He rolled his sleeves before picking up a cue from the rack on the wall. “Are you planning on biting the cue again? Because if you are, I’d like to invite the court painter so I can forever remember the sight.”
“Don’t you dare mock me!”
“Don’t be so serious.” He aimed at the ball and sent it gracefully into a green one, which dropped into a pocket. “You’re immensely entertaining when you’re hopping mad.”
To his surprise and delight, she laughed. “Funny to you,” she said, “infuriating for me.” She moved and took another shot. And missed.
“Let me show you how to do it.” He strode over to where she stood and set his stick down, taking hers in his hand. Nudging her out of the way, his heart beating a bit faster, he positioned himself where she stood. “You see how my thumb and index finger are always holding the upper end of the cue? All you have to do is—”
She knocked him out of the way with a swish of her hips and took the rod from him. “I know how to hold it, you buffoon.” She tried to hit the ball and missed yet again.
“You’re not moving your body the correct way. Here, just let me show you.”
Though it was the oldest and most shameless trick in the book, he reached over her and put his hand on top of the one that gripped the cue. He then positioned the fingers of her other hand on the wood before lightly gripping her wrist. To Dorian’s dismay, his face became warm.
His eyes shifted to her, and, to his relief, he found that she was as red as he, if not more so.
“If you don’t stop feeling and start instructing, I’m going to rip out your eyes and replace them with these billiard balls.”
“Look, all you have to do is . . .” He walked her through the steps, and she hit the ball smoothly. It went into a corner and rebounded into a pocket. He removed himself from her and smirked. “See? If you do it properly, it’ll work. Try again.” He picked up his cue. She snorted, but still positioned herself, aimed, and hit it. The cue ball shot all around the table, creating general chaos. But at least she made contact.
He grabbed the triangle and held it in the air. “Care for a game?”
The clock struck two before they stopped. He had ordered an array of desserts to be brought in the midst of their playing, and though she protested, she gobbled down a large piece of chocolate cake and then ate half of his piece, too.
He won every game, yet she hardly noticed. As long as she hit the ball, it resulted in shameless bragging. When she missed—well, even the fires of Hell couldn’t compare to the rage that burst from her mouth. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d laughed so hard.
When she wasn’t cursing and sputtering, they spoke of the books they’d both read, and as she jabbered on and on, he felt as if she hadn’t spoken a word in years and was afraid she’d suddenly go mute again. She was frighteningly smart. She understood him when he spoke of history, or of politics—though she claimed to loathe the subject—and even had a great deal to say about the theater. He somehow wound up promising to take her to a play after the competition. An awkward silence arose at that, but it quickly passed.
Dorian was slumped in an armchair, resting his head on a hand. She lay sprawled across the chair facing his, her legs dangling off an arm. She stared at the fire, her eyelids half-closed. “What are you thinking?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. She let her head drop onto the arm of the chair. “Do you think Xavier and the other Champion murders were intentional?”
“Perhaps. Does it make a difference?”
“No.” She lazily waved her hand in the air. “Never mind.”
Before he could ask more, she fell asleep.
He wished he knew more about her past. Chaol had only told him that she came from Terrasen, and that her family was dead. He hadn’t the faintest clue what her life was like, how she became an assassin, how she learned to play the pianoforte . . . It was all a mystery.
He wanted to know everything about her. He wished she’d just tell him. Dorian stood and stretched. He placed their cues on the rack, arranged the balls, and returned to the slumbering assassin. He shook her gently, and she groaned in protest. “You may want to sleep there, but you’ll sorely regret it in the morning.”
Barely opening her eyes, she stood and shuffled to the door. When she nearly walked into the doorpost, he decided that a guiding arm was needed before she broke something. Trying not to think of the warmth of her skin beneath his hand, he directed her to her bedroom and watched her stagger into bed, where she collapsed on top of the blankets.
“Your books are there,” she mumbled, pointing at a stack by her bed. He slowly entered the chamber. She lay still, her eyes closed. Three candles burned on various surfaces. With a sigh, he moved to blow them out before approaching her bed. Was she sleeping?
“Good night, Celaena,” he said. It was the first time he’d addressed her by her name. It came off his tongue nicely. She mumbled something that sounded like “nahnuh,” and did not move. A curious necklace glittered in the hollow of her throat. He felt as if it were familiar somehow, like he’d seen it before. With a final glance, he picked up the stack of books and left the room.
If she became his father’s Champion, and later gained her freedom, would she remain the same? Or was this all a facade to get what she wanted? But he couldn’t imagine that she was pretending. Didn’t want to imagine that she was pretending.
The castle was silent and dark as he walked back to his room.
At their Test the next afternoon, Celaena stood in the training hall with her arms crossed, watching Cain spar with Grave. Cain knew who she was; all of her simpering and pretending and holding back had been for nothing. It had amused him.
She clenched her jaw as Cain and Grave flew across the sparring ring, swords clanging. The Test was fairly simple: they were each given a sparring partner, and if they won their duel, they needn’t worry about being eliminated. The losers, however, would face judgment by Brullo. Whoever had performed the worst would be sent packing.
To his credit, Grave held up well against Cain, even though she saw how his knees trembled from the effort. Nox, standing beside her, hissed as Cain shoved into Grave and sent him staggering back.
