Celaena was so surprised that her sweaty fingers slipped off the bowstring with a twang. The arrow missed the target board completely and landed in the straw head of a nearby practice dummy. She lowered her bow and turned around.
Arobynn Hamel, King of Assassins, watched her atop a battered barrel from the other end of the training hall. He seemed to enjoy perching on things, Celaena had noticed. 'A hobby,' he repeated, a trace of amusement flickering over his thin face. 'You're almost eleven, now. You need at least one decent skill other than ending lives.'
For nearly two years, Celaena had been taught how to fight, spy and kill under Arobynn's harsh methods. She'd been blindfolded and forced to fend off attackers, and made to scale sheer walls whilst holding a dagger in her teeth. Every time Arobynn had announced she was to be taught something new, it had never been good.
For a moment she could only stare at him in horror. Then she found her voice. 'But... what for?' she stuttered, wincing at how small her voice sounded in the echoing room. 'How will that help me?'
'It will make you more cultured.' Arobynn folded his arms, still lounging on his barrel. 'I'm not having you grow up to be a mindless killer. If anything it will make you a better assassin. Your archery is in dire need of improvement.'
'But I don't want to be more cultured!' she burst out. 'It's hard enough keeping up with everything else I have to learn!' She waved the bow at him in exasperation. She just couldn't master the thing. Even being stronger than the average ten-year-old, she couldn't pull it taught without her arms trembling from the effort, let alone aim it with any degree of accuracy. She hoped that Arobynn would notice the sweat on her face and change his mind. She was working hard enough.
Arobynn only scoffed at her. 'All you do in your spare time is read books. You need other skills besides reading.'
Celaena scowled. 'I like books.'
'It isn't open to debate.' Arobynn stood up, instantly almost twice her height. 'You start tomorrow afternoon, after sword practice. Meet me outside. Don't be late.' And with that, he turned and strode out of the room without a glance behind him.
When she was alone, Celaena picked up an arrow and nocked it, ignoring the soreness in her back and shoulders from hours of fruitless practice. She pulled the string back as far as she could, which was barely level with the tip of her nose. She breathed in, breathed out, and the arrow flew over the target and bounced off the stone wall behind it. Grumbling under her breath, she hung the bow back on its stand and went to collect all the arrows that had missed. There were quite a lot of them.
Arobynn was out of his mind. How was learning to recite poetry or play the flute supposed to make her a better fighter? She was already struggling to get by with everything else she was supposed to be doing. She didn't have the time or patience to learn silly parlour tricks- she was an assassin, not some court jester.
With a sigh, Celaena made her way to her rooms for a long bath. Her muscles were aching and she wanted as much rest as possible before another day of harsh training tomorrow. Whatever Arobynn had in mind for this new addition to her schedule, she wanted to face it after a good night's sleep.
As it turned out, making Celaena more "cultured" was even more difficult than she had predicted. For two afternoons a week, she would retire from her sword-training and dress in something smart. Then she would board the carriage waiting outside the Guild and travel somewhere to be tutored in an activity deemed appropriate by Arobynn.
Embroidery was a craft practiced by many noble women and was apparently considered to be very respectable. Unfortunately, it was also incredibly tedious. The tapestries her tutor showed her were beautiful, but Celaena couldn't replicate the complicated patterns no matter how many times she unpicked her stitching and started over. One afternoon, when she somehow managed to sew the hem of her dress into the stitchwork, her teacher tactfully suggested that it wasn't the craft for her. Arobynn was not pleased when Celaena told him she'd given up, though in her opinion three weeks was an impressive feat of staying power.
The next week she was taught chess by a fidgety man who insisted on addressing her as "child". The game only perplexed her. How could war be entertaining? It didn't help that she was constantly reminded of the King of Adarlan, the man responsible for murdering her parents, who hid behind his allies just like the little wooden pieces. As far as she could tell there was no skill involved at all. After a tantrum over the en passant move that resulted in several broken pieces, her instructor gave up and never came back.
She was convinced that Arobynn would drop the hobby idea after that, but it only seemed to make him more determined. Over the following months, Celaena tried and failed at a number of activities, including painting (time consuming), acting (pointless and humiliating) and juggling (absolutely not!). All it seemed to prove was that she was no good at anything.
In the end, Arobynn had had enough. 'I've found you a new instructor for next week,' he told her one morning, in the middle of the busy training hall where the other assassins would hear. 'And this time, there will be no giving up and no excuses. Understood?'
Celaena didn't reply, choosing instead to become interested in a couple of sparring assassins at the other end of the hall.
