She moaned into her pillow. “Go away. I feel like dying.”
“No fair maiden should die alone,” he said, putting a hand on hers. “Shall I read to you in your final moments? What story would you like?”
She snatched her hand back. “How about the story of the idiotic prince who won’t leave the assassin alone?”
“Oh! I love that story! It has such a happy ending, too—why, the assassin was really feigning her illness in order to get the prince’s attention! Who would have guessed it? Such a clever girl. And the bedroom scene is so lovely—it’s worth reading through all of their ceaseless banter!”
“Out! Out! Out! Leave me be and go womanize someone else!” She grabbed a book and chucked it at him. He caught it before it broke his nose, and her eyes widened. “I didn’t mean—that wasn’t an attack! It was a joke—I didn’t mean to actually hurt you, Your Highness,” she said in a jumble.
“I’d hope that Adarlan’s Assassin would choose to attack me in a more dignified manner. At least with a sword or a knife, through preferably not in the back.”
She clutched her belly and bent over. Sometimes she hated being a woman.
“It’s Dorian, by the way. Not ‘Your Highness.’ ”
“Say my name. Say, ‘Very well, Dorian.’ ”
She rolled her eyes. “If it pleases Your Magnanimous Holiness, I shall call you by your first name.”
“ ‘Magnanimous Holiness’? Oh, I like that one.” A ghost of a smile appeared on her face, and Dorian looked down at the book. “This isn’t one of the books that I sent you! I don’t even own books like these!”
She laughed weakly and took the tea from the servant as she approached. “Of course you don’t, Dorian. I had the maids send for a copy today.”
“Sunset’s Passions,” he read, and opened the book to a random page to read aloud. “ ‘His hands gently caressed her ivory, silky br—’ ” His eyes widened. “By the Wyrd! Do you actually read this rubbish? What happened to Symbols and Power and Eyllwe Customs and Culture?”
She finished her drink, the ginger tea easing her stomach. “You may borrow it when I’m done. If you read it, your literary experience will be complete. And,” she added with a coy smile, “it will give you some creative ideas of things to do with your lady friends.”
He hissed through his teeth. “I will not read this.”
She took the book from his hands, leaning back. “Then I suppose you’re just like Chaol.”
“Chaol?” he asked, falling into the trap. “You asked Chaol to read this?”
“He refused, of course,” she lied. “He said it wasn’t right for him to read this sort of material if I gave it to him.”
Dorian snatched the book from her hands. “Give me that, you demon-woman. I’ll not have you matching us against each other.” He glanced once more at the novel, then turned it over, concealing the title. She smiled, and resumed watching the falling snow. It was blisteringly cold now, and even the fire could not warm the blasts of wind that crept through the cracks of her balcony doors. She felt Dorian watching her—and not in the cautious way that Chaol sometimes watched her. Rather, Dorian just seemed to be watching her because he enjoyed watching her.
And she enjoyed watching him, too.
Dorian didn’t realize he’d been transfixed by her until she straightened and demanded, “What are you staring at?”
“You’re beautiful,” Dorian said before he could think.
“Don’t be stupid.”
“Did I offend you?” His blood pumped through him in a strange rhythm.
“No,” she said, and quickly faced the window. Dorian watched her face turn redder and redder. He’d never known an attractive woman for so long without courting her—save for Kaltain. And he couldn’t deny that he was aching to learn what Celaena’s lips felt like, what her bare skin smelled like, how she’d react to the touch of his fingers along her body.
The week surrounding Yulemas was a time of relaxation, a time to celebrate the carnal pleasures that kept one warm on a winter’s night. Women wore their hair down; some even refused to don a corset. It was a holiday to feast on the fruits of the harvest and those of the flesh. Naturally, he looked forward to it every year. But now . . .
Now he had a sinking feeling in his stomach. How could he celebrate when word had just arrived of what his father’s soldiers had done to those Eyllwe rebels? They hadn’t spared a single life. Five hundred people—all dead. How could he ever look Nehemia in the face again? And how could he someday rule a country whose soldiers had been trained to have so little compassion for human life?
Dorian’s mouth went dry. Celaena was from Terrasen—another conquered country, and his father’s first conquest. It was a miracle Celaena bothered to acknowledge his existence—or perhaps she’d spent so long in Adarlan that she’d stopped caring. Somehow, Dorian didn’t think that was the case—not when she had the three giant scars on her back to forever remind her of his father’s brutality.
“Is there something the matter?” she asked. Cautiously; curiously. As if she cared. He took a deep breath and walked to the window, unable to look at her. The glass was cold beneath his hand, and he watched the snowflakes come crashing down to earth.
“You must hate me,” he murmured. “Hate me and my court for our frivolity and mindlessness when so many horrible things are going on outside of this city. I heard about those butchered rebels, and I—I’m ashamed,” he said, leaning his head against the window. He heard her rise and then slump into a chair. The words came out in a river, one flowing after the other, and he couldn’t stop himself from speaking. “I understand why you have such ease when killing my kind. And I don’t blame you for it.”
