فصل 9

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فصل 9

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CHAPTER 9

After Aelin wrote the damning letter to Arobynn and sent it via one of his feral street urchins, hunger dragged her from the apartment into the gray morning. Bone-tired, she hunted down breakfast, also buying enough for lunch and dinner, and returned to the warehouse an hour later to find a large, flat box waiting on the dining table.

No sign of the lock having been tampered with, none of the windows open any farther than they’d been when she cracked them to let in the river breeze that morning.

But she expected no less from Arobynn—no less than a reminder that he might be King of the Assassins, but he’d clawed and slaughtered his way onto that self-made throne.

It seemed fitting, somehow, that the skies opened up just then, the patter and clink of the downpour washing away the too-heavy silence of the room.

Aelin tugged at the emerald silk ribbon around the cream-colored box until it dropped away. Setting aside the lid, she stared at the folded cloth within for a long moment. The note placed atop it read, I took the liberty of having some improvements made since the last time. Go play.

Her throat tightened, but she pulled out the full-body suit of black cloth—tight, thick, and flexible like leather, but without the sheen and suffocation. Beneath the folded suit lay a pair of boots. They’d been cleaned since the last time she’d worn them years ago, the black leather still supple and pliable, the special grooves and hidden blades as precise as ever.

She lifted the heavy sleeve of the suit to reveal the built-in gauntlets that concealed thin, vicious swords as long as her forearm.

She hadn’t seen this suit, hadn’t worn it, since … She glanced at the empty spot on the mantel. Another test—a quiet one, to see just how much she would forgive and forget, how much she would stomach to work with him.

Arobynn had paid for the suit years ago, an exorbitant fee demanded by a master tinkerer from Melisande who had crafted it by hand, built exactly to her measurements. He’d insisted his two best assassins be outfitted in the stealthy, lethal suits, so hers had been a gift, one of many he’d heaped on her as reparation for beating her to hell and then packing her off to the Red Desert to train. She and Sam had both taken brutal beatings for their disobedience—and yet Arobynn had made Sam pay for his suit. And then given him second-rate jobs to keep him from swiftly paying off the debt.

She set the suit back in the box and began undressing, breathing in the scent of rain on stone that wafted in through the open windows.

Oh, she could play the devoted protégée again. She could go along with the plan she’d let him create—the plan she’d modify slightly, just enough. She’d kill whoever was needed, whore herself, wreck herself, if it meant getting Aedion to safety.

Two days—just two days—until she could see him again, until she could see with her own eyes that he’d made it, that he’d survived all these years they’d been apart. And even if Aedion hated her, spat on her as Chaol had practically done … it would be worth it.

Naked, she stepped into the suit, the smooth, slick material whispering against her skin. Typical of Arobynn not to mention what modifications he’d made—to make it a lethal puzzle for her to sort out, if she was clever enough to survive.

She shimmied into it, careful to avoid triggering the mechanism that brought forth those hidden blades, feeling for any other concealed weapons or tricks. It was the work of another moment before the suit enveloped her completely, and she buckled her feet into the boots.

As she headed for the bedroom, she could already sense the reinforcement added to every weak spot she possessed. The specifications must have been sent months before the suit arrived, by the man who did indeed know about the knee that sometimes twanged, the body parts she favored in combat, the speed with which she moved. All of Arobynn’s knowledge of her, wrapped around her in cloth and steel and darkness. She paused before the standing mirror against the far wall of the bedroom.

A second skin. Perhaps made less scandalous by the exquisite detailing, the extra padding, the pockets, the bits of armored decoration—but there was not one inch left to the imagination. She let out a low whistle. Very well, then.

She could be Celaena Sardothien again—for a little longer, until this game was finished.

She might have brooded over it more had splashing hooves and wheels halting outside the warehouse not echoed through the open windows.

She doubted Arobynn would show up so soon to gloat—no, he’d wait until he learned whether she actually went to play with the suit.

That left one other person who’d bother to come by, though she doubted Chaol would waste money on a carriage, even in the rain. Keeping away from sight, she peered out the window through the downpour, taking in the details of the nondescript carriage. No one on the rainy street to observe it—and no sign of who might be within.

