The Assassin and the Desert (Throne of Glass 0.30) - Page 17

“I tried to protect you.” Ansel shoved hard against Celaena’s blades, but not strongly enough to dislodge them. “And you came back anyway.”

“You call that protection? Drugging me and leaving me in the desert?” She’d been fooled and betrayed. Celaena bared her teeth.

But before she could launch another assault, Ansel struck with her free hand, right across the X made by their weapons, her fist slamming between Celaena’s eyes.

Celaena’s head snapped back, the world flashing, and she landed hard on her knees. Her sword and dagger clattered to the floor.

Ansel was on her in a second, her bloodied arm across Celaena’s chest, the other hand pressing the edge of her sword against Celaena’s unmarred cheek.

“Give me one reason not to kill you right here,” Ansel whispered into her ear, kicking away Celaena’s sword. Her fallen dagger still lay near them, just out of reach.

Celaena struggled, trying to put some distance between Ansel’s sword and her face.

“Oh, how vain can you be?” Ansel said, and Celaena winced as the sword dug into her skin. “Afraid I’ll scar your face?” Ansel angled the sword downward, the blade now biting into Celaena’s throat. “What about your neck?”

“Stop it.”

“I didn’t want it to end this way between us. I didn’t want you to be a part of this.”

Celaena believed her. If Ansel wanted to kill her, she would have done it already. If she wanted to kill the Master, she would have done that already, too. And all of this waffling between sadistic hate and passion and regret . . . “You’re insane,” Celaena said.

Ansel snorted.

“Who killed Mikhail?” Celaena demanded. Anything to keep her talking, to keep her focused on herself. Because just a few feet away lay her dagger . . .

“I did,” Ansel said. A little of the fierceness faded from her voice. Her back pressed against Ansel’s chest, Celaena couldn’t be sure without seeing Ansel’s face, but she could have sworn the words were tinged with remorse. “When Berick’s men attacked, I made sure that I was the one who notified the Master; the fool didn’t sniff once at the water jug he drank from before he went to the gates. But then Mikhail figured out what I was doing and burst in here—too late to stop the Master from drinking, though. And then Ilias just . . . got in the way.”

Celaena looked at Ilias, who still lay on the ground—still breathing. The Master watched his son, his eyes wide and pleading. If someone didn’t staunch Ilias’s bleeding, he’d die soon. The Master’s fingers twitched slightly, making a curving motion.

“How many others did you kill?” Celaena asked, trying to keep Ansel distracted as the Master made the motion again. A kind of slow, strange wriggling . . .

“Only them. And the three on the night watch. I let the soldiers do the rest.”

The Master’s finger twisted and slithered . . . like a snake.

One strike—that was all it would take. Just like the asp.

Ansel was fast. Celaena just had to be faster.

“You know what, Ansel?” Celaena breathed, memorizing the motions she’d have to make in the next few seconds, imagining her muscles moving, praying not to falter, to stay focused.

Ansel pressed the edge of the blade into Celaena’s throat. “What, Celaena?”

“You want to know what the Master taught me during all those lessons?”

She felt Ansel tense, felt the question distract her. It was all the opportunity she needed.

“This.” Celaena twisted, slamming her shoulder into Ansel’s torso. Her bones connected against the armor with a jarring thud, and the sword cut into Celaena’s neck, but Ansel lost her balance and teetered back. Celaena hit Ansel’s fingers so hard they dropped the sword right into Celaena’s waiting hand.

In a flash, like a snake turning in on itself, Celaena pinned Ansel facedown on the ground, her father’s sword now pressed against the back of her neck.

Celaena hadn’t realized how silent the room was until she was kneeling there, one knee pinning Ansel to the ground, the other braced on the floor. Blood seeped from where the sword tip rested against Ansel’s tan neck, redder than her hair. “Don’t do it,” Ansel whispered, in that voice that she’d so often heard—that girlish, carefree voice. But had it always been a performance?

Celaena pushed harder and Ansel sucked in a breath, closing her eyes.

