Chaol sighed through his nose. “I’m glad you find humor in a man’s murder.”
She made herself grin at him. “Cain is the most likely candidate. You’re from Anielle—you should know more than anyone how they are in the White Fang Mountains.”
He ran a hand through his short hair. “You should mind who you accuse. While Cain is a brute, he’s Duke Perrington’s Champion.”
“And I’m the Crown Prince’s Champion!” She flipped her hair over a shoulder. “I should think that means I can accuse whomever I please.”
“Just tell me plainly: where were you last night?”
She straightened, staring into his golden-brown eyes. “As my guards can attest, I was here the entire night. Though if the king wants me questioned, I can always tell him that you can vouch for me, too.”
Chaol glanced at her ring, and she hid her smile as a faint line of color crept into his cheeks. He said, “I’m sure you’ll be even more pleased to hear that you and I won’t be having a lesson today.”
She grinned at that, and sighed dramatically as she slid back under the blankets and nestled into her pillows. “Immensely pleased.” She pulled the blankets up to her chin and batted her eyelashes at him. “Now get out. I’m going to celebrate by sleeping for another five hours.” A lie, but he bought it.
She closed her eyes before she could see the glare he gave her, and smiled to herself when she heard him stalk out of the room. It was only when she heard him slam the doors to her room that she sat up.
The Champion had been eaten?
Last night in her dream—no, it hadn’t been a dream. It had been real. And there had been those screeching creatures . . . Had Xavier been killed by one of them? But they’d been in the tomb; there was no way they could have been in the castle halls without someone noticing. Some vermin probably got to the body before it was found. Very, very hungry vermin.
She shuddered again, and leapt out from under the blankets. She needed a few more makeshift weapons, and a way to fortify the locks on her windows and doors.
Even as she readied her defenses, she kept assuring herself that it was nothing to worry about at all. But with a few hours of freedom ahead of her, she brought as many of them with her as possible as she locked the door to her bedroom and slipped into the tomb.
Celaena paced the length of the tomb, snarling to herself. There was nothing here that explained Elena’s motives. Or what the source of this mysterious evil might be. Absolutely nothing.
In the daytime, a ray of sunlight shone into the tomb, making all the dust motes she stirred up swirl like falling snow. How was it possible that there was light so far beneath the castle? Celaena paused beneath the grate in the ceiling, peering up at the light flowing through it.
Sure enough, the sides of the shaft shimmered—they were lined with polished gold. A lot of gold, if it meant reflecting the sun’s rays all the way down here.
Celaena stalked between the two sarcophagi. Though she’d brought three of her makeshift weapons, she’d found no trace of whatever had been growling and screeching last night. And no trace of Elena, either.
Celaena paused beside Elena’s sarcophagus. The blue gem embedded in her stone crown pulsed in the faint sunlight.
“What was your purpose in telling me to do those things?” she mused aloud, her voice echoing off of the intricately carved walls. “You’ve been dead for a thousand years. Why still bother with Erilea?”
And why not get Dorian or Chaol or Nehemia or someone else to do it?
Celaena rapped a finger on the queen’s pert nose. “One would think you’d have better things to do with your afterlife.” Though she tried to grin, her voice came out quieter than she would have liked.
She should go; even with her bedroom door locked, someone was bound to come looking for her sooner or later. And she highly doubted that anyone would believe her if she told them that she’d been charged with a very important mission by the first Queen of Adarlan. In fact, she realized with a grimace, she’d be lucky if she weren’t accused of treason and magic-using. It would certainly guarantee her return to Endovier.
After a final sweep of the tomb, Celaena left. There was nothing useful here. And besides, if Elena wanted her to be the King’s Champion so badly, then she couldn’t spend all her time hunting down whatever this evil was. It would probably hurt her chances of winning, actually. Celaena hurried up the steps, her torch casting odd shadows on the walls. If this evil was as threatening as Elena made it seem, then how could she possibly defeat it?
Not that the thought of something wicked dwelling in the castle scared her or anything.
No. It wasn’t that at all. Celaena huffed. She’d focus on becoming King’s Champion. And then, if she won, she’d go about finding this evil.
An hour later, flanked by guards, Celaena held her chin high as they strode through the halls toward the library. She smiled at the young chevaliers they passed—and smirked at the court women who eyed her pink-and-white gown. She couldn’t blame them; the dress was spectacular. And she was spectacular in it. Even Ress, one of the handsomer guards posted outside her rooms, had said so. Naturally, it hadn’t been too difficult to convince him to escort her to the library.
Celaena smiled smugly to herself as she nodded to a passing nobleman, who raised his eyebrows at the sight of her. He was immensely pale, she noticed as he opened his mouth to say something, but Celaena continued down the hall. Her steps quickened at the rumblings of arguing male voices that echoed off the stones as they neared a bend.
Hurrying farther, Celaena ignored the click of Ress’s tongue as she rounded the corner. She knew that smell all too well. The tang of blood and the stinging reek of decomposing flesh.
But she hadn’t expected the sight of it. “Half-eaten” was a pleasant way to describe what was left of Xavier’s rail-thin body.