Heading for the door, Aelin flicked her wrist, releasing the blade on her left arm. It made no sound as it shot free from the hidden slot in the gauntlet, the metal gleaming in the rain-dim light.

Gods, the suit was as wondrous as it’d been that first day she tried it on; the blade cutting as smoothly through the air as it had when she’d plunged it into her targets.

Her footsteps and the drumming of the rain on the warehouse roof were the only sounds as she descended the stairs, then padded between the crates piled high on the main floor.

Left arm angled to hide the blade within the folds of her cloak, she hauled open the giant rolling warehouse door to reveal the veils of rain billowing past.

A cloaked woman waited under the narrow awning, an unmarked hansom cab for hire loitering behind her on the curb. The driver was watching carefully, rain dripping off the broad rim of his hat. Not a trained eye—just looking out for the woman who’d hired him. Even in the rain, her cloak was a deep, rich gray, the fabric clean and heavy enough to suggest lots of money, despite the carriage.

The heavy hood concealed the stranger’s face in shadow, but Aelin glimpsed ivory skin, dark hair, and fine velvet gloves reaching into her cloak—for a weapon?

“Start explaining,” Aelin said, leaning against the door frame, “or you’re rat meat.”

The woman stepped back into the rain—not back, exactly, but toward the carriage, where Aelin noted the small form of a child waiting inside. Cowering.

The woman said, “I came to warn you,” and pulled back her hood just enough to reveal her face.

Large, slightly uptilted green eyes, sensuous lips, sharp cheekbones, and a pert nose combined to create a rare, staggering beauty that caused men to lose all common sense.

Aelin stepped under the narrow awning and drawled, “As far as memory serves me, Lysandra, I warned you that if I ever saw you again, I’d kill you.” images

“Please,” Lysandra begged.

That word—and the desperation behind it—made Aelin slide her blade back into its sheath.

In the nine years that she’d known the courtesan, never once had she heard Lysandra say please—or sound desperate for anything at all. Phrases like “thank you,” “may I,” or even “lovely to see you” had never been uttered by Lysandra within Aelin’s hearing.

They could have been friends as easily as enemies—both of them orphaned, both found by Arobynn as children. But Arobynn had handed Lysandra over to Clarisse, his good friend and a successful brothel madam. And though Aelin had been trained for killing fields and Lysandra for bedrooms, they’d somehow grown up rivals, clawing for Arobynn’s favor.

When Lysandra turned seventeen and had her Bidding, it was Arobynn who had won, using the money Aelin had given him to pay off her own debts. The courtesan had then thrown what Arobynn had done with Aelin’s blood money in her face.

So Aelin had thrown something back at her: a dagger. They hadn’t seen each other since.

Aelin figured she was perfectly justified in tugging back her hood to reveal her own face and saying, “It would take me less than a minute to kill you and your driver, and to make sure your little protégée in the carriage doesn’t say a peep about it. She’d probably be happy to see you dead.” Lysandra stiffened. “She is not my protégée, and she is not in training.”

“So she’s to be used as a shield against me?” Aelin’s smile was razor-sharp.

“Please—please,” Lysandra said over the rain, “I need to talk to you, just for a few minutes, where it’s safe.” Aelin took in the fine clothes, the hired cab, the rain splashing on the cobblestones. So typical of Arobynn to throw this at her. But she’d let him play this hand; see where it got her.

Aelin squeezed the bridge of her nose with two fingers, then lifted her head. “You know I have to kill your driver.” “No, you don’t!” the man cried, scrambling to grab the reins. “I swear—swear I won’t breathe a word about this place.” Aelin stalked to the hansom cab, the rain instantly soaking her cloak. The driver could report the location of the warehouse, could endanger everything, but— Aelin peered at the rain-flecked cab permit framed by the door, illuminated by the little lantern hanging above. “Well, Kellan Oppel of sixty-three Baker Street, apartment two, I suppose you won’t tell anyone.” White as death, the driver nodded.

Aelin yanked open the carriage door, saying to the child within, “Get out. Both of you inside, now.” “Evangeline can wait here,” Lysandra whispered.

