyes, but Ansel took it in her stride. Even without her armor, she was stunning. Celaena tried not to think about how few people bothered to notice her.
With the bodies and the heat, Celaena was oozing sweat by the time Ansel stopped near the edge of the souk. “I’m going to be a couple hours,” Ansel said, and waved a long, elegant hand to the sandstone palace hovering above the small city. “The old bore likes to talk and talk and talk. Why don’t you do some shopping?”
Celaena straightened. “I’m not going with you?”
“Into Berick’s palace? Of course not. It’s the Master’s business.”
Celaena felt her nostrils flare. Ansel clapped her on the shoulder. “Believe me, you’d much rather spend the next few hours in the souk than waiting in the stables with Berick’s men leering at you. Unlike us”—Ansel flashed that grin—“they don’t have access to baths whenever they please.”
Ansel kept glancing at the palace, still a few blocks away. Nervous that she’d be late? Or nervous that she was going to confront Berick on behalf of the Master? Ansel brushed the remnants of red sand from the layers of her white clothes. “I’ll meet you at that fountain at three. Try not to get into too much trouble.”
And with that, Ansel vanished into the press of bodies, her red hair gleaming like a hot brand. Celaena contemplated trailing her. Even if she was an outsider, why let her accompany Ansel on the journey if she was just going to have to sit outside? What could be so important and secret that Ansel wouldn’t allow her to partake in the meeting? Celaena took a step toward the palace, but passing people jostled her to and fro, and then a vendor began cooking something that smelled divine, and Celaena found herself following her nose instead.
She spent the two hours wandering from vendor to vendor. She cursed herself for not bringing more money with her. In Rifthold, she had a line of credit at all her favorite stores, and never had to bother carrying money, aside from small coppers and the occasional silver coin for tips and bribes. But here . . . well, the pouch of silver she’d brought felt rather light.
The souk wound through every street, great and small, down narrow stairways and onto half-buried alleys that had to have been there for a thousand years. Ancient doors opened onto small courtyards jammed with spice vendors or a hundred lanterns, glittering like stars in the shadowy interior. For such a remote city, Xandria was teeming with life.
She was standing under the striped awning of a vendor from the southern continent, debating if she had enough to buy the pair of curled-toe shoes before her and the lilac perfume she’d smelled at a wagon owned by white-haired maidens. The maidens claimed they were the priestesses of Lani, the goddess of dreams—and perfume, apparently.
Celaena ran a finger down the emerald silk thread embroidered on the delicate shoes, tracing the curve of the point as it swept upward and curled over the shoe itself. They’d certainly be eye-catching in Rifthold. And no one else in the capital would have them. Though, in the filthy city streets, these would easily get ruined.
She reluctantly put the shoes down, and the vendor raised his brows. She shook her head, a rueful smile on her face. The man held up seven fingers—one less than the original asking price, and she chewed on her lip, signing back, “Six coppers?”
The man spat on the ground. Seven coppers. Seven coppers was laughably cheap.
She looked at the souk around her, then back at the beautiful shoes. “I’ll come back later,” she lied, and with one final, mournful glance, she continued along. The man began shouting after her in a language she’d never heard before, undoubtedly offering the shoes for six coppers, but she forced herself to keep walking. Besides, her pack was heavy enough; lugging the shoes around would just be an additional burden. Even if they were lovely and different and not that heavy. And the thread detailing along the sides was as precise and beautiful as calligraphy. And really, she could just wear them inside, so she—
She was about to turn around and walk right back to the vendor when something glistening in the shadows beneath an archway between buildings caught her eye. There were a few hired guards standing around the covered wagon, and a tall, lean man stood behind the table displayed in front of it. But it wasn’t the guards or the man or his wagon that grabbed her attention.
No, it was what was on his table that knocked the breath from her and made her curse her too-light money purse.
There were legends about the horse-sized stygian spiders that lurked in the woods of the Ruhnn Mountains of the north, spinning their thread for hefty costs. Some said they offered it in exchange for human flesh; others claimed the spiders dealt in years and dreams, and could take either as payment. Regardless, the thread was as delicate as gossamer, lovelier than silk, and stronger than steel. And she’d never seen so much of it before.