'I mean it, Celaena. Not even killing your instructor will excuse you this time. The next thing I choose will be permanent.'
She glowered at his retreating back as he walked past her. A few of her older acquaintances murmured to each other, and one or two grinned patronisingly. She scowled. She'd show them. She'd show them all.
'And you're holding that wrong, for a start,' Arobynn called without turning around.
Celaena looked down at the sword dangling limply from her hand, and wondered how Arobynn could have ever expected her to be something special. Perhaps it would have been better if he'd left her to die that night.
The next day, she left the Assassin's Guild and boarded the carriage with Arobynn in the usual fashion. Grateful for the chance to wear something other than tunics and training gear, she'd changed into a pale blue dress that complemented her eyes.
They stopped outside a tiny house on the edge of the city. Celaena eyed the rusted iron gate and the cracked wooden door doubtfully. What was she going to learn here? This couldn't be the home of anyone rich or talented.
Arobynn stepped up to the door and knocked once, twice.
A few moments later, it was answered by a kind-faced man with a bushy brown moustache. 'Ah, Caius! Good to see you again.' He reached out and politely shook Arobynn's hand.
Celaena blinked. She'd never heard anyone address the King of Assassins so calmly. If this man knew who he was really speaking to, he probably wouldn't be smiling so much.
'And this must be your niece.' He nodded to Celaena, and the corners of his eyes crinkled as he smiled behind his moustache.
'Yes, this is Lyra.' Whenever they were out together, it was the pretence they assumed: the caring uncle and his well-mannered niece. It had proven to be effective when carrying out assassinations. With Arobynn in full view of others with no need of an alibi, who would suspect that his sweet, charming niece had been the one to poison the Count of Rifthold's stew?
Arobynn smiled. To a stranger it might appear warm, but she knew it as the smile he wore when he was growing impatient. No doubt he was eager to get clear before the tantrums started. 'Lyra, this is Mr. Fenrig. He'll be your instructor from now on.' He cleared his throat briskly, then said, 'I'll leave her in your capable hands, and I shall be back to collect her in an hour.' And with no more than a brief pat on the shoulder, he left her alone with no idea what she was supposed to do.
'This way, Lyra.' Fenrig beckoned for her to step inside, then closed the door behind them.
Bemused, Celaena followed him down a dim, narrow hallway. If she reached out, she could touch both walls with her elbows. Compared to the Guild, which was located in a manor house on the expensive side of town, this place seemed positively miniscule.
Fenrig hummed cheerfully under his breath, apparently at ease. He'd looked short in comparison to Arobynn, but now she saw that he wasn't much taller than her. She would have found this amusing if she hadn't felt so nervous. What had Arobynn chosen for her to learn?
They emerged into a back room that overlooked a small garden. There was just enough room to accommodate a rickety wooden chair, some sparsely-furnished bookshelves... and a tall shape by the window that was hidden under a blanket. Fenrig pulled it off with a flourish, and she gasped.
It was a pianoforte. Entranced, she walked over to it. Her mother had owned one, and she'd played whenever guests had come round. Every Yulemas they would sing festive songs and Celaena would dance on her podgy little toddler feet, even when she'd been too young to talk. Her mother had never allowed the servants to clean it, and instead had polished it herself, every week, until the dark wood shone like polished glass.
'Do you have any experience with the pianoforte, Lyra?' Fenrig gestured for her to sit down. The stool was covered in patches, and stuffing leaked out of one corner.
'No, I've never played.' Celaena perched on the edge, feeling as if she was doing something forbidden. This pianoforte didn't resemble her mother's. It was old and dusty, and the keys were chipped and yellowed like an old man's teeth.
'Put your thumb there.' He pointed at a key that had been dotted with ink. She pressed down on it, and a rich, mellow note filled the little room.
'That is middle C. This is the hand position you will keep returning to. Shall we try a few scales?'
It was difficult at first as Celaena learned to move her fingers in unfamiliar ways, but before the hour was up she could pick out a few clumsy tunes. It didn't sound anything like the beautiful melodies she'd once heard back home, but for that one hour she forgot about Arobynn and sword-fighting and the aches in her muscles. When the knock on the door came, she jumped as if waking from a deep trance. How could the time have gone so quickly?
Some of her thoughts must have shown on her face, for when Arobynn saw her in the doorway he raised one eyebrow.
'So, the same time next week then?' said Fenrig as she stepped out to join her "uncle".
'Oh, yes!' Celaena burst out, then felt herself blush. 'I mean, yes please Mr. Fenrig.'
Arobynn raised his other eyebrow.