Aelin looked over her shoulder, rain splattering her face as her lips pulled back from her teeth. “If you think for one moment that I’m leaving a child alone in a hired carriage in the slums, you can go right back to the cesspit you came from.” She peered into the carriage again and said to the cowering girl, “Come on, you. I won’t bite.” That seemed to be enough assurance for Evangeline, who scooted closer, the lantern light gilding her tiny porcelain hand before she gripped Aelin’s arm to hop from the cab. No more than eleven, she was delicately built, her red-gold hair braided back to reveal citrine eyes that gobbled up the drenched street and women before her. As stunning as her mistress—or would have been, were it not for the deep, jagged scars on both cheeks. Scars that explained the hideous, branded-out tattoo on the inside of the girl’s wrist. She’d been one of Clarisse’s acolytes—until she’d been marred and lost all value.

Aelin winked at Evangeline and said with a conspirator’s grin as she led her through the rain, “You look like my sort of person.” images

Aelin propped open the rest of the windows to let the rain-cooled river breeze into the stuffy apartment. Thankfully, no one had been on the street in the minutes they’d been outside, but if Lysandra was here, she had no doubt it would get back to Arobynn.

Aelin patted the armchair before the window, smiling at the brutally scarred little girl. “This is my favorite place to sit in the whole apartment when there’s a nice breeze coming through. If you want, I have a book or two that I think you’d like. Or”—she gestured to the kitchen to her right—“you might be able to find something delicious on the kitchen table— blueberry tart, I think.” Lysandra was stiff, but Aelin didn’t particularly give a damn as she added to Evangeline, “Your choice.” As a child in a high-end brothel, Evangeline had probably had too few choices in her short life. Lysandra’s green eyes seemed to soften a bit, and Evangeline said, her voice barely audible above the patter of the rain on the roof and windows, “I would like a tart, please.” A moment later, she was gone. Smart girl—to know to stay out of her mistress’s way.

With Evangeline occupied, Aelin slung off her soaked cloak and used the small remaining dry section to wipe her wet face. Keeping her wrist angled in case she needed to draw the hidden blade, Aelin pointed to the couch before the unlit fire and told Lysandra, “Sit.” To her surprise, the woman obeyed—but then said, “Or you’ll threaten to kill me again?” “I don’t make threats. Only promises.”

The courtesan slumped against the couch cushions. “Please. How can I ever take anything that comes out of that big mouth seriously?” “You took it seriously when I threw a dagger at your head.”

Lysandra gave her a little smile. “You missed.”

True—but she’d still grazed the courtesan’s ear. As far as she’d been concerned, it had been deserved.

But it was a woman sitting before her—they were both women now, not the girls they’d been at seventeen. Lysandra looked her up and down. “I prefer you as a blonde.” “I’d prefer you get the hell out of my house, but that doesn’t seem likely to happen anytime soon.” She glanced at the street below; the cab lingered, as ordered. “Arobynn couldn’t send you in one of his carriages? I thought he was paying you handsomely.” Lysandra waved her hand, the candlelight catching on a golden bracelet that barely covered a snakelike tattoo stamped on her slender wrist. “I refused his carriage. I thought it’d set the wrong tone.” Too late for that. “So he did send you, then. To warn me about what, exactly?”

“He sent me to tell you his plan. He doesn’t trust messengers these days. But the warning comes from me.” An utter lie, no doubt. But that tattoo—the sigil of Clarisse’s brothel, etched on the flesh of all her courtesans from the moment they were sold into her house … The girl in the kitchen, the driver below—they could make everything very, very difficult if she gutted Lysandra. But the dagger was tempting as she beheld that tattoo.

Not the sword—no, she wanted the intimacy of a knife, wanted to share breath with the courtesan as she ended her. Aelin asked too quietly, “Why do you still have Clarisse’s sigil tattooed on you?” Do not trust Archer, Nehemia had tried to warn her, drawing a perfect rendering of the snake in her coded message. But what about anyone else with that sigil? The Lysandra that Aelin had known years ago … Two-faced, lying, and conniving were among the nicer words Aelin had used to describe her.

Lysandra frowned down at it. “We don’t get it stamped out until we’ve paid off our debts.” “The last time I saw your whoring carcass, you were weeks away from paying them off.” Indeed, Arobynn had paid so much at the Bidding two years ago that Lysandra should have been free almost immediately.