It was so rare that if you wanted it, odds were you had to go and get it for yourself. But here it was, yards of raw material waiting to be shaped. It was a kingdom’s ransom.
“You know,” the merchant said in the common tongue, taking in Celaena’s wide-eyed stare, “you’re the first person today to recognize it for what it is.”
“I’d know what that is even if I were blind.” She approached the table, but didn’t dare to touch the sheets of iridescent fabric. “But what are you doing here? Surely you can’t get much business in Xandria.”
The man chuckled. He was middle-aged, with close-cropped brown hair and midnight-blue eyes that seemed haunted, though they now sparkled with amusement. “I might also ask what a girl from the North is doing in Xandria.” His gaze flicked to the daggers tucked into the brown belt slung across her white clothes. “And with such beautiful weapons.”
She gave him a half smile. “At least your eye is worthy of your wares.”
“I try.” He sketched a bow, then beckoned her closer. “So, tell me, girl from the North, when have you seen Spidersilk?”
She clenched her fingers into fists to keep from touching the priceless material. “I know a courtesan in Rifthold whose madam had a handkerchief made from it—given to her by an extraordinarily wealthy client.”
And that handkerchief had probably cost more than most peasants made in a lifetime.
“That was a kingly gift. She must have been skilled.”
“She didn’t become madam of the finest courtesans in Rifthold for nothing.”
The merchant let out a low laugh. “So if you associate with the finest courtesans in Rifthold, then what brings you to this bit of desert scrub?”
She shrugged. “This and that.” In the dim light beneath the canopy, the Spidersilk still glittered like the surface of the sea. “But I would like to know how you came across so much of this. Did you buy it, or find the stygian spiders on your own?”
He traced a finger down the plane of fabric. “I went there myself. What else is there to know?” His midnight eyes darkened. “In the depths of the Ruhnn Mountains, everything is a labyrinth of mist and trees and shadows. So you don’t find the stygian spiders—they find you.”
Celaena stuffed her hands in her pockets to keep from touching the Spidersilk. Though her fingers were clean, there were still grains of red sand under her nails. “So why are you here, then?”
“My ship to the southern continent doesn’t leave for two days; why not set up shop? Xandria might not be Rifthold, but you never know who might approach your stall.” He winked at her. “How old are you, anyway?”
She raised her chin. “I turned seventeen two weeks ago.” And what a miserable birthday that had been! Trudging across the desert with no one to celebrate with except her recalcitrant guide, who just patted her shoulder
when she announced it was her birthday. Horrible.
“Not much younger than me,” he said. She chuckled, but paused when she didn’t find him smiling.
“And how old are you?” she asked. There was no mistaking it—he had to be at least forty. Even if his hair wasn’t sprinkled with silver, his skin was weathered.
“Twenty-five,” he said. She gave a start. “I know. Shocking.”
The yards of Spidersilk lifted in a breeze from the nearby sea.
“Everything has a price,” he said. “Twenty years for two hundred yards of Spidersilk. I thought they meant to take them off the end of my life. But even if they’d warned me, I would have said yes.” She eyed the caravan behind him. This much Spidersilk was enough to enable him to live what years he had left as a very, very wealthy man.
“Why not take it to Rifthold?”
“Because I’ve seen Rifthold, and Orynth, and Banjali. I’d like to see what two hundred yards of Spidersilk might fetch me outside of Adarlan’s empire.”
“Is there anything to be done about the years you lost?”
He waved a hand. “I followed the western side of the mountains on my way here, and met an old witch along the way. I asked if she could fix me, but she said what was taken was taken, and only the death of the spider who consumed my twenty years could return them to me.” He examined his hands, already lined with age. “For a copper more, she told me that only a great warrior could slay a stygian spider. The greatest warrior in the land . . . Though perhaps an assassin from the North might do.”
“How did you—”
“You can’t honestly think no one knows about the sessiz suikast? Why else would a seventeen-year-old girl bearing exquisite daggers be here unescorted? And one who holds such fine company in Rifthold, no less. Are you here to spy for Lord Berick?”
Celaena did her best to quell her surprise. “Pardon me?”
The merchant shrugged, glancing toward the towering palace. “I heard from a city guard that strange dealings go on between Berick and some of the Silent Assassins.”