She struggled at first. As with the other activities she'd been forced to attempt, Celaena was initially frustrated by the awkward hand movements and the difficulty of reading sheet music. But she enjoyed it, and persevered. Sometimes Fenrig would play something, and she would watch in delight as his stubby fingers flickered over the keys, filling her world with music for the first time in years.
'What was that?' she asked in awe after he'd played a particularly beautiful piece of music.
'It's one of my own,' Fenrig explained modestly as he gathered the music pages into a pile.
'You wrote that?'
'Yes, though it isn't quite finished yet.' Fenrig pulled out another piece and busied himself in setting it on the stand, but she saw the smile he tried to conceal. 'You're the first person to hear it, actually.'
Those precious few hours a week were what she came to live for, where the world receded until all that existed was that little room and the dusty old pianoforte. Arobynn turned out to be right, as he often was, and with practice she learned patience. Soon she could shoot arrows with ease, and her progress was so rapid that even some of her fellow assassins started to notice. She learned to hide her mistakes in combat; if you made it appear intentional and kept going, you were less likely to be knocked to the ground. In some ways, playing the pianoforte was similar to fighting.
During those musical hours, Celaena wasn't an assassin but a dancer, an artist. Another person. And she saw that life didn't have to be about killing.
Celaena progressed from scales to simple melodies to complex pieces, where the harmonies overlapped and danced across the page. Her world was no longer silent, but filled with song. She hummed as she threw daggers, tapped out rhythms on the pommel of her sword (much to the annoyance of Sam Cortland).
But for Celaena, happiness never lasted for long.
'How's your sword play?' demanded Arobynn one afternoon, strolling into the training room with his hands behind his back.
Celaena puffed out her chest. 'Excellent.' This was no exaggeration; she'd improved dramatically over the last few months. No doubt he'd be proud of her.
Arobynn prowled around her, unimpressed. 'Show me.'
Puzzled, she raised her sword and turned back towards Sam, who she'd been sparring with her a few moments ago. Arobynn's sour mood seemed to radiate off him in waves despite his blank expression. Most likely one of his clients was being difficult. She swallowed.
'Other hand,' he ordered.
Heart sinking, Celaena transferred the sword to her left hand. She had practiced occasionally in this way, but the weapon felt heavy and clumsy in her grip.
Even as she engaged Sam in combat, she knew she couldn't win. Blocking his attacks felt awkward and her weaker arm muscles meant her swings were useless. She landed on the floor, the sword clattering down beside her.
'Get up,' said Arobynn coldly.
Sam's eyes flicked over her face and she thought she saw an apology there, but then he slunk away. She clambered to her feet, her knuckles stinging where she'd grazed them.
Arobynn told her to hold out her hands, and then tapped her right palm with a finger. 'Break it.'
Celaena snatched her hand back. 'What?'
'You're not using that hand until you can fight well with both.' Arobynn's grey eyes were like two chips of ice. 'Break it, by tomorrow, or I'll do it myself.'
'But...' She watched helplessly as he turned on the spot and stormed out, his cloak billowing out behind him like the wings of a raven.
Later, as she slammed the door on her hand with all her force, it wasn't the pain that brought tears to her eyes. It was the knowledge that she wouldn't be playing the pianoforte any time soon.
When her next afternoon with Fenrig arrived, Celaena stepped outside the doors of the Guild to find that no Arobynn awaited her with a carriage. He'd told her yesterday that she wouldn't be having any more lessons. Perhaps he'd hoped that a shattered hand would make her concentrate more on the "important" work.
Well, he was wrong. She still had some money from her last contract; she could pay for the lessons herself. So without telling anyone where she was going, Celaena hired a carriage and set off alone. She was careful to ensure that no one saw her go.
Fenrig was surprised to see her on her own. 'Oh dear,' he said when he saw her hand wrapped in bandages. 'How did you manage that?'
'I trapped it.' Celaena's words were barely more than a whisper. 'In the door. So I won't be able to do much.' She'd known this, but she couldn't give up these precious hours. Not now, when she needed them most.
She took a deep breath. 'But I can use my other hand.' It was true that her left hand could use work. She could practice reading the bass clef. 'I'd like to try.'
So for the next few months she played everything with her left hand, singing the other notes herself. She played the right hand notes with her left until she could have swapped hands over and played the opposite melodies. She became as good a pianoforte player as an assassin. Better, perhaps.
And with her musical skill came a glimpse into another life she might have: living modestly, travelling the world from tavern to theatre and performing for commoner and noble alike. A life without killing, filled with song.
She would like to have that life one day.
