“Aren’t you afraid of me?” She glanced at his sword belt. “Or are you as deft at handling your sword as Captain Westfall?”
He stepped closer, tightening his grip. “Better,” he whispered in her ear. There: she was blushing and blinking.
“Well,” she began, but the timing was off. He’d won. She crossed her arms. “Very amusing, Your Highness.”
He bowed dramatically. “I do what I can. But you can’t have Princess Nehemia here with you.”
“And why is that? Do you believe I’m going to kill her? Why would I kill the one person in this castle who isn’t a babbling idiot?” She gave him a look that suggested he was part of the majority. “Not to mention, her guards would kill me before I even lifted a hand.”
“It simply can’t happen. She’s here to learn our customs, not to spar.”
“She’s a princess. She can do what she likes.”
“And I suppose you’re going to teach her about weaponry?”
She cocked her head. “Perhaps you’re just a little bit afraid of me.”
“I’ll escort her back to her chambers.”
She gestured widely for him to pass. “Wyrd help you.”
He ran a hand through his black hair and approached the princess, who waited for them with a hand on her hip. “Your Highness,” Dorian said, motioning to her personal guard to join them. “I’m afraid we must return you to your chambers.”
The princess looked behind his shoulder with a raised eyebrow. To his dismay, Celaena began speaking in Eyllwe to the princess, who stomped her staff. She hissed something at him. Dorian’s skill with the Eyllwe language was spotty at best, and the princess spoke too fast for him to understand. Thankfully, the assassin translated.
“She says you can return to your cushions and dancing and leave us be,” Celaena said.
He tried his best to look serious. “Tell her it’s unacceptable for her to spar.”
Celaena said something, to which the princess only waved a hand and strode past them and onto the sparring floor.
“What did you say?” Dorian said.
“I said you volunteered to be her first partner,” she said. “Well? You don’t want to upset the princess.”
“I will not spar with the princess.”
“Would you rather spar with me?”
“Perhaps if we had a private lesson in your chambers,” he said smoothly. “Tonight.”
“I’ll be waiting.” She curled her hair around a finger.
The princess twirled her staff with strength and precision that made him gulp. Deciding that he didn’t feel like having the daylights walloped out of him, he walked to the rack of weapons and selected two wooden swords. “How about some basic swordplay instead?” he asked Nehemia. To his relief, the princess nodded and handed her staff to one of her guards, then took the practice sword Dorian extended to her. Celaena would not make a fool out of him!
“You stand like this,” he said to the princess, taking a defensive stance.
Celaena smiled as she watched the Crown Prince of Adarlan lead the Princess of Eyllwe through the basic steps of fencing. He was charming, she supposed. In an arrogant sort of way. But someone with his title could have been far, far worse. It made her uneasy how he’d made her blush. In fact, he was so attractive that she had difficulty not thinking about how attractive he was, and again wondered why he wasn’t married.
She sort of wanted to kiss him.
She swallowed. She’d been kissed before, of course. By Sam, and often enough that she was no stranger to it. But it’d been over a year since she’d lost the assassin she’d grown up with. And even though the thought of kissing anyone else had once made her sick, when she saw Dorian . . .
Princess Nehemia lunged, slapping Dorian on the wrist with her sword. Celaena bit down her laughter. He grimaced and rubbed the sore joint, but then smiled as the princess began gloating.
Damn him for being so handsome!
She leaned against the wall and would have enjoyed the lesson had someone not grabbed her arm hard enough to hurt.
“What is this?” Dragged from the wall, she found herself facing Chaol.
“What is what?”
“What is Dorian doing with her?”
She shrugged. “Sparring?”
“And why are they sparring?”
“Because he volunteered to teach her how to fight?”
Chaol practically shoved her from him as he approached the pair. They stopped, and Dorian followed Chaol to a corner. They spoke quickly—angrily—before Chaol came back to Celaena. “The guards will take you to your chambers.”
“What?” She remembered their conversation on the balcony and frowned. So much for swapping stories. “The Test is tomorrow, and I need to train!”
“I think you’ve had enough training for today—it’s almost dinner. Your lesson with Brullo ended two hours ago. Get some rest, or you’ll be useless tomorrow. And no, I don’t know what the Test will be, so don’t bother asking.”
“That’s absurd!” she cried, and a pinch from Chaol kept her voice down. Princess Nehemia cast a worried glance in Celaena’s direction, but the assassin waved at her to resume her lesson with the Crown Prince. “I’m not going to do anything, you insufferable moron.”
“Are you honestly so blind that you can’t see why we can’t allow this?”
“ ‘Can’t allow’—you’re just afraid of me!”
“Don’t flatter yourself.”
“You think I want to go back to Endovier?” she hissed. “You think I’m not aware of the fact that if I flee, I’ll be hunted down for the rest of my life? You think I don’t know why I vomit when you and I run in the morning? My body is a wreck. I need to spend these extra hours here, and you shouldn’t punish me for it!”
“I’m not going to pretend to know how a criminal mind works.”
