The young woman stopped fighting. Another mercenary had gone down, and the two before her had their blades pointed at her.
“Drop your weapons,” the man said. Yrene would have shaken her head, but the dagger was pressed so close that any movement she made would have slit her own throat.
The young woman eyed the men, then Yrene’s captor, then Yrene herself. Calm—utterly calm and cold as she bared her teeth in a feral grin. “Come and get them.”
Yrene’s stomach dropped. The man had only to shift his wrist and he’d spill her life’s blood. She wasn’t ready to die—not now, not in Innish.
Her captor chuckled. “Bold and foolish words, girl.” He pushed the blade harder, and Yrene winced. She felt the dampness of her blood before she realized he’d cut a thin line across her neck. Silba save her.
But the girl’s eyes were on Yrene, and they narrowed slightly. In challenge, in a command. Fight back, she seemed to say. Fight for your miserable life.
The two men with the swords circled closer, but she didn’t lower her blade.
“Drop your weapons before I cut her open,” Yrene’s captor growled. “Once we’re done making you pay for our comrades, for all the money you cost us with their deaths, maybe we’ll let her live.” He squeezed Yrene tighter, but the young woman just watched him. The mercenary hissed. “Drop your weapons.”
Gods, she was going to let him kill her, wasn’t she?
Yrene couldn’t die like this—not here, not as a no-name barmaid in this horrible place. Wouldn’t die like this. Her mother had gone down swinging—her mother had fought for her, had killed that soldier so Yrene could have a chance to flee, to make something of her life. To do some good for the world.
She wouldn’t die like this.
The rage hit, so staggering that Yrene could hardly see through it, could hardly see anything except a year in Innish, a future beyond her grasp, and a life she was not ready to part with.
She gave no warning before she stomped down as hard as she could on the bridge of the man’s foot. He jerked, howling, but Yrene brought up her arms, shoving the dagger from her throat with one hand as she drove her elbow into his gut. Drove it with every bit of rage she had burning in her. He groaned as he doubled over, and she slammed her elbow into his temple, just as the girl had shown her.
The man collapsed to his knees, and Yrene bolted. To run, to help, she didn’t know.
But the girl was already standing in front of her, grinning broadly. Behind her, the two men lay unmoving. And the man on his knees—
Yrene dodged aside as the young woman grabbed the gasping man and dragged him into the dark mist beyond. There was a muffled scream, then a thump.
And despite her healer’s blood, despite the stomach she’d inherited, Yrene barely made it two steps before she vomited.
When she was done, she found the young woman watching her again, smiling faintly. “Fast learner,” she said. Her fine clothes, even her darkly glittering ruby brooch, were covered with blood. Not her own, Yrene noted with some relief. “You sure you want to be a healer?”
Yrene wiped her mouth on the corner of her apron. She didn’t want to know what the alternative was—what this girl might be. No, all she wanted was to smack her. Hard.
“You could have dispatched them without me! But you let that man hold a knife to my throat—you let him! Are you insane?”
The girl smiled in such a way that said yes, she was most certainly insane. But she said, “Those men were a joke. I wanted you to get some real experience in a controlled environment.”
“You call that controlled?” Yrene couldn’t help shouting. She put a hand to the already clotted slice in her neck. It would heal quickly, but might scar. She’d have to inspect it immediately.
“Look at it this way, Yrene Towers: now you know you can do it. That man was twice your weight and had almost a foot on you, and you downed him in a few heartbeats.”
“You said those men were a joke.”
A fiendish grin. “To me, they are.”
Yrene’s blood chilled. “I—I’ve had enough of today. I think I need to go to bed.”
The girl sketched a bow. “And I should probably be on my way. Word of advice: wash the blood out of your clothes and don’t tell anyone what you saw tonight. Those men might have more friends, and as far as I’m concerned, they were the unfortunate victims of a horrible robbery.” She held up a leather pouch heavy with coins and stalked past Yrene into the inn.
Yrene spared a glance at the bodies, felt a heavy weight drop into her stomach, and followed the girl inside. She was still furious with her, still shaking with the remnants of terror and desperation.
So she didn’t say good-bye to the deadly girl as she vanished.
Yrene did as the girl said and changed into another gown and apron before going to the kitchens to wash the blood from her clothes. Her hands were shaking so badly that it took longer than usual to wash the clothing, and by the time she finished, the pale light of dawn was creeping through the kitchen window.
She had to be up in … well, now. Groaning, she trudged back to her room to hang the wet clothes to dry. If someone saw her laundry drying, it would only raise suspicion. She supposed she’d have to be the one to pretend to find the bodies, too. Gods, what a mess.
Wincing at the thought of the long, long day ahead of her, trying to make sense of the night she’d just had, Yrene entered her room and softly shut the door. Even if she told someone, they probably wouldn’t believe her.