The courtesan’s eyes flickered. “Do you have a problem with the tattoo?”

“That piece of shit Archer Finn had one.” They’d belonged to the same house, the same madam. Maybe they’d worked together in other regards, too.

Lysandra held her gaze. “Archer’s dead.”

“Because I gutted him,” Aelin said sweetly.

Lysandra braced a hand on the back of the couch. “You—” she breathed. But then she shook her head and said softly, “Good. Good that you killed him. He was a self-serving pig.” It could be a lie to win her over. “Say your piece, and then get out.”

Lysandra’s sensuous mouth tightened. But she laid out Arobynn’s plan to free Aedion.

It was brilliant, if Aelin felt like being honest—clever and dramatic and bold. If the King of Adarlan wanted to make a spectacle of Aedion’s execution, then they would make a spectacle of his rescue. But to tell her through Lysandra, to draw in another person who might betray her or stand witness against her … One more reminder of how easily Aedion’s fate could be sealed, should Arobynn decide to make Aelin’s life a living hell.

“I know, I know,” the courtesan said, taking in the cold gleam in Aelin’s eyes. “You needn’t remind me that you’ll skin me alive if I betray you.” Aelin felt a muscle flicker in her cheek. “And the warning you came to give me?”

Lysandra shifted on the couch. “Arobynn wanted me to tell you the plans so that I might check up on you—test you, see how much you’re on his side, see if you’re going to betray him.” “I’d be disappointed if he didn’t.”

“I think … I think he also sent me here as an offering.”

Aelin knew what she meant, but she said, “Unfortunately for you, I don’t have any interest in women. Even when they’re paid for.” Lysandra’s nostrils flared delicately. “I think he sent me here so you could kill me. As a present.” “And you came to beg me to reconsider?” No wonder she’d brought the child, then. The selfish, spineless coward, to use Evangeline as a shield. To bring a child into this world of theirs.

Lysandra glanced at the knife strapped to Aelin’s thigh. “Kill me if you want. Evangeline already knows what I suspect, and won’t say a word.” Aelin willed her face into a mask of icy calm.

“But I did come to warn you,” Lysandra went on. “He might offer you presents, might help you with this rescue, but he is having you watched—and he has his own agenda. That favor you offered him—he didn’t tell me what it is, but it’s likely to be a trap, in one way or another. I’d consider whether his help is worth it, and see if you can get out of it.” She wouldn’t—couldn’t. Not for about a dozen different reasons.

When Aelin didn’t respond, Lysandra took a sharp breath. “I also came to give you this.” She reached a hand into the folds of her rich indigo gown, and Aelin subtly shifted into a defensive position.

Lysandra merely pulled out a worn, faded envelope and gingerly set it on the low table before the couch. It shook the whole way down.

“This is for you. Please read it.”

“So you’re Arobynn’s whore and courier now?”

The courtesan took the verbal slap. “This isn’t from Arobynn. It’s from Wesley.” Lysandra seemed to sink into the couch, and there was such an unspeakable grief in her eyes that for a moment, Aelin believed it.

“Wesley,” Aelin said. “Arobynn’s bodyguard. The one who spent most of his time hating me, and the rest of it contemplating ways to kill me.” The courtesan nodded. “Arobynn murdered Wesley for killing Rourke Farran.” Lysandra flinched.

Aelin glanced at the old envelope. Lysandra dropped her gaze to her hands, clutched together so tightly that her knuckles were bone-white.

Worn lines marred the envelope, but the chipped seal had yet to be broken. “Why have you been carrying a letter to me from Wesley for almost two years?” Lysandra wouldn’t look up, and her voice broke as she said, “Because I loved him very much.” Well, of all the things she’d expected Lysandra to say.

