“I don’t know,” she lied. She knew very well. Cain’s access to the Otherworlds, to the In-Between, to whatever all that nonsense was, had given him the ability to see into her mind, her memories, her soul. Beyond, perhaps. A chill went through her.
Chaol’s face softened “I’m sorry they died like that.”
She shut down everything but her voice as she said, “It was very long ago. It had been raining, and I thought the dampness on their bed as I climbed in was from the open window. I awoke the next morning and realized it wasn’t rain.” She took a jagged breath, one that erased the feeling of their blood on her skin. “Arobynn Hamel found me soon after that.”
“I’m still sorry,” he said.
“It was very long ago,” she repeated. “I don’t even remember what they looked like.” That was another lie. She remembered every detail of her parents’ faces. “Sometimes, I forget that they ever existed.”
He nodded, more to confirm that he’d heard her than that he understood.
“What you did for me, Chaol,” she tried again. “Not even with Cain, but when you—”
“I have to go,” he interrupted, and half turned away.
“Chaol,” she said, grabbing his hand and whirling him to face her. She only saw the haunted gleam in his eyes before she threw her arms around his neck and held him tightly. He straightened, but she crushed her body into his, even though it still aggravated her wounds to do so. Then, after a moment, his arms wrapped around her, keeping her close to him, so close that as she shut her eyes and breathed him in, she couldn’t tell where he ended and she began.
His breath was warm on her neck as he bent his head, resting his cheek against her hair. Her heart beat so quickly, and yet she felt utterly calm—as if she could have stayed there forever and not minded, stayed there forever and let the world fall apart around them. She pictured his fingers, pushing against that line of chalk, reaching for her despite the barrier between them.
“Is everything all right?” Dorian’s voice sounded from the doorway.
Chaol pulled away from her so fast that she nearly stumbled back. “Everything’s fine,” he said, squaring his shoulders. The air had turned cold, and Celaena’s skin prickled as his warmth vacated her body. She had a hard time looking at Dorian as Chaol nodded to the prince and left her chambers.
Dorian faced her as Chaol left. But Celaena remained watching the door, even after Chaol had shut it behind him. “I don’t think he’s recovered well from killing Cain,” Dorian said.
“Obviously,” she snapped. Dorian raised his brows, and she sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“You two looked like you were in the middle of . . . something,” Dorian said cautiously.
“It’s nothing. I just felt bad for him, is all.”
“I wish he hadn’t run off that quickly. I have some good news.” Her stomach twisted. “My father stopped dragging his feet about drawing up your contract. You’re to sign it in his council chamber tomorrow.”
“You mean—you mean I’m officially the King’s Champion?”
“It turns out he doesn’t hate you as much as he let on. It’s a miracle he didn’t make you wait longer.” Dorian winked.
Four years. Four years of servitude, and then she’d be free. Why had Chaol left so soon? She looked to the door, wondering if she could catch him in the hall.
Dorian put his hands on her waist. “I suppose this means we’ll be stuck with each other for a while longer.” He lowered his face to hers.
He kissed her, but she stepped out of his arms. “I—Dorian, I’m the King’s Champion.” She choked on a laugh as she said it.
“Yes, you are,” Dorian replied, approaching her again. But she kept her distance as she looked out the window, to the dazzling day beyond. The world was wide open—and hers for the taking. She could step over that white line.
She shifted her gaze to him. “I can’t be with you if I’m the King’s Champion.”
“Of course you can. We’ll still have to keep it a secret, but—”
“I have enough secrets. I don’t need another one.”
“So I’ll find a way to tell my father. And mother.” He winced slightly.
“To what end? Dorian, I’m your father’s minion. You’re the Crown Prince.”
It was true—and if this relationship became something more, then it would only complicate matters when she eventually left the castle. Not to mention the complications of being with Dorian while she served as his father’s Champion. And whether he admitted it or not, Dorian had his own obligations to fulfill. Though she wanted him, though she cared for him, she knew a lasting relationship wouldn’t end well. Not when he was the heir to the throne.
His eyes darkened. “Are you saying that you don’t want to be with me?”
“I’m saying that . . . that I’m going to leave in four years, and I don’t know how this could possibly end well for either of us. I’m saying I don’t want to think about the options.” The sunlight warmed her skin, and the weight around her shoulders drifted away. “I’m saying that in four years, I’m going to be free, and I’ve never been free in my entire life.” Her smile grew. “And I want to know what that feels like.”
He opened his mouth, but stopped as he beheld her smile. Though she had no regrets about her choice, she felt something strangely like disappointment when he said, “As you wish.”
“But I’d like to remain your friend.”
He put his hands in his pockets. “Always.”
She thought about touching his arm, or about kissing his cheek, but “free” kept echoing through her again and again and again, and she couldn’t stop smiling.
