Celaena started sprinting for the Master’s greeting room, heedless of the noise. Blood and destruction were everywhere. She passed courtyards full of soldiers and assassins, locked in deadly battle.
She was halfway up the stairs to the Master’s room when a soldier came rushing down them, his blade drawn. She ducked the blow for her head and struck low and deep, her long dagger burying itself into his gut. With the heat, the soldiers had forgone metal armor—and their leather armor couldn’t turn a blade made with Adarlanian steel.
She jumped aside as he groaned and tumbled down the steps. She didn’t bother sparing him a final look as she continued her ascent. The upper level was completely silent.
Her breath sharp in her throat, she careened toward the open doors of the greeting room. The two hundred soldiers were meant to destroy the fortress—and provide a distraction. The Master could have been unguarded with everyone focused on the attack. But he was still the Master. How could Ansel expect to best him?
Unless she used that drug on him as well. How else would she be able to disarm him and catch him unawares?
Celaena hurled herself through the open wooden doors and nearly tripped on the body prostrate between them.
Mikhail lay on his back, his throat slit, eyes staring up at the tiled ceiling. Dead. Beside him was Ilias, struggling to rise as he clutched his bleeding belly. Celaena bit back her cry, and Ilias raised his head, blood dripping from his lips. She made to kneel beside him, but he grunted, pointing to the room ahead.
To his father.
The Master lay on his side atop the dais, his eyes open and his robes still unstained by blood. But he had the stillness of one drugged—paralyzed by whatever Ansel had given him.
The girl stood over him, her back to Celaena as she talked, swift and quiet. Babbling. She clenched her father’s sword in one hand, the bloodied blade drooping toward the floor. The Master’s eyes shifted to Celaena’s face, then to his son. They were filled with pain. Not for himself, but for Ilias—for his bleeding boy. He looked back to Celaena’s face, his sea-green eyes now pleading. Save my son.
Ansel took a deep breath and the sword rose in the air, making to slice off the Master’s head.
Celaena had a heartbeat to flip the knife in her hands. She cocked her wrist and let it fly.
The dagger slammed into Ansel’s forearm, exactly where Celaena had aimed. Ansel let out a cry, her fingers splaying. Her father’s sword clattered to the ground. Her face went white with shock as she whirled, clutching the bleeding wound, but the expression shifted into something dark and unyielding as she beheld Celaena. Ansel scrambled for her fallen blade.
But Celaena was already running.
Ansel grabbed her sword, dashing back to the Master and lifting it high over her head. She plunged the sword toward the Master’s neck.
Celaena managed to tackle her before the blade struck, sending them both crashing to the floor. Cloth and steel and bone, twisting and rolling. She brought her legs up high enough to kick Ansel, hard. The girls split apart, and Celaena was on her feet the moment she stopped moving.
But Ansel was already standing, her sword still in her hands, still between Celaena and the paralyzed Master. The blood from Ansel’s arm dripped to the floor.
They panted, and Celaena steadied her reeling head. “Don’t do it,” she breathed.
Ansel let out a low laugh. “I thought I told you to go home.”
Celaena drew the sword from her belt. If only she had a blade like Ansel’s, not some bit of scrap metal! It shook in her hands as she realized who, exactly, stood between her and the Master. Not some nameless soldier, not some stranger, or a person she’d been hired to kill. But Ansel.
“Why?” Celaena whispered.
Ansel cocked her head, raising her sword a bit higher. “Why?” Celaena had never seen anything more hideous than the hate that twisted Ansel’s face. “Because Lord Berick promised me a thousand men to march into the Flatlands, that’s why. Stealing those horses was exactly the public excuse he needed to attack this fortress. And all I had to do was take care of the guards and leave the gate open last night. And bring him this.” She gestured with her sword to the Master behind her. “The Master’s head.” She ran an eye up and down Celaena’s body, and Celaena hated herself for trembling further. “Put down your sword, Celaena.”
Celaena didn’t move. “Go to hell.”
