“Then steal the money and go. Your boss deserves to have his purse lightened.”
Yrene pulled back. “I’m no thief.”
A roguish grin. “If you want something, then go take it.”
This girl wasn’t like wildfire—she was wildfire. Deadly and uncontrollable. And slightly out of her wits.
“More than enough people believe that these days,” Yrene ventured to say. Like Adarlan. Like those mercenaries. “I don’t need to be one of them.”
The girl’s grin faded. “So you’d rather rot away here with a clean conscience?”
Yrene didn’t have a reply, so she didn’t say anything as she set down the rag and bowl and pulled out a small tin of salve. She kept it for herself, for the nicks and scrapes she got while working, but this cut was small enough that she could spare a bit. As gently as she could, she smeared it onto the wound. The girl didn’t flinch this time.
After a moment, the girl asked, “When did you lose your mother?”
“Over eight years ago.” Yrene kept her focus on the wound.
“That was a hard time to be a gifted healer on this continent, especially in Fenharrow. The King of Adarlan didn’t leave much of its people—or royal family—alive.”
Yrene looked up. The wildfire in the girl’s eyes had turned into a scorching blue flame. Such rage, she thought with a shiver. Such simmering rage. What had she been through to make her look like that?
She didn’t ask, of course. And she didn’t ask how the young woman knew where she was from. Yrene understood that her golden skin and brown hair were probably enough to mark her as being from Fenharrow, if her slight accent didn’t give her away.
“If you managed to attend the Torre Cesme,” the girl said, her anger shifting as if she had shoved it down deep inside her, “what would you do afterward?”
Yrene picked up one of the fresh bandages and began wrapping it around the girl’s arm. She’d dreamed about it for years, contemplated a thousand different futures while she washed dirty mugs and swept the floors. “I’d come back. Not to here, I mean, but to the continent. Go back to Fenharrow. There are a … a lot of people who need good healers these days.”
She said the last part quietly. For all she knew, the girl might support the King of Adarlan—might report her to the small town guard for just speaking ill of the king. Yrene had seen it happen before, far too many times.
But the girl looked toward the door with its makeshift bolt that Yrene had constructed, at the closet that she called her bedroom, at the threadbare cloak draped over the half-rotted chair against the opposite wall, then finally back at her. It gave Yrene a chance to study her face. Seeing how easily she’d trounced those mercenaries, whoever had harmed her must be fearsome indeed.
“You’d really come back to this continent—to the empire?”
There was such quiet surprise in her voice that Yrene met her eyes.
“It’s the right thing to do,” was all Yrene could think of to say.
The girl didn’t reply, and Yrene continued wrapping her arm. When she was finished, the girl shrugged on her shirt and tunic, tested her arm, and stood. In the cramped bedroom, Yrene felt so much smaller than the stranger, even if there were only a few inches’ difference between them.
The girl picked up her cloak but didn’t don it as she took a step toward the closed door.
“I could find something for your face,” Yrene blurted.
The girl paused with a hand on the doorknob and looked over her shoulder. “These are meant to be a reminder.”
“For what? Or—to whom?” She shouldn’t pry, shouldn’t have even asked.
She smiled bitterly. “For me.”
Yrene thought of the scars she’d seen on her body and wondered if those were all reminders, too.
The young woman turned back to the door, but stopped again. “Whether you stay, or go to Antica and attend the Torre Cesme and return to save the world,” she mused, “you should probably learn a thing or two about defending yourself.”
Yrene eyed the daggers at the girl’s waist, the sword she hadn’t even needed to draw. Jewels embedded in the hilt—real jewels—glinted in the candlelight. The girl had to be fabulously wealthy, richer than Yrene could ever conceive of being. “I can’t afford weapons.”
The girl huffed a laugh. “If you learn these maneuvers, you won’t need them.”
Celaena took the barmaid into the alley, if only because she didn’t want to wake the other inn guests and get into yet another fight. She didn’t really know why she’d offered to teach her to defend herself. The last time she’d helped anybody, it had just turned around to beat the hell out of her. Literally.
But the barmaid—Yrene—had looked so earnest when she talked about helping people. About being a healer.
The Torre Cesme—any healers worth their salt knew about the academy in Antica where the best and brightest, no matter their station, could study. Celaena had once dreamed of dwelling in the fabled cream-colored towers of the Torre, of walking the narrow, sloping streets of Antica and seeing wonders brought in from lands she’d never heard of. But that was a lifetime ago. A different person ago.
Not now, certainly. And if Yrene stayed in this gods-forsaken town, other people were bound to try to attack her again. So here Celaena was, cursing her own conscience for a fool as they stood in the misty alley behind the inn.
The bodies of the three mercenaries were still out there, and Celaena caught Yrene cringing at the sound of scurrying feet and soft squeaking. The rats hadn’t wasted any time.
Celaena gripped the girl’s wrist and held up her hand. “People—men—usually don’t hunt for the women who look like they’ll put up a fight. They’ll pick you because you look off-guard or vulnerable or like you’d be sympathetic. They’ll usually try to move you to another location where they won’t need to worry about being interrupted.”