Cain smiled throughout the entire thing, barely panting. Celaena clenched her hands into fists, pushing them hard against her ribs. In a flash of steel, Cain had his blade at Grave’s throat, and the pockmarked assassin bared his rotting teeth at him. “Excellent, Cain,” Brullo said, clapping. Celaena struggled to control her breathing.
“Look out, Cain,” Verin said from beside her. The curly-headed thief grinned at her. She hadn’t been thrilled when it had been announced she was to spar against Verin. But at least it wasn’t Nox. “Little lady wants a piece of you.”
“Watch yourself, Verin,” Nox warned, his gray eyes burning.
“What?” Verin said. Now the other Champions—and everyone else—were turning to them. Pelor, who had been lingering nearby, retreated a few steps. Smart move. “Defending her, are you?” Verin taunted. “Is that the bargain? She opens her legs, and you keep an eye on her during practice?”
“Shut your mouth, you damned pig,” Celaena snapped. Chaol and Dorian pushed off from where they both leaned against the wall, coming closer to the ring.
“Or what?” Verin said, nearing her. Nox stiffened, his hand drifting to his sword.
But Celaena refused to back down. “Or I’ll rip out your tongue.”
“That’s enough!” Brullo barked. “Take it out in the ring. Verin. Lillian. Now.”
Verin gave her a snakelike smile, and Cain clapped him on the back as he entered the chalk-etched circle, drawing his sword.
Nox put a hand on her shoulder, and out of the corner of her eye, she spied Chaol and Dorian watching them closely. She ignored them.
It was enough. Enough of the pretending and the meekness. Enough of Cain.
Verin raised his sword, shaking his blond curls out of his eyes. “Let’s see what you’ve got.”
She stalked toward him, keeping her sword sheathed at her side. Verin’s grin widened as he lifted his blade.
He swung, but Celaena struck, ramming her fist into his arm, sending the blade soaring through the air. In the same breath, her palm hit his left arm, knocking it aside, too. As he staggered back, her leg came up, and Verin’s eyes bulged as her foot slammed into his chest. The kick sent him flying, and his body crunched as it hit the floor and slid out of the ring, instantly eliminating him. The hall was utterly silent.
“Mock me again,” she spat at Verin, “and I’ll do that with my sword the next time.” She turned from him, and found Brullo’s face slack. “Here’s a lesson for you, Weapons Master,” she said, stalking past him. “Give me real men to fight. Then maybe I’ll bother trying.”
She strode away, past the grinning Nox, and stopped before Cain. She stared up at his face—a face that might have been handsome had he not been a bastard—and smiled with sweet venom. “Here I am,” she said, squaring her shoulders. “Just a little lapdog.”
Cain’s black eyes gleamed. “All I hear is yapping.”
Her hand itched toward her sword, but she kept it at her side. “Let’s see if you still hear yapping when I win this competition.” Before he could say more, she stalked to the water table.
Only Nox dared speak to her after that. Surprisingly, Chaol didn’t reprimand her, either.
When she was safely back in her rooms after the Test, Celaena watched the snowflakes drift from the hills beyond Rifthold. They swept toward her, harbingers of the storm that was to come. The late afternoon sun, trapped beneath a wall of pewter, stained the clouds a yellowish gray, making the sky unusually bright. It felt surreal, as if the horizon had disappeared beyond the hills. She was stranded in a world of glass.
Celaena left the window, but stopped before the tapestry and its depiction of Queen Elena. She had often wished for adventure, for old spells and wicked kings. But she hadn’t realized it would be like this—a fight for her freedom. And she’d always imagined that there’d be someone to help her—a loyal friend or a one-armed soldier or something. She hadn’t imagined she would be so . . . alone.
She wished Sam were with her. He’d always known what to do, always had her back, whether she wanted him to or not. She would give anything—anything in the world—to have him still with her.
Her eyes burned, and Celaena put a hand to the amulet. The metal was warm beneath her fingers—comforting, somehow. She took a step back from the tapestry to better study the entire scope of it.
In the center stood a stag, magnificent and virile, gazing sideways at Elena. The symbol of the royal house of Terrasen, of the kingdom that Brannon, Elena’s father, had founded. A reminder that though Elena had become Queen of Adarlan, she still belonged to Terrasen. Like Celaena, no matter where Elena went, no matter how far, Terrasen would always own a part of her.
Celaena listened to the wind howl. With a sigh, she shook her head and turned away.
Find the evil in the castle . . . But the only truly evil thing in this world is the man ruling it.
Across the castle, Kaltain Rompier clapped lightly as a troupe of acrobats finished their tumbling. The performance had stopped at last. She didn’t feel inclined to watch peasants bouncing about in bright colors for hours, but Queen Georgina enjoyed it, and had invited her to sit beside the throne today. It was an honor, and had been arranged through Perrington.
Perrington wanted her; she knew it. And if she pushed, she could easily get him to offer to make her his duchess. But duchess wasn’t enough—not when Dorian was still unmarried. Her head had been pounding for the past week, and today it seemed to throb with the words: Not enough. Not enough. Not enough. Even in her sleep, the pain seeped in, warping her dreams into nightmares so vivid she couldn’t remember where she was when she awoke.