“It started off as a mistake. Arobynn would send me back to Clarisse’s with him in the carriage as an escort, and at first we were just—just friends. We talked, and he expected nothing. But then … then Sam died, and you—” Lysandra jerked her chin at the letter, still lying unopened between them. “It’s all in there. Everything Arobynn did, everything he planned. What he asked Farran to do to Sam, and what he ordered done to you. All of it. Wesley wanted you to know, because he wanted you to understand—he needed you to understand, Celaena, that he didn’t know until it was too late. He tried to stop it, and did the best he could to avenge Sam. If Arobynn hadn’t killed him … Wesley was planning to go to Endovier to get you out. He even went to the Shadow Market to find someone who knew the layout of the mines, and got a map of them. I still have it. As proof. I—I can go get it …” The words slammed into her like a barrage of arrows, but she shut out the sorrow for a man she had never taken the time to consider as anything but one of Arobynn’s dogs. She wouldn’t put it past Arobynn to use Lysandra, to make up this entire story to get her to trust the woman. The Lysandra she’d known would have been more than happy to do it. And Aelin could have played along just to learn where it would take her, what Arobynn was up to and whether he’d trip up enough to reveal his hand, but … What he asked Farran to do to Sam.

She’d always assumed Farran had just tortured Sam in the way he so loved to hurt and break people. But for Arobynn to request specific things be done to Sam … It was good she didn’t have her magic. Good it was stifled.

Because she might have erupted into flames and burned and burned for days, cocooned in her fire.

“So you came here,” Aelin said, as Lysandra discreetly wiped at her eyes with a handkerchief, “to warn me that Arobynn might be manipulating me, because you finally realized what a monster Arobynn truly is after he killed your lover?” “I promised Wesley I would personally give you that letter—”

“Well, you gave it to me, so get out.”

Light footsteps sounded, and Evangeline burst from the kitchen, rushing to her mistress with a quiet, nimble grace. With surprising tenderness, Lysandra slipped a reassuring arm around Evangeline as she rose to her feet. “I understand, Celaena, I do. But I am begging you: read that letter. For him.” Aelin bared her teeth. “Get out.”

Lysandra walked to the door, keeping herself and Evangeline a healthy distance from Aelin. She paused in the doorway. “Sam was my friend, too. He and Wesley were my only friends. And Arobynn took them both away.” Aelin just raised her brows.

Lysandra didn’t bother with a good-bye as she vanished down the stairs.

But Evangeline lingered on the threshold, glancing between her disappearing mistress and Aelin, her lovely hair glimmering like liquid copper.

Then the girl gestured to her scarred face and said, “She did this to me.”

It was an effort to keep seated, to keep from leaping down the stairs to slit Lysandra’s throat.

But Evangeline went on, “I cried when my mother sold me to Clarisse. Cried and cried. And I think Lysandra had annoyed the mistress that day, because they gave me to her as an acolyte, even though she was weeks away from paying her debts. That night, I was supposed to begin training, and I cried so hard I made myself sick. But Lysandra—she cleaned me up. She told me that there was a way out, but it would hurt, and I would not be the same. I couldn’t run, because she had tried running a few times when she was my age, and they had found her and beat her where no one could see.” She had never known—never wondered. All those times she had sneered at and mocked Lysandra while they’d grown up … Evangeline continued, “I said I’d do anything to get out of what the other girls had told me about. So she told me to trust her—and then gave me these. She started shouting loud enough for the others to come running. They thought she cut me out of anger, and said she’d done it to keep me from being a threat. And she let them believe it. Clarisse was so mad that she beat Lysandra in the courtyard, but Lysandra didn’t cry—not once. And when the healer said my face couldn’t be fixed, Clarisse made Lysandra buy me for the amount I would have cost if I had been a full courtesan, like her.” Aelin had no words.

Evangeline said, “That’s why she’s still working for Clarisse, why she’s still not free and won’t be for a while. I thought you should know.” Aelin wanted to tell herself not to trust the girl, that this could be part of Lysandra and Arobynn’s plan, but … but there was a voice in her head, in her bones, that whispered to her, over and over and over, each time clearer and louder: Nehemia would have done the same.

Evangeline curtsied and went down the stairs, leaving Aelin staring at the worn envelope.

If she herself could change so much in two years, perhaps so could Lysandra.

And for a moment, she wondered how another young woman’s life would have been different if she had stopped to talk to her—really talk to Kaltain Rompier, instead of dismissing her as a vapid courtier. What would have happened if Nehemia had tried to see past Kaltain’s mask, too.

Evangeline was climbing into the rain-gleaming carriage beside Lysandra when Aelin appeared at the warehouse door and said, “Wait.”

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