Yrene’s eyes were wide, her face pale in the light of the torch Celaena had dropped just outside the back door. Helpless. What was it like to be helpless to defend yourself? A shudder that had nothing to do with the rats gnawing on the dead mercenaries went through her.
“Do not let them move you to another location,” Celaena continued, reciting from the lessons that Ben, Arobynn’s Second, had once taught her. She’d learned self-defense before she’d ever learned to attack anyone, and to first fight without weapons, too.
“Fight back enough to convince them that you’re not worth it. And make as much noise as you can. In a shit-hole like this, though, I bet no one will bother coming to help you. But you should still start screaming your head off about a fire—not rape, not theft, not something that cowards would rather hide from. And if shouting doesn’t discourage them, then there are a few tricks to outsmart them.
“Some might make them drop like a stone, some might get them down temporarily, but as soon as they let go of you, your biggest priority is getting the hell away. You understand? They let you go, you run.”
Yrene nodded, still wide-eyed. She remained that way as Celaena took the hand she’d lifted and walked her through the eye-gouge, showing her how to shove her thumbs into the corner of someone’s eyes, crook her thumbs back behind the eyeballs, and—well, Celaena couldn’t actually finish that part, since she liked her own eyeballs very much. But Yrene grasped it after a few times, and did it perfectly when Celaena grabbed her from behind again and again.
She then showed her the ear clap, then how to pinch the inside of a man’s upper thigh hard enough to make him scream, where to stomp on the most delicate part of the foot, what soft spots were the best to hit with her elbow (Yrene actually hit her so hard in the throat that Celaena gagged for a good minute). And then told her to go for the groin—always try to go for a strike to the groin.
And when the moon was setting, when Celaena was convinced that Yrene might stand a chance against an assailant, they finally stopped. Yrene seemed to be holding herself a bit taller, her face flushed.
“If they come after you for money,” Celaena said, jerking her chin toward where the mercenaries lay in a heap, “throw whatever coins you have far away from you and run in the opposite direction. Usually they’ll be so occupied by chasing after your money that you’ll have a good chance of escape.”
Yrene nodded. “I should—I should teach all this to Jessa.”
Celaena didn’t know or care who Jessa was, but she said, “If you get the chance, teach it to any female who will take the time to listen.”
Silence fell between them. There was so much more to learn, so much else to teach her. But dawn was about two hours away, and she should probably go back to her room now, if only to pack and go. Go, not because she was ordered to or because she found her punishment acceptable, but … because she needed to. She needed to go to the Red Desert.
Even if it was only to see where the Wyrd planned to lead her. Staying, running away to another land, avoiding her fate … she wouldn’t do that. She couldn’t be like Yrene, a living reminder of loss and shoved-aside dreams. No, she’d continue to the Red Desert and follow this path, wherever it led, however much it stung her pride.
Yrene cleared her throat. “Did you—did you ever have to use these maneuvers? Not to pry. I mean, you don’t have to answer if—”
“I’ve used them, yes—but not because I was in that kind of situation. I …” She knew she shouldn’t say it, but she did. “I’m usually the one who does the hunting.”
Yrene, to her surprise, just nodded, if a bit sadly. There was such irony, she realized, in them working together—the assassin and the healer. Two opposite sides of the coin.
Yrene wrapped her arms around herself. “How can I ever repay you for—”
But Celaena held up a hand. The alley was empty, but she could feel them, could hear the shift in the fog, in the scurrying of the rats. Pockets of quiet.
She met Yrene’s stare and flicked her eyes toward the back door, a silent command. Yrene had gone white and stiff. It was one thing to practice, but to put lessons into action, to use them … Yrene was more of a liability. Celaena jerked her chin at the door, an order now.
There were at least five men—two on either end of the alley converging upon them, and one more standing guard by the busier end of the street.
Yrene was through the back door by the time Celaena drew her sword.
In the darkened kitchen, Yrene leaned against the back door, a hand on her hammering heart as she listened to the melee outside. Earlier, the girl had the element of surprise—but how could she face them again?
Her hands trembled as the sound of clashing blades and shouts filtered through the crack beneath the door. Thumps, grunts, growls. What was happening?
She couldn’t stand it, not knowing what was happening to the girl.
It went against every instinct to open up the back door and peer out.
Her breath caught in her throat at the sight:
The mercenary who had escaped earlier had returned with more friends—more skilled friends. Two were facedown on the cobblestones, pools of blood around them. But the remaining three were engaged with the girl, who was—was—
Gods, she moved like a black wind, such lethal grace, and—
A hand closed over Yrene’s mouth as someone grabbed her from behind and pressed something cold and sharp against her throat. There had been another man; he came in through the inn.
“Walk,” he breathed in her ear, his voice rough and foreign. She couldn’t see him, couldn’t tell anything about him beyond the hardness of his body, the reek of his clothes, the scratch of a heavy beard against her cheek. He flung open the door and, still holding the dagger to Yrene’s neck, strode into the alley.