Celaena tightened her grip on the sword, steadying her breathing, willing steel into her veins. Ansel should die; for what she’d done, she deserved to die. And not just for all those assassins lying dead around them, but also for the soldiers who’d spent their lives for her agenda. And for Celaena herself, who, even as she knelt there, felt her heart breaking. Even if she didn’t put the sword through Ansel’s neck, she’d still lose her. She’d already lost her.

But maybe the world had lost Ansel long before today.

Celaena couldn’t stop her lips from trembling as she asked, “Was it ever real?”

Ansel opened an eye, staring at the far wall. “There were some moments when it was. The moment I sent you away, it was real.”

Celaena reined in her sob and took a long, steadying breath. Slowly, she lifted the sword from Ansel’s neck—only a fraction of an inch.

Ansel made to move, but Celaena pressed the steel against her skin again, and she went still. From outside came cries of victory—and concern—in voices that sounded hoarse from disuse. The assassins had won. How long before they got here? If they saw Ansel, saw what she had done . . . they’d kill her.

“You have five minutes to pack your things and leave the fortress,” Celaena said quietly. “Because in twenty minutes, I’m going up to the battlements and I’m going to fire an arrow at you. And you’d better hope that you’re out of range by then, because if you’re not, that arrow is going straight through your neck.”

Celaena lifted the sword. Ansel slowly got to her feet, but didn’t flee. It took Celaena a heartbeat to realize she was waiting for her father’s sword.

Celaena looked at the wolf-shaped hilt and the blood staining the steel. The one tie Ansel had left to her father, her family, and whatever twisted shred of hope burned in her heart.

Celaena turned the blade and handed it hilt-first to Ansel. The girl’s eyes were wide and damp as she took the sword. She opened her mouth, but Celaena cut her off. “Go home, Ansel.”

Ansel’s face went white again. She took the blade from Celaena and sheathed it at her side. She glanced at Celaena only once before she took off at a sprint, leaping over Mikhail’s corpse as if he were nothing more than a bit of debris.

Then she was gone.

Chapter Twelve

Celaena rushed to Ilias, who moaned as she turned him over. The wound in his stomach was still bleeding. She ripped strips from her tunic, which was already soaked with blood, and shouted for help as she bound him tightly.

There was a scrape of cloth over stone, and Celaena looked over her shoulder to see the Master trying to drag himself over the stones to his son. The paralytic must be wearing off.

Five bloodied assassins came rushing up the stairs, eyes wide and faces pale as they beheld Mikhail and Ilias. Celaena left Ilias in their care as she dashed to the Master.

“Don’t move,” she told him, wincing as blood from her face dripped onto his white clothes. “You might hurt yourself.” She scanned the podium for any sign of the poison, and rushed to the fallen bronze goblet. A few sniffs revealed that the wine had been laced with a small amount of gloriella, just enough to paralyze him, not kill him. Ansel must have wanted him completely prone before she killed him—she must have wanted him to know she was the one who had betrayed him. To have him conscious while she severed his head. How had he not noticed it before he drank? Perhaps he wasn’t as humble as he seemed; perhaps he’d been arrogant enough to believe that he was safe here. “It’ll wear off soon,” she told the Master, but she still called for an antidote to speed up the process. One of the assassins took off at a run.

She sat by the Master, one hand clutching her bleeding neck. The assassins at the other end of the room carried Ilias out, stopping to reassure the Master that his son would be fine.

Celaena nearly groaned with relief at that, but straightened as a dry, calloused hand wrapped around hers, squeezing faintly. She looked down into the face of the Master, whose eyes shifted to the open door. He was reminding her of the promise she’d made. Ansel had been given twenty minutes to clear firing range.

It was time.

Ansel was already a dark blur in the distance, Hisli galloping as if demons were at her hooves. She was heading northwest over the dunes, toward the Singing Sands, to the narrow bridge of feral jungle that separated the Deserted Land from the rest of the continent, and then the open expanse of the Western Wastes beyond them. Toward Briarcliff.

Atop the battlements, Celaena drew an arrow from her quiver and nocked it into her bow.

The bowstring moaned as she pulled it back, farther and farther, her arm straining.

Focusing upon the tiny figure atop the dark horse, Celaena took aim.

In the silence of the fortress, the bowstring twanged like a mournful harp.

Tags: Sarah J. Maas Throne of Glass Fantasy
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