“I told you to wait until it’s past—” she started, but paused as four figures stepped from the mist.

Men. The mercenaries from before.


Yrene was moving for the open doorway in a heartbeat, but they were fast—faster.

One blocked the door while another came up behind her, grabbing her tight and pulling her against his massive body. “Scream and I’ll slit your throat,” he whispered in her ear, his breath hot and reeking of ale. “Saw you making some hefty tips tonight, girl. Where are they?”

Yrene didn’t know what she would have done next: fought or cried or begged or actually tried to scream. But she didn’t have to decide.

The man farthest from them was yanked into the mist with a strangled cry.

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The mercenary holding her whirled toward him, dragging Yrene along. There was a ruffle of clothing, then a thump. Then silence.

“Ven?” the man blocking the door called.


The third mercenary—standing between Yrene and the mist—drew his short sword. Yrene didn’t have time to cry out in surprise or warning as a dark figure slipped from the mist and grabbed him. Not in front, but from the side, as if they’d just appeared out of thin air.

The mercenary threw Yrene to the ground and drew the sword from across his back, a broad, wicked-looking blade. But his companion didn’t even shout. More silence.

“Come out, you bleedin’ coward,” the ringleader growled. “Face us like a proper man.”

A low, soft laugh.

Yrene’s blood went cold. Silba, protect her.

She knew that laugh—knew the cool, cultured voice that went with it.

“Just like how you proper men surrounded a defenseless girl in an alley?”

With that, the stranger stepped from the mist. She had two long daggers in her hands. And both blades were dark with dripping blood.


Gods. Oh, gods.

Yrene’s breath came quickly as the girl stepped closer to the two remaining attackers. The first mercenary barked a laugh, but the one by the door was wide-eyed. Yrene carefully, so carefully, backed away.

“You killed my men?” the mercenary said, blade held aloft.

The young woman flipped one of her daggers into a new position. The kind of position that Yrene thought would easily allow the blade to go straight up through the ribs and into the heart. “Let’s just say your men got what was coming to them.”

The mercenary lunged, but the girl was waiting. Yrene knew she should run—run and run and not look back—but the girl was only armed with two daggers, and the mercenary was enormous, and—

It was over before it really started. The mercenary got in two hits, both met with those wicked-looking daggers. And then she knocked him out cold with a swift blow to the head. So fast—unspeakably fast and graceful. A wraith moving through the mist.

He crumpled into the fog and out of sight, and Yrene didn’t listen too hard as the girl followed where he’d fallen.

Yrene whipped her head to the mercenary in the doorway, preparing to shout a warning to her savior. But the man was already sprinting down the alley as fast as his feet could carry him.

Yrene had half a mind to do that herself when the stranger emerged from the mist, blades clean but still out. Still ready.

“Please don’t kill me,” Yrene whispered. She was ready to beg, to offer everything in exchange for her useless, wasted life.

But the young woman just laughed under her breath and said, “What would have been the point in saving you, then?”

Celaena hadn’t meant to save the barmaid.

It had been sheer luck that she’d spotted the four mercenaries creeping about the streets, sheer luck that they seemed as eager for trouble as she was. She had hunted them into that alley, where she found them ready to hurt that girl in unforgivable ways.

The fight was over too quickly to really be enjoyable, or be a balm to her temper. If you could even call it a fight.

The fourth one had gotten away, but she didn’t feel like chasing him, not as the servant girl stood in front of her, shaking from head to toe. Celaena had a feeling that hurling a dagger after the sprinting man would only make the girl start screaming. Or faint. Which would … complicate things.

But the girl didn’t scream or faint. She just pointed a trembling finger at Celaena’s arm. “You—you’re bleeding.”

Celaena frowned down at the little shining spot on her bicep. “I suppose I am.”

A careless mistake. The thickness of her tunic had stopped it from being a troublesome wound, but she’d have to clean it. It would be healed in a week or less. She made to turn back to the street, to see what else she could find to amuse her, but the girl spoke again.

“I—I could bind it up for you.”

She wanted to shake the girl. Shake her for about ten different reasons. The first, and biggest, was because she was trembling and scared and had been utterly useless. The second was for being stupid enough to stand in that alley in the middle of the night. She didn’t feel like thinking about all the other reasons—not when she was already angry enough.

“I can bind myself up just fine,” Celaena said, heading for the door that led into the White Pig’s kitchens. Days ago, she’d scoped out the inn and its surrounding buildings, and now could navigate them blindfolded.

“Silba knows what was on that blade,” the girl said, and Celaena paused. Invoking the Goddess of Healing. Very few did that these days—unless they were …

“I—my mother was a healer, and she taught me a few things,” the girl stammered. “I could—I could … Please let me repay the debt I owe you.”

“You wouldn’t owe me anything if you’d used some common sense.”

The girl flinched as though Celaena had struck her. It only annoyed her even more. Everything annoyed her—this town, this kingdom, this cursed world.

“I’m sorry,” the girl said softly.