Ansel chuckled. “I’ve been to hell. I spent some time there when I was twelve, remember? And when I march into the Flatlands with Berick’s troops, I’ll see to it that High King Loch sees a bit of hell, too. But first . . .”
She turned to the Master and Celaena sucked in a breath. “Don’t,” Celaena said. From this distance, Ansel would kill him before she could do anything to stop her.
“Just look the other way, Celaena.” Ansel stepped closer to the old man.
“If you touch him, I’ll put this sword through your neck,” Celaena snarled. The words shook, and she blinked away the building moisture in her eyes.
Ansel looked over her shoulder. “I don’t think you will.”
Ansel took another step closer to the Master, and Celaena’s second dagger flew. It grazed the side of Ansel’s armor, leaving a long mark before it clattered to a stop at the foot of the dais.
Ansel paused, giving Celaena a faint smile. “You missed.”
“Don’t do it.”
Celaena put a hand over her heart, tightly gripping her sword with the other. “Because I know what it feels like.” She dared another step. “Because I know how it feels to have that kind of hate, Ansel. I know how it feels. And this isn’t the way. This,” she said louder, gesturing to the fortress and all the corpses in it, all the soldiers and assassins still fighting. “This is not the way.”
“Says the assassin,” Ansel spat.
“I’ve become an assassin because I had no choice. But you have a choice, Ansel. You’ve always had a choice. Please don’t kill him.”
Please don’t make me kill you was what she truly meant to say.
Ansel shut her eyes. Celaena steadied her wrist, testing the balance of her blade, trying to get a sense of its weight. When Ansel opened her eyes, there was little of the girl she’d grown to care for over the past month.
“These men,” Ansel said, her sword rising higher. “These men destroy everything.”
“You know, and yet you do nothing! You’re just a dog chained to your master.” She closed the distance between them, her sword lowering. Celaena almost sagged with relief, but didn’t lighten her grip on her own blade. Ansel’s breathing was ragged. “You could come with me.” She brushed back a strand of Celaena’s hair. “The two of us alone could conquer the Flatlands—and with Lord Berick’s troops . . .” Her hand grazed Celaena’s cheek, and Celaena tried not to recoil at the touch and at the words that came out of Ansel’s mouth. “I would make you my right hand. We’d take the Flatlands back.”
“I can’t,” Celaena answered, even though she could see Ansel’s plan with perfect clarity—even if it was tempting.
Ansel stepped back. “What does Rifthold have that’s so special? How long will you bow and scrape for that monster?”
“I can’t go with you, and you know it. So take your troops and leave, Ansel.”
She watched the expressions flitter across Ansel’s face. Hurt. Denial. Rage.
“So be it,” Ansel said.
She struck, and Celaena only had time to tilt her head to dodge the hidden dagger that shot out of Ansel’s wrist. The blade grazed her cheek, and blood warmed her face. Her face! Of all the places for Ansel to cut her . . .
Ansel swiped with her sword, so close that Celaena had to flip herself backward. She landed on her feet, but Ansel was fast enough and near enough that Celaena could only bring up her blade. Their swords met.
Celaena spun, shoving Ansel’s sword from hers. The force was so strong that Ansel stumbled, and Celaena use
d it to gain the advantage, striking again and again. Ansel met each blow, her superior sword hardly impacted.
They passed the prostrate Master and the dais. Celaena dropped to the ground, swiping at Ansel with a leg. Ansel leapt back, dodging the blow. Celaena used the precious seconds to snatch her fallen dagger from where it lay on the dais steps.
When Ansel struck again, she met the crossed blades of Celaena’s sword and dagger.
Ansel let out a low laugh. “How do you imagine this ending?” She pressed Celaena’s blades. “Or is it a fight to the death?”
Celaena braced her feet against the floor. She’d never known Ansel was so strong—or so much taller than her. And Ansel’s armor—how would she get through that? There was a joint between the armpit and the ribs—and then around her neck . . .
“You tell me,” Celaena said. The blood from her face slid down her throat. “You seem to have everything planned.”