Fenrig never again asked how she broke her hand. He never expected more than she was willing to say. Not once had he ever expressed curiosity about her family, and Celaena was grateful. Even when she played, there were no impossibly-high expectations, no punishments if she failed. Arobynn might have taught her persistence and ruthlessness, but Fenrig showed her patience and kindness, and they were much more valuable.
And when he gave her a small bag of chocolates for her eleventh birthday, she very nearly burst into tears.
'It's only sweets,' he said, looking slightly embarrassed by her tearful squeaks of gratitude. He patted her tentatively on the shoulder. 'This uncle of yours... he doesn't look after you too well, does he?'
'He's been good to me,' Celaena told him, and she meant it. Arobynn had saved her life, and for that she owed him everything. He'd taken her in and given her a new home, a new name, a second chance.
He'd also broken her hand and had her beaten whilst blindfolded.
Celaena looked up into Fenrig's warm, brown eyes, and realised she wanted to tell him everything. Not even Arobynn knew the full story of that night, of how she'd woken up to find her parents dead and had barely escaped the forces of the King. She could never tell anyone that her real name was Aelin Ashryver Galathynius, heir to the throne of Terrasen.
She'd never imagined she'd be so tempted.
And after living for two years without any friends worth confiding in, was it so wrong that she should want to tell one person, just once?
Celaena's jaw opened and closed, but no sound came out. There was nothing to say, apart from the truth and that was locked up tight within her. Fenrig might be her friend, but she couldn't tell him anything.
It wasn't until she felt moisture dripping from her chin onto her dress that she became aware of the tears streaming down her face. She didn't know how to hide from Fenrig. For so many afternoons she had lived as Lyra, hopeful for a future career as a performer, that she wasn't sure how to be Celaena anymore.
'I have to go,' she croaked, standing up so quickly that the stool fell over with a bang.
'Are you alright?' Fenrig looked concerned and he stood up as well. 'If there's anything I can do to help you, Lyra...'
In just a few months, that name had become more familiar to her than Aelin ever had. And to hear it spoken so gently, so sincerely... it was more than she could take. After no more than a mumbled apology she ran from the house.
Lies. Ever since Arobynn had dragged her from that river, her life had been nothing but lies. They were like layers of armour, protecting the truth within. She couldn't tell anyone, especially Fenrig. It was for his own safety as much as hers.
It was frightening how close she'd come to telling him the truth. Arobynn had warned her not to get attached to anyone. Celaena ran all the way back to the Guild, afraid that if she slowed down she would see Fenrig running after her.
When she returned, she hurried upstairs and collapsed onto her bed, sweating and shaking. A few hours later she wandered downstairs, pretending she'd spent the afternoon reading.
For the rest of the week, Fenrig's worried face remained in her mind, and when the next free afternoon arrived she still hadn't decided what she was going to say to him.
As Celaena stepped down from the carriage, she noticed that the rusted front gate had been left open. Did Fenrig have visitors?
Leaves crunched under her feet as she approached the door. She waited for a long moment, but there were no sounds of voices within. She knocked- and the door swung gently open.
Damp leaves littered the hallway, as though the wind had only recently blown the door closed.
Celaena pushed it open, wishing that she'd thought to hide a dagger under her clothes. But what kind of eleven-year-old brought a knife to music lessons?
The smell of soggy leaves seemed to follow her as she padded down the hallway and wandered through the house. In the living room, the fire had burnt to cold ash in its grate, a cup of tea abandoned beside a wizened armchair. The kitchen was deserted, and the only sound in the empty bedroom was the ticking of a wall clock.
She didn't want to look in the back room.
Dread seemed to pull her gaze towards the closed door at the end of the hall. Celaena picked up a disused candelabra from a nearby shelf, testing the weight in her hand before proceeding. With each step, it became more difficult to breathe.
She opened the door.
The room looked the same as it always did. Pale light seeped through the window, giving everything a washed-out appearance. Fenrig was even at his stool by the pianoforte, leaning forward as if to turn the page of his sheet music.
The world slowed to a crawl as Celaena stepped towards him and reached for his hand. His fingers were cold. The expression on his face was blank, peaceful. He'd never seen the blow that had ended his life.
A shadow appeared in the corner of her vision like a blotch of ink in her eye. Even on these old floorboards, his boots were almost soundless.
'You killed him,' she said quietly.
Arobynn seemed to fill the doorway of the little room. His face was set in an unforgiving mask. 'Yes.'
'Why?' she whispered.
'Because you disobeyed my instructions.' He walked into the room that had been her haven, her safe place away from the Guild. 'I said that you were not to leave without my permission. And you chose to blatantly disregard me with no thought for your own safety. A child, alone on the streets of Rifthold. Did you hope to run away some day?'