“What are you apologizing to me for? Why are you apologizing at all? Those men had it coming. But you should have been smarter on a night like this—when I’d bet all my money that you could taste the aggression in that filthy damned taproom.”

It wasn’t the girl’s fault, she had to remind herself. Not her fault at all that she didn’t know how to fight back.

The girl put her face in her hands, her shoulders curving inward. Celaena counted down the seconds until the girl burst into sobs, until she fell apart.

But the tears didn’t come. The girl just took a few deep breaths, then lowered her hands. “Let me clean your arm,” she said in a voice that was … different, somehow. Stronger, clearer. “Or you’ll wind up losing it.”

And the slight change in the girl was interesting enough that Celaena followed her inside.

She didn’t bother about the three bodies in the alley. She had a feeling no one but the rats and carrion-feeders would care about them in this town.


Yrene brought the girl to her room under the stairs, because she was half-afraid that the mercenary who’d gotten away would be waiting for them upstairs. And Yrene didn’t want to see any more fighting or killing or bleeding, strong stomach or no.

Not to mention she was also half-afraid to be locked in the suite with the stranger.

She left the girl sitting on her sagging bed and went to fetch two bowls of water and some clean bandages—supplies that would be taken out of her paycheck when Nolan realized they were gone. It didn’t matter, though. The stranger had saved her life. This was the least she could do.

When Yrene returned, she almost dropped the steaming bowls. The girl had removed her hood and cloak and tunic.

Yrene didn’t know what to remark on first:

That the girl was young—perhaps two or three years younger than Yrene—but felt old.

That the girl was beautiful, with golden hair and blue eyes that shone in the candlelight.

Or that the girl’s face would have been even more beautiful had it not been covered in a patchwork of bruises. Such horrible bruises, including a black eye that had undoubtedly been swollen shut at some point.

The girl was staring at her, quiet and still as a cat.

It wasn’t Yrene’s place to ask questions. Especially not when this girl had dispatched three mercenaries in a matter of moments. Even if the gods had abandoned her, Yrene still believed in them; they were still somewhere, still watching. She believed, because how else could she explain being saved just now? And the thought of being alone—truly alone—was almost too much to bear, even when so much of her life had gone astray.

The water sloshed in the bowls as Yrene set them down on the tiny table beside her bed, trying to keep her hands from trembling too much.

The girl said nothing while Yrene inspected the cut on her bicep. Her arm was slender, but rock-hard with muscle. The girl had scars everywhere—small ones, big ones. She offered no explanation for them, and it seemed to Yrene that the girl wore her scars the way some women wore their finest jewelry.

The stranger couldn’t have been older than seventeen or eighteen, but … but Adarlan had made them all grow up fast. Too fast.

Yrene set about washing the wound, and the girl hissed softly. “Sorry,” Yrene said quickly. “I put some herbs in there as an antiseptic. I should have warned you.” Yrene kept a stash of them with her at all times, along with other herbs her mother had taught her about. Just in case. Even now, Yrene couldn’t turn away from a sick beggar in the street, and often walked toward the sound of coughing.

“Believe me, I’ve been through worse.”

“I do,” Yrene said. “Believe you, I mean.” Those scars and her mangled face spoke volumes. And explained the hood. But was it vanity or self-preservation that made her wear it? “What’s your name?”

“It’s none of your concern, and it doesn’t matter.”

Yrene bit her tongue. Of course it was none of her business. The girl hadn’t given a name to Nolan, either. So she was traveling on some secret business, then. “My name is Yrene,” she offered. “Yrene Towers.”

A distant nod. Of course, the girl didn’t care, either.

Then the stranger said, “What’s the daughter of a healer doing in this piece of shit town?”

No kindness, no pity. Just blunt, if not almost bored, curiosity.

“I was on my way to Antica to join their healers’ academy and ran out of money.” She dipped the rag into the water, wrung it out, and resumed cleaning the shallow wound. “I got work here to pay for the passage over the ocean, and … Well, I never left. I guess staying here became … easier. Simpler.”

A snort. “This place? It’s certainly simple, but easy? I think I’d rather starve in the streets of Antica than live here.”

Yrene’s face warmed. “It—I …” She didn’t have an excuse.

The girl’s eyes flashed to hers. They were ringed with gold—stunning. Even with the bruises, the girl was alluring. Like wildfire, or a summer storm swept in off the Gulf of Oro.

“Let me give you a bit of advice,” the girl said bitterly, “from one working girl to another: Life isn’t easy, no matter where you are. You’ll make choices you think are right, and then suffer for them.” Those remarkable eyes flickered. “So if you’re going to be miserable, you might as well go to Antica and be miserable in the shadow of the Torre Cesme.”

Educated and possibly extremely well-traveled, then, if the girl knew the healers’ academy by name—and she pronounced it perfectly.

Yrene shrugged, not daring to voice her dozens of questions. Instead, she said, “I don’t have the money to go now, anyway.”

It came out sharper than she intended—sharper than was smart, considering how lethal this girl was. Yrene didn’t try to guess what manner of working girl she might be—mercenary was about as dark as she’d let herself imagine.

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