“Dorian,” she said gently.
The world outside the castle was dark. “I know you’ll never tell me,” he continued, voicing what he had wanted to say for some time. “But I know something terrible happened to you when you were young, something perhaps of my father’s own doing. You have a right to hate Adarlan for seizing control of Terrasen as it did—for taking all of the countries, and the country of your friend.”
He swallowed, his eyes stinging. “You won’t believe me. But . . . I don’t want to be a part of that. I can’t call myself a man when I allow my father to encourage such unforgivable atrocities. Yet even if I pleaded for clemency on behalf of the conquered kingdoms, he wouldn’t listen. Not in this world. This is the world where I only picked you to be my Champion because I knew it would annoy my father.” She shook her head, but he kept going. “But if I had refused to sponsor a Champion, my father would have seen it as a sign of dissent, and I’m not yet enough of a man to stand against him like that. So I chose Adarlan’s Assassin to be my Champion, because the choice of my Champion was the only choice I had.”
Yes, it was all clear now. “Life shouldn’t be like this,” he said, their eyes meeting as he gestured at the room. “And . . . and the world shouldn’t be like this.”
The assassin was silent, listening to the throbbing of her heart before she spoke. “I don’t hate you,” she said in little more than a whisper. He dropped into the chair across from her and put his head in a hand. He seemed remarkably lonely. “And I don’t think you’re like them. I’m—I’m sorry if I’ve hurt you. I’m joking most of the time.”
“Hurt me?” he said. “You haven’t hurt me! You’ve just . . . you’ve made things a little more entertaining.”
She cocked her head. “Just a little?”
“Maybe a tad more than that.” He stretched out his legs. “Ah, if only you could come to the Yulemas ball with me. Be grateful you can’t attend.”
“Why can’t I attend? And what’s the Yulemas ball?”
He groaned. “Nothing all that special. Just a masked ball that happens to be on Yulemas. And I think you know exactly why you can’t come.”
“You and Chaol really delight in ruining any fun I might have, don’t you? I like attending parties.”
“When you’re my father’s Champion, you can attend all the balls you want.”
She made a face. He wanted to tell her then that if he could, he would have asked her to go with him; that he wanted to spend time with her, that he thought of her even when they were apart; but he knew she would have laughed.
The clock chimed midnight. “I should probably go,” he said, stretching his arms. “I have a day of council meetings to look forward to tomorrow, and I don’t think Duke Perrington will be pleased if I’m half-asleep for all of them.”
Celaena smirked. “Be sure to give the duke my warmest regards.” There was no way she’d forgotten how the duke had treated her that first day in Endovier. Dorian hadn’t forgotten it, either. And the thought of the duke treating her like that again made him burn with cold rage.
Without thinking, he leaned down and kissed her cheek. She stiffened as his mouth touched her skin, and though the kiss was brief, he breathed in the scent of her. Pulling away was surprisingly hard. “Rest well, Celaena,” he said.
“Good night, Dorian.” As he left, he wondered why she suddenly looked so sad, and why she’d pronounced his name not with tenderness, but with resignation.
Celaena stared at the moonlight as it streamed across the ceiling. A masked ball on Yulemas! Even if it was the most corrupt and ostentatious court in Erilea, it sounded dreadfully romantic. And of course, she wasn’t allowed to go. She let out a long sigh through her nose and tucked her hands beneath her head. Was that what Chaol had wanted to ask her before she vomited—a true invitation to the ball?
She shook her head. No. The last thing he’d ever do would be to invite her to a royal ball. Besides, both of them had more important things to worry about. Like whoever was killing the Champions. Perhaps she should have sent word to him about Cain’s strange behavior earlier that afternoon.
Celaena closed her eyes and smiled. She could think of no nicer Yulemas gift than for Cain to be found dead the next morning. Still, as the clock marked the passing hours, Celaena kept her vigil—waiting, wondering what truly lurked in the castle, and unable to stop thinking of those five hundred dead Eyllwe rebels, buried in some unmarked grave.
The next evening, Chaol Westfall stood on the second floor of the castle, looking over the courtyard. Below him, two figures slowly wove through the hedges. Celaena’s white cloak made her easy to spot, and Dorian could always be noticed by the empty circle of space around him.
He should be down there, a foot behind, watching them, making sure she didn’t seize Dorian and use him to escape. Logic and years of experience screamed at him to be with them, even though six guards trailed them. She was deceitful, cunning, vicious.
But he couldn’t make his feet move.
With each day, he felt the barriers melting. He let them melt. Because of her genuine laugh, because he caught her one afternoon sleeping with her face in the middle of a book, because he knew that she would win.
She was a criminal—a prodigy at killing, a Queen of the Underworld—and yet . . . yet she was just a girl, sent at seventeen to Endovier.
It made him sick every time he thought about it. He’d been training with the guards at seventeen, but he’d still lived here, still had a roof over his head and good food and friends.
Dorian had been in the middle of courting Rosamund when he was that age, not caring about anything.