'I'm not your pet!' she shouted. 'You can't control everything in my life!' And with her left hand she raised the candelabra above her head to strike at him, blinded by grief and anger.
In the next second, she was sprawling on the cold wooden floor as it fell from her hand. Coloured lights blurred before her eyes. He'd died as he was playing. Fenrig's final song had never been finished.
Arobynn towered above her and pointed his sword at her head. 'I own you,' he breathed. 'Whether you like it or not, I own you, Celaena Sardothien. And you will do as I say or you will end up dead. Do you think I don't care about you? That I'm heartless?'
Celaena could only stare up at him and wonder how someone so cruel could have chosen to rescue her from that frozen lake.
'Disobey me and you put yourself in danger.' Almost carelessly, he walked over to the pianoforte and picked up the songbook. Then without taking his eyes off her, he ripped it up and threw the tattered pieces to the floor. 'Get out,' he said quietly.
Celaena fled, a broken child once more.
She didn't say a word on the journey back to the Guild. All she could think about was those happy afternoons with Fenrig, now lost. She'd seen what life outside the Guild could be like and had found hope. And now it had been taken from her.
As she met the glare of the King of Assassins opposite her, Celaena realised that it was possible to hate someone more than the King of Adarlan.
Time passed slowly in the Assassin's Guild. Celaena refused to train, and she spent most of her time locked in her room, grieving. She didn't care if she was punished. There was nothing more they could take from her anyway.
A few days later, Arobynn had to leave the city on a "business trip" for several contracts, which meant there was no one around to tell her what to do. That night, Celaena armed herself with as many daggers as she could find, fastened a small leather pouch around her waist and climbed out of her window under cover of darkness. Her small body made easy work of the tiled roof, and before long she was leaping over the houses of Rifthold with the moon shining on her. The darkness and cool air around her was calming, though sadness still burned a hole in her heart.
It took her a long time to find the little house on the edge of town. At night, the cottage looked lonely and uninviting. The front door had been locked, but her nimble fingers made quick work of it and then she was walking back down the darkened hallway. Without hesitation, she headed for the back room.
Little had been moved from last time. Someone had moved Fenrig- no doubt Arobynn had paid someone to dispose of his body discreetly.
The torn-up sheet music was still scattered over the floor, some of it marred with dusty bootprints. She picked up every fragment she found find and put them in her pouch, imagining she was picking up tiny messages that Fenrig had written just for her. Then she left as quietly as she'd come.
Without pianoforte lessons to look forward to, the weeks blurred into monotony. Celaena threw all her pain and anger into honing her deadly skills, and made further improvements with her technique. On her spare afternoons she retired to her room, where she spent several hours putting the pieces of Fenrig's work back together. Eventually she'd written out all six pages of his masterpiece onto fresh parchment, and vowed to commit every note to memory.
After savouring the graceful beauty of the pianoforte, life without music seemed pointless and empty. With her improved skills came a greater degree of trust from Arobynn and more contracts to fulfil. Celaena saved up everything she earned- she even refrained from buying books such was her determination- and as soon as she had enough she went out and bought what she needed most.
It wasn't large or particularly shiny, but it had keys and an attractive sound. It was a pianoforte for those who couldn't afford the proper thing, the type you saw in cheap taverns, but it played well enough. She'd bought it with her own money, and that was what counted. Every free afternoon was filled with music again, but it was more difficult to enjoy it alone.
After much deliberation, Celaena decided to finish Fenrig's song. His style wasn't easy to replicate, so she hoped she did him justice. When her fingers found the familiar notes, tears instantly leapt to her eyes. If anything, it was better than what she'd heard as a child, and she loved every note fiercely.
Arobynn entered her room once or twice to hear her play. Perhaps he considered it a peace offering. Celaena played almost mechanically when he was there, never allowing him to know the true extent of her talent. And she never played Fenrig's song.
But she sung it in her heart. When it felt like her life would never change for the better she reminded herself that there was good in the world. If an orphaned girl turned assassin could find joy in a musical instrument then there would be other things to make her happy too.
Arobynn had lost her trust that day. He'd shown her what she might become if she remained on the path she was on.
She would devote every day to her training, she decided. She would meet every obstacle with a fire in her heart and a song on her lips. Celaena Sardothien would become a name that the people of Rifthold would know and fear.
And when she'd paid off her debt to Arobynn, she would find a place that required her musical skill and build a new life from the pieces that were left.
Just like the notes of a torn-up melody.