Celaena awoke on Yulemas morning and relished the silence.
There was something inherently peaceful about the day, despite the darkness of her encounter with Nehemia. For the moment, the whole castle had quieted to hear the falling snow. Frost laced each windowpane, a fire already crackled in the fireplace, and shadows of snowflakes drifted across the floor. It was as peaceful and lovely a winter morning as she could imagine. She wouldn’t ruin it with thoughts of Nehemia, or of the duel, or of the ball she wasn’t allowed to attend tonight. No, it was Yulemas morning, and she would be happy.
It didn’t feel like a holiday to celebrate the darkness that gave birth to the spring light, nor did it feel like a holiday to celebrate the birth of the Goddess’s firstborn son. It was simply a day when people were more courteous, looked twice at a beggar in the street, remembered that love was a living thing. Celaena smiled and rolled over. But something got in her way. It was crinkly and harsh against her face, and had the distinct odor of—
“Candy!” A large paper bag sat on a pillow, and she found that it was filled with all sorts of confectionary goodies. There was no note, not even a name scribbled on the bag. With a shrug and glowing eyes, Celaena pulled out a handful of sweets. Oh, how she adored candy!
Celaena issued a jolly laugh and crammed some of the candy into her mouth. One by one, she chewed through the assortment, and she closed her eyes and breathed in deeply as she tasted all of the flavors and textures.
When she finally stopped chewing, her jaw ached. She emptied the contents of the bag onto the bed, ignoring the dunes of sugar that poured out with it, and surveyed the land of goodness before her.
All of her favorites were there: chocolate-covered gummies, chocolate almond bark, berry-shaped chews, gem–shaped hard sugar, peanut brittle, plain brittle, sugarlace, frosted red licorice, and, most importantly, chocolate. She popped a hazelnut truffle into her mouth.
“Someone,” she said in between chews, “is very good to me.”
She paused to examine the bag again. Who had sent it? Maybe Dorian. Certainly not Nehemia or Chaol. Nor the Frost Faeries that delivered presents to good children. They’d stopped coming to her when she’d first drawn blood from another human being. Maybe Nox. He liked her well enough.
“Miss Celaena!” Philippa exclaimed from the doorway, gaping.
“Happy Yulemas, Philippa!” she said. “Care for a candy?”
Philippa stormed toward Celaena. “Happy Yulemas indeed! Look at this bed! Look at this mess!” Celaena winced.
“Your teeth are red!” Philippa cried. She reached for the hand mirror that Celaena kept by her bed and held it for the assassin to see.
Sure enough, her teeth were tinged with crimson. She ran her tongue over her teeth, then tried to brush away the stains with a finger. They remained. “Damn those sugar suckers!”
“Yes,” Philippa snapped. “And that’s chocolate all over your mouth. Even my grandson doesn’t eat his candy like this!”
Celaena laughed. “You have a grandson?”
“Yes, and he can eat his food without getting it on the bed, on his teeth, and on his face!”
Celaena pushed back the covers, sugar spraying into the air. “Have a candy, Philippa.”
“It’s seven in the morning.” Philippa swept the sugar into her cupped palm. “You’ll make yourself sick.”
“Sick? Who can get sick from candy?” Celaena made a face and exposed her crimson teeth.
“You look like a demon,” said Philippa. “Just don’t open your mouth and no one will notice.”
“You and I both know that’s not possible.”
To her surprise, Philippa laughed. “Happy Yulemas, Celaena,” she said. Hearing Philippa call her by her name sent an unexpected burst of pleasure through her. “Come,” the servant clucked. “Let’s get you dressed—the ceremony begins at nine.” Philippa bustled toward the dressing room, and Celaena watched her go. Her heart was big and as red as her teeth. There was good in people—deep down, there was always a shred of good. There had to be.
Celaena emerged a while later, clad in a solemn-looking green dress that Philippa had deemed the only appropriate gown for temple attendance. Celaena’s teeth were, of course, still red, and now she felt queasy as she stared at the bag of candy. However, she quickly forgot about her sickness when she saw Dorian Havilliard sitting at the table in her bedroom with crossed legs. He wore a beautiful white-and-gold jacket.
“Are you my present, or is there something in that basket at your feet?” she asked.
“If you’d like to unwrap me,” he said, lifting the large wicker basket onto the table, “we still have an hour until the temple service.”
She laughed. “Happy Yulemas, Dorian.”
“And to you as well. I can see that I— Are your teeth red?”
She clamped her mouth shut, shaking her head in violent protestation.
He grabbed her nose and pinched it closed, and try as she might, she could not dislodge his fingers. She opened her mouth, and he burst into laughter. “Been eating candies, have you?”
“You sent those?” She kept her mouth closed as much as possible.
“Of course.” He picked up the brown bag of candy on the table. “What’s your . . .” He trailed off as he weighed the bag in his hands. “Didn’t I give you three pounds of candy?”
She smiled impishly.
“You ate half the bag!”
“Was I supposed to save it?”
“I would have liked some!”
“You never told me that.”
“Because I didn’t expect you to consume all of it before breakfast!”
She snatched the bag from him and put it on the table. “Well, that just shows poor judgment on your part, doesn’t it?”
Dorian opened his mouth to reply, but the bag of candy tipped over and spilled across the table. Celaena turned just in time to see the slender golden snout protruding from the basket, inching toward the candy. “What is that?” she asked flatly.
