“You don’t have to. But you’re not going back to prison if you fail, and you’re not going to be the Champion, even if you make it to the duels. So you need to leave.”
“Do I want to know what’s killing the Champions?”
She fought her shudder as she recalled the fangs and stench of the creature. “No,” she said, unable to keep the fear from her voice. “You don’t. You just have to trust me—and trust that I’m not trying to eliminate my competition by tricking you.”
Whatever he read in her expression made his shoulders sag. “All of this time, I thought you were just some pretty girl from Bellhaven who stole jewels to get her father’s attention. Little did I know that the blond-haired girl was Queen of the Underworld.” He smiled ruefully. “Thank you for warning me. You could have opted to say nothing.”
“You were the only one who bothered to take me seriously,” she said, smiling with warmth that she meant. “I’m surprised you even believe me.”
Brullo shouted at them, and they began walking back to the group. Chaol’s eyes were hard upon them. She knew he’d question her about their conversation later.
“Do me a favor, Celaena,” Nox said. The sound of her name startled her. He brought his mouth close to her ear. “Rip Cain’s head off,” he whispered with a wicked grin. Celaena only smiled back at him and nodded.
Nox left early that night, slipping out of the castle without a word to anyone.
The clock chimed five, and Kaltain fought the urge to rub her eyes as the opium oozed through every pore of her body. In the light of the setting sun, the castle hallways were awash with red and orange and gold, the colors bleeding together. Perrington had asked her to join his dinner table in the Great Hall, and she normally wouldn’t have dared to smoke before a public meal, but the headache that had plagued her all afternoon hadn’t gotten any better.
The hall seemed to stretch on forever. She ignored the passing courtiers and servants, focusing instead on the fading day. Someone approached from the other end, a smear of black against the gold and orange light. Shadows seemed to leak from him, flowing onto the stones and the windows and the walls like spilled ink.
She tried to swallow as she neared him, but found her tongue to be leaden and paper-dry.
Each step brought him closer—made him bigger and taller—and her heartbeat thundered in her ears. Perhaps the opium had gone bad—perhaps she’d smoked too much this time. Amid the pounding in her ears and her head, the whisper of wings filled the air.
In the space between blinks, she could have sworn she saw things swooping past him in swift, vicious circles, hovering above him, waiting, waiting, waiting . . .
“Milady,” Cain said, bowing his head as he strode by.
Kaltain said nothing. She clenched her sweaty palms and continued toward the Great Hall. It took a while for the sound of flapping wings to fade, but by the time she reached the duke’s table, she’d forgotten all about it.
After dinner that night, Celaena sat across the chessboard from Dorian. The kiss following the ball two days ago hadn’t been so bad. Nice, actually, if she was being honest. Of course, he’d returned tonight, and so far there had been no mention of the fresh scars on her hand, or the kiss. And she’d never, not in a million years, tell him about the ridderak. She might feel something for him, but if he told his father about the power of the Wyrdmarks and Wyrdgates . . . Her blood chilled at the thought.
But looking at him, with his face illuminated by firelight, she couldn’t see any resemblance to his father. No, she could only see his kindness, and intelligence, and maybe he was a tad arrogant, but . . . Celaena’s toes scratched Fleetfoot’s ears. She’d expected him to stay away, to move on to another woman now that he’d tasted her.
Well, did he even want to taste you in the first place?
He moved his High Priestess, and Celaena laughed. “Do you really wish to do that?” she asked. His face contorted with confusion, and she picked up her pawn, moving it diagonally, and easily knocked over the piece.
“Damn!” he cried, and she cackled.
“Here.” She handed him the piece. “Take it and try another move.”
“No. I’ll play like a man and accept my losses!”
They laughed, but silence soon crept over them. A smile still played about her lips, and he reached for her hand. She wanted to pull it away, but couldn’t bring herself to do it. He held her hand over the board and smoothly flattened their palms against each other, interlocking his fingers with hers. His hand was calloused but sturdy. Their entwined hands rested on the side of the table.
“One needs both hands to play chess,” she said, wondering if it were possible for her heart to explode. Fleetfoot huffed and trotted away, probably to disappear under the bed.
“I think you only need one.” He moved a piece all over the board. “See?”
She chewed her lip. Still, she didn’t pull her hand from his. “Are you going to kiss me again?”
“I’d like to.” She couldn’t move as he leaned toward her, closer and closer, the table groaning beneath him, until he stopped, his lips just a hair’s breadth from hers.
“I ran into your father in the hall today,” she blurted.
Dorian slowly sat back in his chair. “And?”
“And it was fine,” she lied. His eyes narrowed.
He lifted her chin with a finger. “You didn’t say that to avoid the inevitable, did you?” No, she’d said that just to keep talking, to keep him here as long as he would be willing to stay, so she didn’t have to face a night alone with the threat of Cain hovering over her. Who better to keep at her side in the dark hours of the night than the son of the king? Cain wouldn’t dare harm him.
But all of this . . . everything that had happened with the ridderak meant all the books she’d read were true. What if Cain could summon anything to him—like the dead? There were many people who lost their fortunes when magic vanished. Even the king himself might be intrigued by this sort of power.
“You’re trembling,” Dorian said. She was. Like a damned idiot, she was trembling. “Are you all right?” He moved around the table to sit beside her.