He rolled his neck, and his smile was a bit strained. “I think Nehemia is on her way here to tell you about the contract. She’ll be mad at me for telling you first; apologize for me, will you?” He paused when he opened the door, his hand still upon the knob. “Congratulations, Celaena,” he said quietly. Before she could reply, he shut the door and left.
Alone, Celaena looked to the window and put a hand on her heart, whispering the word to herself again and again.
Several hours later, Chaol stared at the door to her dining room. He didn’t entirely know what he was doing back here. But he’d looked for Dorian in his rooms, and he hadn’t been there, and he needed to tell him that things weren’t as they’d seemed when he walked in on them earlier. He glanced at his hands.
The king had barely said anything to him over the past week, and Cain’s name hadn’t been mentioned in any of their meetings. Not that it would be, as Cain was little more than a pawn in a game to amuse the king, and certainly not a member of the royal guard.
But he was still dead. Cain’s eyes would open no more because of him . . . He would not draw breath because of him . . . His heart had stopped beating because of him . . .
Chaol’s hand drifted to where his sword should have been. He’d thrown it in the corner of his room as soon as he’d returned from the duel last week. Mercifully, someone had cleaned the blood from it. Perhaps the guards who had taken Chaol to his chambers and given him a strong drink. They’d sat in silence until some semblance of reality returned, and then left without a word, not waiting for Chaol to thank them.
Chaol ran a hand through his short hair and opened the dining room door.
Celaena was picking at her dinner, slouched in her seat. Her brows rose. “Two visits in one day?” she said, setting down her fork. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
He frowned. “Where’s Dorian?”
“Why would Dorian be here?”
“I thought he usually came here at this hour.”
“Well, don’t expect to find him here after today.”
He approached, stopping at the edge of the table. “Why?”
She popped a piece of bread into her mouth. “Because I ended it.”
“You did what?”
“I’m the King’s Champion. Surely you realize how inappropriate it would be for me to have a relationship with a prince.” Her blue eyes glittered, and he wondered at the slight emphasis she put on prince, and why it made his heart skip a beat.
Chaol fought his own smile. “I was wondering when you’d come to your senses.” Did she fret as he did? Did she constantly think about her blood-covered hands? But for all of her swaggering, for all of her gloating and parading about with hands on her hips . . .
There was still something soft in her face. It gave him hope—hope that he had not lost his soul in the act of killing, hope that humanity could still be found, and honor could be regained . . . She had come out of Endovier and could still laugh.
She twirled her hair around a finger. She was still wearing that absurdly short nightgown, which slid up her thighs as she propped her feet on the edge of the table. He focused on her face.
“Would you like to join me?” she asked, gesturing with one hand to the table. “It’s a shame for me to celebrate alone.”
He looked at her, at that half grin on her face. Whatever had happened with Cain, whatever had happened at the duel . . . that would haunt him. But right now . . .
He pulled out the chair in front of him and sat down. She filled a goblet with wine and handed it to him. “To four years until freedom,” she said, lifting her glass.
He raised his in salute. “To you, Celaena.”
Their eyes met, and Chaol didn’t hide his smile as she grinned at him. Perhaps four years with her might not be enough.
Celaena stood in the tomb, and knew she was dreaming. She often visited the tomb in her dreams—to slay the ridderak again, to be trapped inside Elena’s sarcophagus, to face a featureless young woman with golden hair and a crown far too heavy for her to bear—but tonight . . . tonight, it was just her and Elena, and the tomb was filled with moonlight, not a sign to be seen of the ridderak’s corpse.
“How are you recovering?” the queen asked, leaning against the side of her own sarcophagus.
Celaena stayed in the doorway. The queen’s armor was gone, replaced by her usual flowing gown. None of the fierceness twisted her features, either. “Fine,” Celaena said, but glanced down at herself. In this dream world, her injuries were gone. “I didn’t know you were a warrior,” she said, jerking her chin toward the stand where Damaris stood.
“There are many things history has forgotten about me.” Elena’s blue eyes glowed with sorrow and anger. “I fought on the battlefields during the demon wars against Erawan—at Gavin’s side. That’s how we fell in love. But your legends portray me as a damsel who waited in a tower with a magic necklace that would help the heroic prince.”
Celaena touched the amulet. “I’m sorry.”
“You could be different,” Elena said quietly. “You could be great. Greater than me—than any of us.”
Celaena opened her mouth, but no words came out.
Elena took a step toward her. “You could rattle the stars,” she whispered. “You could do anything, if you only dared. And deep down, you know it, too. That’s what scares you most.”
She walked to Celaena, and it was all the assassin could do to keep from backing out of the tomb and running away. The queen’s blazing, glacier-blue eyes were as ethereal as her lovely face. “You found and defeated the evil Cain was bringing into the world. And now you’re the King’s Champion. You did as I asked.”
“I did it for my freedom,” Celaena said. Elena gave her a knowing smile that made her want to scream, but Celaena kept her face blank.