Celaena took a long breath. “So the people of Terrasen will always know how to find their way home. So they can look up at the sky, no matter where they are, and know Terrasen is forever with them.”
“Do you ever want to return to Terrasen?”
Celaena turned her head to look at Ansel. She hadn’t told her she was from Terrasen. Ansel said, “You talk about Terrasen the way my father used to talk about our land.”
Celaena was about to reply when she caught the word. Used to.
Ansel’s attention remained on the stars. “I lied to the Master when I came here,” she whispered, as if afraid someone else would hear them in the emptiness of the desert. Celaena looked back to the sky. “My father never sent me to train. And there is no Briarcliff, or Briarcliff Hall. There hasn’t been for five years.”
A dozen questions sprung up, but Celaena kept her mouth shut, letting Ansel speak.
“I was twelve,” Ansel said, “when Lord Loch took several territories around Briarcliff, and then demanded we yield to him as well—that we bow to him as High King of the Flatlands. My father refused. He said there was one tyrant already conquering everything east of the mountains—he didn’t want one in the west, too.” Celaena’s blood went cold as she braced herself for what she was certain was coming. “Two weeks later, Lord Loch marched into our land with his men, seizing our villages, our livelihood, our people. And when he got to Briarcliff Hall . . .”
Ansel drew a shuddering breath. “When he arrived at Briarcliff Hall, I was in the kitchen. I saw them from the window and hid in a cupboard as Loch walked in. My sister and father were upstairs, and Loch stayed in the kitchen as his men brought them down and . . . I didn’t dare make a sound as Lord Loch made my father watch as he . . .” She stumbled, but forced it out, spitting it as if it were poison. “My father begged on his hands and knees, but Loch still made my father watch as he slit my sister’s throat, then his. And I just hid there, even as they killed our servants, too. I hid there and did nothing.”
“And when they were gone, I took my father’s sword from his corpse and ran. I ran and ran until I couldn’t run anymore, at the foothills of the White Fang Mountains. And that’s when I collapsed at the campfire of a witch—one of the Ironteeth. I didn’t care if she killed me. But she told me that it was not my fate to die there. That I should journey south, to the Silent Assassins in the Red Desert, and there . . . there I would find my fate. She fed me, and bound my bleeding feet, and gave me gold—gold that I later used to commission my armor—then sent me on my way.”
Ansel wiped at her eyes. “So I’ve been here ever since, training for the day when I’m strong enough and fast enough to return to Briarcliff and take back what is mine. Someday, I’ll march into High King Loch’s hall and repay him for what he did to my family. With my father’s sword.” Her hand grazed the wolf-head hilt. “This sword will end his life. Because this sword is all I have left of them.”
Celaena hadn’t realized she was crying until she tried to take a deep breath. Saying that she was sorry didn’t feel adequate. She knew what this sort of loss was like, and words didn’t do anything at all.
Ansel slowly turned to look at her, her eyes lined with silver. She traced Celaena’s cheekbone, where the bruises had once been. “Where do men find it in themselves to do such monstrous things? How do they find it acceptable?”
“We’ll make them pay for it in the end.” Celaena grasped Ansel’s hand. The girl squeezed back hard. “We’ll see to it that they pay.”
“Yes.” Ansel shifted her gaze back to the stars. “Yes, we will.”
Celaena and Ansel knew their little escapade with the Asterion horses would have consequences. Celaena had at least expected to have enough time to tell a decent lie about how they acquired the horses. But when they returned to the fortress and found Mikhail waiting, along with three other assassins, she knew that word of their stunt had somehow already reached the Master.
She kept her mouth shut as she and Ansel knelt at the foot of the Master’s dais, heads bowed, eyes on the floor. She certainly wouldn’t convince him to train her now.
His receiving chamber was empty today, and each of his steps scraped softly against the floor. She knew he could be silent if he wished. He wanted them to feel the dread of his approach.
And Celaena felt it. She felt each footstep, the phantom bruises on her face throbbing with the memory of Arobynn’s fists. And suddenly, as the memory of that day echoed through her, she remembered the words Sam kept screaming at Arobynn as the King of the Assassins beat her, the words that she somehow had forgotten in the fog of pain: I’ll kill you!
Sam had said it like he meant it. He’d bellowed it. Again and again and again.
The clear, unexpected memory was almost jarring enough for her to forget where she was—but then the snow-white robes of the Master came into view. Her mouth went dry.