Dorian grinned. “A Yulemas present for you.”
The assassin flipped back the lid of the basket. The nose instantly shot inward, and Celaena found the strange golden-haired pup quivering in a corner with a red bow around her neck.
“Oh, puppy,” she crooned, and petted her. The dog trembled, and she glared at Dorian over her shoulder. “What did you do, you buffoon?” she hissed.
Dorian threw his hands in the air. “It’s a gift! I almost lost my arm—and more important parts—trying to put that bow on, and then she howled all the way up here!”
Celaena looked piteously at the dog, which was now licking the sugar off her fingers. “What am I going to do with her? You couldn’t find an owner, so you decided to give her to me?”
“No!” he said. “Well, yes. But—she didn’t seem so frightened when you were around, and I remembered how my hounds followed you when we traveled from Endovier. Perhaps she’ll trust you enough to become adapted to humans. Some people have those kinds of gifts.” She raised an eyebrow as he paced. “It’s a lousy present, I know. I should have gotten you something better.”
The dog peered up at Celaena. Her eyes were a golden-brown color, like molten caramel. She seemed to be waiting for a blow to fall. She was a beautiful thing, and her huge paws hinted that she might someday grow large—and swift. A slight smile spread on Celaena’s lips. The dog swished her tail—once, then another time.
“She’s yours,” Dorian said, “if you want her.”
“What shall I do with her if I’m sent back to Endovier?”
“I’ll worry about that.” Celaena stroked her folded velvet-soft ears, then ventured low enough to scratch her chin. The pup’s tail wagged in earnest. Yes, there was life in her.
“So you don’t want her?” he muttered.
“Of course I want her,” Celaena said, then realized what the implications would be. “But I want her trained. I don’t want her urinating on everything and chewing on furniture and shoes and books. And I want her to sit when I tell her to and lay down and roll over and whatever it is that dogs do. And I want her to run—run with the other dogs when they’re practicing. I want her to put those long legs to use.”
Dorian crossed his arms as Celaena scooped up the dog. “That’s a long list of demands. Perhaps I should have bought you jewelry after all.”
“When I’m training”—she kissed the pup’s soft head, and the dog nestled her cold nose against Celaena’s neck—“I want her in the kennels, training as well. When I return in the afternoon, she may be brought to me. I’ll keep her in the night.” Celaena held the dog at eye level. The dog kicked her legs in the air. “If you ruin any of my shoes,” she said to the pup, “I’ll turn you into a pair of slippers. Understood?”
The dog stared at her, her wrinkled brow lifting, and Celaena smiled and set her down on the floor. She began sniffing about, though she stayed far from Dorian, and she soon disappeared beneath the bed. The assassin lifted the dust ruffle to peer underneath. Thankfully, the Wyrdmarks had been washed away entirely. The dog continued her exploration, sniffing everywhere. “I’ll have to think of a name for you,” she said to her, and then stood. “Thank you,” she said to Dorian. “It’s a lovely gift.”
He was kind—unnaturally kind, for someone of his upbringing. He had a heart, she realized, and a conscience. He was different from the others. Timidly, almost clumsily, the assassin strode over to the Crown Prince and kissed him on the cheek. His skin was surprisingly hot, and she wondered if she’d kissed him properly as she pulled away and found his eyes bright and wide. Had she been sloppy? Too wet? Were her lips sticky from the candy? She hoped he wouldn’t wipe his cheek.
“I’m sorry I don’t have a present for you,” she said.
“I—er, I didn’t expect you to.” He blushed madly and glanced at the clock. “I have to go. I’ll see you at the ceremony—or perhaps tonight after the ball? I’ll try to get away as early as I can. Though I bet that without you there, Nehemia will probably do the same—so it won’t look so bad if I leave early, too.”
She’d never seen him babble like this. “Enjoy yourself,” she said as he took a step back and almost crashed into the table.
“I’ll see you tonight, then,” he said. “After the ball.”
She hid her smile behind a hand. Had her kiss thrown him into such a tizzy?
“Good-bye, Celaena.” He looked back when he reached the door. She smiled at him, flashing her red teeth, and he laughed before he bowed and disappeared. Alone in her rooms, Celaena was about to see what her new companion was up to when the thought struck her:
Nehemia would be at the ball.
It was a simple enough thought at first, but then worse thoughts followed it. Celaena began pacing. If Nehemia were truly somehow behind the Champions’ murders—and worse, had some feral beast at her command to destroy them—and also just learned about the massacre of her people . . . then what better place to punish Adarlan than at the ball, where so many of its royals would be celebrating and unguarded?
It was irrational, Celaena knew. But what if . . . what if Nehemia unleashed whatever creature she controlled at the ball? Fine, she wouldn’t mind if Kaltain and Perrington met horrible deaths, but Dorian would be there. And Chaol.
Celaena strode into her bedroom, wringing her fingers. She couldn’t warn Chaol—because if she were wrong, then it would ruin not just her friendship with Nehemia, but also the princess’s efforts at diplomacy. But she couldn’t just do nothing.
Oh, she shouldn’t even be thinking this. But she’d seen friends do terrible things before, and it had become safer for her to believe the worst. She’d witnessed firsthand how far a need for revenge could drive someone. Perhaps Nehemia wouldn’t do anything—perhaps she was just being paranoid and ridiculous. But if something happened tonight . . .