“Perhaps,” was all Celaena said. The merchant nodded, not all that interested in it anymore. But Celaena tucked the information away for later. Were some of the Silent Assassins actually working for Berick? Perhaps that was why Ansel had insisted on keeping the meeting so secret—maybe the Master didn’t want the names of the suspected traitors getting out.
“So?” the merchant asked. “Will you retrieve my lost years for me?”
She bit her lip, thoughts of spies instantly fading away. To journey into the depths of the Ruhnn Mountains, to slay a stygian spider! She could certainly see herself battling the eight-legged monstrosities. And witches! Though after Ansel’s story, meeting a witch—especially one belonging to the Ironteeth Clans—was the last thing she ever wanted to do. For a heartbeat, she wished Sam were with her. Even if she told him about this encounter, he’d never believe her. But would anyone ever believe her?
As if he could read her daydreams, he said: “I could make you rich beyond your wildest imaginings.”
“I’m already rich. And I’m unavailable until the end of the summer.”
“I won’t be back from the southern continents for at least a year, anyway,” he countered.
She examined his face, the gleam in his eyes. Adventure and glory aside, anyone who’d sell twenty years of his life for a fortune couldn’t be trusted. But . . .
“The next time you’re in Rifthold,” she said slowly, “seek out Arobynn Hamel.” The man’s eyes widened. She wondered how he’d react if he knew who she was. “He’ll know where to find me.” She turned from the table.
“But what’s your name?”
She looked over her shoulder. “He’ll know where to find me,” she repeated, and began walking back toward the stall with the pointed shoes.
“Wait!” She paused in time to see him fumbling with the folds of his tunic. “Here.” He set down a plain wooden box on the table. “A reminder.”
Celaena flipped open the lid and her breath caught. A folded bit of woven Spidersilk lay inside, no larger than six square inches. She could buy ten horses with it. Not that she’d ever sell it. No, this was an heirloom to be passed down from generation to generation. If she ever had children. Which seemed highly unlikely.
“A reminder of what?” She shut the lid and tucked the small box into the inner pocket of her white tunic.
The merchant smiled sadly. “That everything has a price.”
A phantom pain flashed through her face. “I know,” she said, and left.
She wound up buying the shoes, though it was nearly impossible to pass over the lilac perfume, which smelled even more lovely the second time she approached the priestesses’ stall. When the city bells pealed three o’clock, she was sitting on the lip of the fountain, munching on what she hoped was mashed beans inside a warm bread pocket.
Ansel was fifteen minutes late, and didn’t apologize. She merely grabbed Celaena’s arm and began leading her through the still-packed streets, her freckled face gleaming with sweat.
“What is it?” Celaena asked. “What happened in your meeting?”
“That’s none of your business,” Ansel said a bit sharply. Then she added, “Just follow me.”
They wound up sneaking inside the Lord of Xandria’s palace walls, and Celaena knew better than to ask questions as they crept across the grounds. But they didn’t head to the towering central building. No—they approached the stables, where they slipped around the guards and entered the pungent shadows within.
“There had better be a good reason for this,” Celaena warned as Ansel crept toward a pen.
“Oh, there is,” she hissed back, and stopped at a gate, waving Celaena forward.
Celaena approached and frowned. “It’s a horse.” But even as the words left her mouth, she knew it wasn’t.
“It’s an Asterion horse,” Ansel breathed, her red-brown eyes growing huge.
The horse was black as pitch, with dark eyes that bored into Celaena’s own. She’d heard of Asterion horses, of course. The most ancient breed of horse in Erilea. Legend claimed that the Fae had made them from the four winds—spirit from the north, strength from the south, speed from the east, and wisdom from the west, all rolled into the slender-snouted, high-tailed, lovely creature that stood before her.
“Have you ever seen anything so beautiful?” Ansel whispered. “Her name is Hisli.” Mares, Celaena remembered, were more prized, as Asterion pedigrees were traced through the female line. “And that one,” Ansel said, pointing to the next stall, “is named Kasida—it means ‘drinker of the wind’ in the desert dialect.”
Kasida’s name was fitting. The slender mare was a dapple gray, with a sea-foam white mane and thundercloud coat. She huffed and stomped her forelegs, staring at Celaena with eyes that seemed older than the earth itself. Celaena suddenly understood why the Asterion horses were worth their weight in gold.
“Lord Berick got them today. Bought them from a merchant on his way to Banjali.” Ansel slipped into Hisli’s pen. She cooed and murmured, stroking the horse’s muzzle. “He’s planning on testing them out in half an hour.” That explained why they were already saddled.
“And?” Celaena whispered, holding out a hand for Kasida to smell. The mare’s nostrils flared, her velvety nose tickling Celaena’s fingertips.
“And then he’s either going to give them away as a bribe, or lose interest and let them languish here for the rest of their lives. Lord Berick tends to tire of his playthings rather quickly.”
“What a waste.”
“Indeed it is,” Ansel muttered from inside the stall. Celaena lowered her fingers from Kasida’s muzzle and peered into Hisli’s pen. Ansel was running a hand down Hisli’s black flank, her face still full of wonder. Then she turned. “Are you a strong rider?”
“Of course,” Celaena said slowly.
Celaena bit down on her cry of alarm as Ansel unlocked the stall door a
nd guided Hisli out of her pen. In a smooth, quick motion, the girl was atop the horse, clutching the reins in one hand. “Because you’re going to have to ride like hell.”
With that, Ansel sent Hisli into a gallop, heading straight for the stable doors.
Celaena didn’t have time to gape or really even to process what she was about to do as she unlocked Kasida’s pen, yanked her out, and heaved herself into the saddle. With a muffled curse, she dug her heels into the mare’s sides and took off.
The guards didn’t know what was happening until the horses had already rushed past them in a blur of black and gray, and they were through the main palace gate before the guards’ cries finished echoing. Ansel’s red hair shone like a beacon as she broke for the side exit from the city, people leaping aside to let them pass.
Celaena looked back through the crowded streets only once—and that was enough to see the three mounted guards charging after them, shouting.
But the girls were already through the city gate and into the sea of red dunes that spread beyond, Ansel riding as if the denizens of hell were behind her. Celaena could only race after her, doing her best to keep in the saddle.
Kasida moved like thunder and turned with the swiftness of lightning. The mare was so fast that Celaena’s eyes watered in the wind. The three guards, astride ordinary horses, were still far off, but not nearly far enough for comfort. In the vastness of the Red Desert, Celaena had no choice but to follow Ansel.
Celaena clung to Kasida’s mane as they took dune after dune, up and down, down and up, until there was only the red sand and the cloudless sky and the rumble of hooves, hooves, hooves rolling through the world.
Ansel slowed enough for Celaena to catch up, and they galloped along the broad, flat top of a dune.
“Are you out of your damned mind?” Celaena shouted.