“We just wanted to have some fun,” Ansel said quietly. “We can return the horses.”
Celaena, eyes still lowered, glanced toward Ansel. She was staring up at the Master as he towered over them. “I’m sorry,” Celaena murmured, wishing she could convey it with her hands, too. Though silence might have been preferable, she needed him to hear her apology.
The Master just stood there, disapproval written all over his face.
Ansel was the first to break under his stare. She sighed. “I know it was foolish. But there’s nothing to worry about. I can handle Lord Berick; I’ve been handling him for ages.”
There was enough bitterness in her words that Celaena’s brows rose slightly. Perhaps his refusal to train her wasn’t easy for Ansel to bear. She was never outright competitive about getting the Master’s attention, but . . . After so many years of living here, being stuck as the mediator between the Master and Berick didn’t exactly seem like the sort of glory Ansel was interested in. Celaena certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed it.
The Master’s clothes whispered as they moved, and Celaena flinched when she felt his calloused fingers hook under her chin. He lifted her face so she was forced to look at him, his face lined with disapproval. She remained perfectly still, bracing herself for the strike, already praying he wouldn’t damage her too significantly. But then the Master’s sea-green eyes narrowed ever so slightly, his head cocking, and he gave her a sad smile as he released her.
Her face burned. He hadn’t been about to hit her. He’d wanted her to look at him, to tell him her side of the story. But even if he wasn’t going to strike her, he still might punish them. And if he kicked out Ansel for what they’d done . . . Ansel needed to be here, to learn all that these assassins could teach her, because Ansel wanted to do something with her life. Ansel had a purpose. And Celaena . . .
“It was my idea,” Celaena blurted, her words too loud in the empty chamber. “I didn’t feel like walking back here, and I thought it would be useful to have horses. And when I saw the Asterion mares . . . I thought we might as well travel in style.” She gave him a shaky half grin, and the Master’s brows rose as he looked between them. For a long, long moment, he just watched them.
Whatever he saw on Ansel’s face suddenly made him nod. Ansel quickly bowed her head. “Before you decide on a punishment . . .” She turned to Celaena, then looked back at the Master. “Since we like horses so much, maybe we could . . . be on stable duty? For the morning shift. Until Celaena leaves.”
Celaena almost choked, but she schooled her features into neutrality.
A faint glimmer of amusement shone in his eyes, and he considered Ansel’s words for a moment. Then he nodded again. Ansel loosened a breath. “Thank you for your lenience,” she said. The Master just glanced toward the doors behind them. They were dismissed.
Ansel got to her feet, and Celaena followed suit. But as Celaena turned, the Master
grabbed her arm. Ansel paused to watch as the Master made a few motions with his hand. When he finished, Ansel’s brows rose. He repeated the motions again—slower, pointing to Celaena repeatedly. When it seemed she was certain she understood him, Ansel turned to Celaena.
“You’re to report to him at sunset tomorrow. For your first lesson.”
Celaena bit back her sigh of relief, and gave the Master a genuine grin. He returned a hint of a smile. She bowed deeply, and couldn’t stop smiling as she and Ansel left the hall and headed to the stables. She had three and a half weeks left—that would be more than enough time to get that letter.
Whatever he had seen in her face, whatever she had said . . . somehow, she’d proven herself to him at last.
It turned out that they weren’t just responsible for shoveling horse dung. Oh, no—they were responsible for cleaning the pens of all the four-legged livestock in the fortress, a task that took them from breakfast until noon. At least they did it in the morning, before the afternoon heat really made the smell atrocious.
Another benefit was that they didn’t have to go running. Though after four hours of shoveling animal droppings, Celaena would have begged to take the six-mile run instead.
Anxious as she was to be out of the stables, she couldn’t contain her growing trepidation as the sun arced across the sky, heading toward sunset. She didn’t know what to expect; even Ansel had no idea what the Master might have in mind. They spent the afternoon sparring as usual—with each other, and with whatever assassins wandered into the shade of the open-air training courtyard. And when the sun finally hovered near the horizon, Ansel gave Celaena a squeeze on the shoulder and sent her to the Master’s hall.
But the Master wasn’t in his receiving hall, and when she ran into Ilias, he just gave her his usual smile and pointed toward the roof. After taking a few staircases and then climbing a wooden ladder and squeezing through a hatch in the ceiling, she found herself in the open air, high atop the fortress.
The Master stood by the parapet, gazing across the desert. She cleared her throat, but he remained with his back to her.