It wasn’t until she was done hanging her clothes on the hooks embedded in the wall that she noticed the leather pouch on the bed, and the note pinned beneath it.
She knew what was inside, could easily guess based on the lumps and edges. Her breath caught in her throat as she pulled out the note.
There, in elegant, feminine handwriting, the girl had written:
No name, no date. Staring at the paper, she could almost picture the girl’s feral smile and the defiance in her eyes. This note, if anything, was a challenge—a dare.
Hands shaking anew, Yrene dumped out the contents of the pouch.
The pile of gold coins shimmered, and Yrene staggered back, collapsing into the rickety chair across from the bed. She blinked, and blinked again.
Not just gold, but also the brooch the girl had been wearing, its massive ruby smoldering in the candlelight.
A hand to her mouth, Yrene stared at the door, at the ceiling, then back at the small fortune sitting on her bed. Stared and stared and stared.
The gods had vanished, her mother had once claimed. But had they? Had it been some god who had visited tonight, clothed in the skin of a battered young woman? Or had it merely been their distant whispers that prompted the stranger to walk down that alley? She would never know, she supposed. And maybe that was the whole point.
Wherever you need to go …
Gods or fate or just pure coincidence and kindness, it was a gift. This was a gift. The world was wide-open—wide-open and hers for the taking, if she dared. She could go to Antica, attend the Torre Cesme, go anywhere she wished.
If she dared.
An hour later, no one stopped Yrene Towers as she walked out of the White Pig and never looked back.
Washed and dressed in a new tunic, Celaena boarded the ship an hour before dawn. It was her own damn fault that she felt hollow and light-headed after a night without rest. But she could sleep today—sleep the whole journey across the Gulf of Oro to the Deserted Land. She should sleep, because once she landed in Yurpa, she had a trek across blistering, deadly sands—a week, at least, through the desert before the reached the Mute Master and his fortress of Silent Assassins.
The captain didn’t ask questions when she pressed a piece of silver into his palm and went belowdecks, following his directions to find her stateroom. With the hood and blades, she knew none of the sailors would bother her. And while she now had to be careful with the money she had left, she knew she’d hand over another silver piece or two before the voyage was done.
Sighing, Celaena entered her cabin—small but clean, with a little window that looked out onto the dawn-gray bay. She locked the door behind her and slumped onto the tiny bed. She’d seen enough of Innish; she didn’t need to bother watching the departure.
She’d been on her way out of the inn when she’d passed that horrifically small closet Yrene called a bedroom. While Yrene had tended to her arm, Celaena had been astounded by the cramped conditions, the rickety furniture, the too-thin blankets. She’d planned to leave some coins for Yrene anyway—if only because she was certain the innkeeper would make Yrene pay for those bandages.
But Celaena had stood in front of that wooden door to the bedroom, listening to Yrene wash her clothes in the nearby kitchen. She found herself unable to turn away, unable to stop thinking about the would-be healer with the brown-gold hair and caramel eyes, of what Yrene had lost and how helpless she’d become. There were so many of them now—the children who had lost everything to Adarlan. Children who had now grown into assassins and barmaids, without a true place to call home, their native kingdoms left in ruin and ash.
Magic had been gone all these years. And the gods were dead, or simply didn’t care anymore. Yet there, deep in her gut, was a small but insistent tug. A tug on a strand of some invisible web. So Celaena decided to tug back, just to see how far and wide the reverberations would go.
It was a matter of moments to write the note and then stuff most of her gold pieces into the pouch. A heartbeat later, she’d set it on Yrene’s sagging cot.
She’d added Arobynn’s ruby brooch as a parting thought. She wondered if a girl from ravaged Fenharrow wouldn’t mind a brooch in Adarlan’s royal colors. But Celaena was glad to be rid of it, and hoped Yrene would pawn the piece for the small fortune it was worth. Hoped that an assassin’s jewel would pay for a healer’s education.
So maybe it was the gods at work. Maybe it was some force beyond them, beyond mortal comprehension. Or maybe it was just for what and who Celaena would never be.
Yrene was still washing her bloodied clothes in the kitchen when Celaena slipped out of her room, then down the hall, and left the White Pig behind.
As she stalked through the foggy streets toward the ramshackle docks, Celaena had prayed Yrene Towers wasn’t foolish enough to tell anyone—especially the innkeeper—about the money. Prayed Yrene Towers seized her life with both hands and set out for the pale-stoned city of Antica. Prayed that somehow, years from now, Yrene Towers would return to this continent, and maybe, just maybe, heal their shattered world a little bit.
Smiling to herself in the confines of her cabin, Celaena nestled into the bed, pulled her hood low over her eyes, and crossed her ankles. By the time the ship set sail across the jade-green gulf, the assassin was fast asleep.