One of her escorts cursed under his breath, and Ress stepped closer to her, a light hand on her back, encouraging her to keep walking. None of the gathered men looked at her as she passed, skirting the edge of the scene, and getting a better look at the body in the process.
Xavier’s chest cavity had been split open and his vital organs removed. Unless someone had moved them upon finding the body, there was no trace of them. And his long face, stripped of its flesh, was still contorted in a silent scream.
This was no accidental killing. There was a hole in the crown of Xavier’s head, and she could see that his brain was gone, too. The smears of blood on the wall looked like someone had been writing, and then rubbed it away. But even now, some of the writing remained, and she tried not to gape at it. Wyrdmarks. Three Wyrdmarks, forming an arcing line that had to have once been a circle near the body.
“Holy Gods,” one of her guards muttered as they left behind the throng at the crime scene.
No wonder Chaol had looked so disheveled this morning! She straightened. He’d thought she did this? Fool. If she wanted to knock off her competitors one by one, she’d do it quick and clean—a slit throat, a knife in the heart, a poisoned glass of wine. This was just plain tasteless. And strange; the Wyrdmarks made this something more than a brutal killing. Ritualistic, perhaps.
Someone approached from the opposite direction. It was Grave, the vicious assassin, staring at the body from a distance. His eyes, dark and still like a forest pool, met hers. She ignored his rotting teeth as she jerked her chin toward the remnants of Xavier. “Too bad,” she said, deliberately not sounding very sorry at all.
Grave chuckled, sticking his gnarled fingers into the pockets of his worn and dirty pants. Didn’t his sponsor bother to properly clothe him? Obviously not, if his sponsor was nasty and foolish enough to pick him as a Champion.
“Such a pity,” Grave said, shrugging as she passed by him.
She nodded tersely, and despite herself, she kept her mouth shut as she continued down the hall. There were only sixteen of them left now—sixteen Champions, and four of them were to duel. The competition was getting steeper. She should thank whatever grim god had decided to end Xavier’s life. But for some reason, she couldn’t.
Dorian swung his sword, grunting as Chaol easily deflected the blow and parried. His muscles were sore from weeks of not practicing, and his breath was ragged in his throat as he thrust and thrust again.
“This is what comes from such idle behavior,” Chaol chuckled, stepping to the side so that Dorian stumbled forward. He remembered a time when they’d been of equal skill—though that had been long ago. Dorian, while he still enjoyed swordplay, had grown to prefer books.
“I’ve had meetings and important things to read,” Dorian said, panting. He lunged.
Chaol deflected, feigned, then thrust so hard that Dorian stepped back. His temper rose. “Meetings which you used as an excuse to start arguing with Duke Perrington.” Dorian made a wide sweep of his sword, and Chaol took up the defensive. “Or maybe you’re just too busy visiting Sardothien’s rooms in the middle of the night.” Sweat dripped from Chaol’s brow. “How long has that been going on?”
Dorian growled as Chaol switched to the offensive, and conceded step after step, his thighs aching. “It’s not what you think,” he said through his teeth. “I don’t spend my nights with her. Aside from last night, I’ve only visited her once, and she was less than warm, don’t worry.”
“At least one of you has some common sense.” Chaol delivered each blow with such precision that Dorian had to admire him. “Because you’ve clearly lost your mind.”
“And what about you?” Dorian demanded. “Do you want me to comment on how you showed up in her rooms last night—the same night another Champion died?” Dorian feinted, but Chaol didn’t fall for it. Instead, he struck strongly enough that Dorian staggered back a step, fighting to keep his footing. Dorian grimaced at the rage flickering in Chaol’s eyes. “Fine, that was a cheap shot,” he admitted, bringing his sword up to deflect another blow. “But I still want an answer.”
“Maybe I don’t have one. Like you said, it’s not what you think.” Chaol’s brown eyes gleamed, but before Dorian could debate it, his friend switched the subject with brutal aim. “How’s court?” Chaol asked, breathing hard. Dorian winced. That was why he was here. If he had to spend another moment sitting in his mother’s court, he’d go mad. “That terrible?”
“Shut up,” Dorian snarled, and slammed his sword into Chaol’s.
“It must be exceptionally awful to be you today. I bet all the ladies were begging you to protect them from the murderer inside our walls.” Chaol grinned, but it didn’t reach his eyes. Taking the time to spar with him when there was a fresh corpse in the castle was a sacrifice Dorian was surprised Chaol had been willing to make; Dorian knew how much his position meant to him.
Dorian stopped suddenly and straightened. Chaol should be doing more important things right now. “Enough,” he said, sheathing his rapier. Not missing a step, Chaol did the same.
They walked from the sparring room in silence. “Any word from your father?” Chaol asked in a voice that indicated he knew something was amiss. “I wonder where he went off to.”
Dorian let out a long breath, calming his panting. “No. I haven’t the slightest idea. I remember him leaving like this when we were children, but it hasn’t happened for some years now. I bet he’s doing something particularly nasty.”
“Be careful what you say, Dorian.”
“Or what? You’ll throw me in the dungeons?” He didn’t mean to snap, but he’d barely gotten any sleep the night before, and this Champion winding up dead did nothing to improve his mood. When Chaol didn’t bother retorting, Dorian asked: “Do you think someone wants to kill all the Champions?”