She threw her hands in the air. “You know, I actually felt guilty. Just a little guilty. And now I remember why I shouldn’t have. I hate sitting around, locked in my room, bored out of my senses. I hate all these guards and nonsense; I hate you telling me to hold back when Brullo sings Cain’s praises and I’m just there, boring and unnoticed in the middle. I hate being told what I can’t do. And I hate you most of all!”
He tapped his foot on the ground. “Are you finished?”
There was no kindness in Chaol’s face, and she clicked her tongue as she left, her fists aching to bash his teeth down his throat.
Sitting in a chair near the hearth of the great hall, Kaltain watched Duke Perrington converse with Queen Georgina atop her dais. It’d been a shame that Dorian had left so quickly an hour ago; she hadn’t even had the chance to speak to him. Which was especially irksome, given that she’d spent the better part of the morning dressing for court: her raven-black hair was neatly coiled around her head, and her skin glowed golden from the subtle shimmering powders she’d dusted on her face. Though the bindings on her pink-and-yellow gown crushed her ribs, and the pearls and diamonds around her neck strangled her, she kept her chin high, poised. Dorian had left, but having Perrington show up was an unexpected surprise. The duke rarely visited court; this had to be important.
Kaltain rose from her chair by the fire as the duke bowed to the queen and strode toward the doors. As she stepped into his path, he paused at the sight of her, his eyes gleaming with a hunger that made her want to cringe. He bowed low. “Milady.”
“Your Grace,” she smiled, forcing all that repulsion down deep, deep, deep.
“I hope you’re well,” he said, offering his arm to lead her out of the hall. She smiled again, taking it. Though he was somewhat rotund, hard muscle lay in the arm beneath her hand.
“Very well, thank you. And yourself? I feel I haven’t seen you in days and days! What a wonderful surprise to have you visit the court.”
Perrington gave her a yellow smile. “I’ve missed you as well, milady.”
She tried not to wince as his hairy, meaty fingers rubbed her pristine skin, and instead delicately inclined her head toward him. “I hope Her Majesty was in good health; was your conversation a pleasant one?”
Oh, it was so dangerous to pry, especially when she was here on his good graces. Meeting him last spring had been a stroke of luck. And convincing him to invite her to court—mostly by implying what might await him once she was out of her father’s household and without a chaperone—hadn’t been that difficult. But she wasn’t here to simply enjoy the pleasures of the court. No, she was tired of being a minor lady, waiting to be married off to the highest bidder, tired of petty politics and easily manipulated fools.
“Her Majesty is quite well, actually,” Perrington said, leading Kaltain toward her rooms. Her stomach clenched a bit. Though he didn’t hide that he wanted her, he hadn’t pushed her into bed—yet. But with a man like Perrington, who always got what he wanted . . . she didn’t have much time to find a way to avoid owning up to the subtle promise she’d made him earlier that year. “But,” the duke went on, “with a son of marriageable age, she’s busy.”
Kaltain kept her face plain. Calm. Serene. “Can we expect any news of an engagement in the near future?” Another dangerous question.
“I certainly hope so,” the duke grumbled, his face darkening beneath his ruddy hair. The jagged scar along his cheek stood out starkly. “Her Majesty already has a list of girls deemed appropriate—” The duke halted, remembering whom he spoke to, and Kaltain batted her eyelashes at him.
“Oh, I’m quite sorry,” she purred. “I didn’t mean to pry into the Royal Household’s affairs.” She patted his arm, her heart kicking into a full gallop. Dorian had been given a list of appropriate brides? Who was on it? And how could she . . . No, she’d think of that later. For now, she had to find out who stood between her and the crown.
“It’s nothing to apologize for,” he said, his dark eyes shining. “Come—tell me what you’ve been doing these past few days.”
“Not much of note. Though I met a very interesting young woman,” she said casually, leading him down a window-lined stairway into the glass section of the castle. “A friend of Dorian’s—the Lady Lillian, he called her.”
The duke went positively rigid. “You met her?”
“Oh, yes—she’s quite kind.” The lie rolled off of her tongue. “When I spoke to her today, she mentioned how much the Crown Prince likes her. I hope for her sake she was on the queen’s list.” While she’d wanted some information about Lillian, she hadn’t expected this.
“The Lady Lillian? Of course she isn’t.”
“The poor thing. I suspect her heart will be broken. I know it’s not my place to pry,” she went on, the duke growing redder and more furious by the moment, “but I heard it not an hour ago from Dorian himself that . . .”
“That what?” A thrill went through her at his anger—not anger at her, but at Lillian. At the weapon she’d just had the good fortune to stumble across.
“That he’s very attached to her. Possibly in love with her.”
“It’s true!” She gave a morose shake of the head. “How tragic.”
“Foolish is what it is.” The duke stopped at the end of the hallway that led to Kaltain’s room. His anger loosened his tongue. “Foolish and daft and impossible.”
“Someday I will explain why.” A clock chimed, off-kilter, and Perrington turned in its direction. “I have a council meeting.” He leaned close enough to whisper in her ear, his breath hot and damp against her skin. “Perhaps I’ll see you tonight?” He dragged a hand down her side before he walked away. She watched him go, and when he disappeared, she let out a shuddering sigh. But if he could get her close to Dorian . . .