She couldn’t tell him; no, he could never know. Just as he couldn’t know that when she’d checked under her bed before dinner, there were fresh chalk marks for her to wash away. Cain knew that she’d discovered how he was eliminating the competition. Perhaps he’d hunt her down tonight, or perhaps not—she hadn’t the faintest idea. But she’d get little sleep tonight—or until Cain was impaled on the end of her sword.
“I’m fine,” she said, though her voice was little more than a whisper. But if he kept asking, she was bound to tell him.
“Are you sure that you’re feeling—” he began, but she surged forward and kissed him.
She almost knocked him to the floor. But he shot out an arm to the back of the chair and braced himself as his spare arm wrapped around her middle. She let the touch, the taste of him fill the room of her mind with water. She kissed him, hoping to steal some of his air. Her fingers entangled themselves in his hair, and as he kissed her fiercely, she let everything fade away.
The clock chimed three. Celaena sat on her bed, knees curled to her chest. After hours of kissing and talking and more kissing on her bed, Dorian had left only minutes before. She’d been tempted to ask him to stay—the smart thing would have been to ask him to stay—but the thought of Dorian being here when Cain or the ridderak came for her, of Dorian being hurt, made her let him go.
Too tired to read, but too awake to sleep, she just stared at the crackling fire. Every bump and footstep made her jolt, and she’d managed to swipe a few pins from Philippa’s sewing basket when she wasn’t looking. But a makeshift knife, a heavy book, and a candlestick weren’t protection against what Cain could summon.
You shouldn’t have left Damaris in the tomb. Going back down there wasn’t an option—not while Cain lived. She hugged her knees, shivering as she recalled the utter blackness from which the thing had come.
Cain must have learned about the Wyrdmarks in the White Fang Mountains—that cursed borderland between Adarlan and the Western Wastes. They said that evil still crept out of the ruins of the Witch Kingdom—and that old women with iron teeth still wandered the lonely roads in the mountain passes.
The hair on her arms rose, and she grabbed a fur blanket from her bed to wrap around herself. If she could stay alive until the duels, she’d defeat Cain, and this would all be over. Then she could sleep soundly again—unless Elena had something else, something bigger in mind.
Celaena rested her cheek against her knee, listening to the clock tick-tick-tick long into the night.
Thundering hooves beat the frozen ground, faster and faster as the rider whipped the horse. Snow and mud lay thick on the earth, and rogue snowflakes drifted through the night sky.
Celaena ran—swifter than her young legs could manage. Everything hurt. Trees ripped at her dress and hair; stones sliced her feet. She scrambled through the woods, breathing so hard she couldn’t muster the air to cry for help. She must reach the bridge. It couldn’t cross the bridge.
Behind her, a sword shrieked as it was drawn from its sheath.
She fell, slamming into mud and rock. The sound of the approaching demon filled the air as she struggled to rise. But the mud held fast, and she could not run.
Reaching for a bush, her small hands bleeding, the horse now close behind, she—
Celaena gasped and awoke. She put a hand to her heart and pushed against her chest as it lifted and fell. It was a dream.
The fire had dwindled to embers; a cold gray light seeped in through her curtains. It was only a nightmare. She must have dozed off at some point during the night. She clutched her amulet, running a thumb across the stone in the center.
Some protection you were when that thing attacked me the other night.
Frowning, she gently arranged her covers around Fleetfoot, and stroked the dog’s head for a moment. Dawn was near. She’d made it through another night.
Sighing, Celaena lay back and closed her eyes.
A few hours later, when news of Nox’s departure spread, she received notice that the last Test had been canceled. She would duel against Grave, Renault, and Cain tomorrow.
Tomorrow—and then her freedom would be decided.
The forest was still and frozen around Dorian, and snow collapsed from the trees in large clumps as he passed by. His eyes darted among the branches and bushes. He’d needed to come out for a hunt today, if only to let the freezing air rush through him.
He saw her face each time he closed his eyes. She haunted his thoughts, made him wish to do grand and wonderful things in her name, made him want to be a man who deserved to wear a crown.
But Celaena—he didn’t know how she felt. She kissed him—greedily, at that—but the women he’d loved in the past had always been eager. They’d gazed at him adoringly, while she just looked at him like a cat watching a mouse. Dorian straightened, detecting nearby movement. A stag stood ten yards away, feeding on bark. He stopped his horse and drew an arrow from its quiver. But he slackened the bow.
She was to duel tomorrow.
If harm came to her . . . No, she could hold her own; she was strong and smart and quick. He’d gone too far; he should never have kissed her. Because now, no matter how he might have once envisioned his future, or who he thought he’d spend it with, he couldn’t imagine being with anyone else—wanting anyone else.
Snow began falling. Dorian glanced at the gray sky and rode on through the silent game park.
Celaena stood before her balcony doors, staring down at Rifthold. The roofs were still snow-covered, and lights twinkled in every home. It might have looked beautiful, had she not known what corruption and filth dwelt within it. And what monstrosity ruled over it all. She hoped Nox was far, far away. She’d told her guards she didn’t want any visitors tonight, and to turn away even Chaol and Dorian if they arrived. Someone had knocked, once, but she didn’t answer, and they had soon left without trying again. She put her hand on a pane of glass, savoring its frozen bite. The clock struck twelve.