Sitting in a chair near the hearth of the great hall, Kaltain watched Duke Perrington converse with Queen Georgina atop her dais. It’d been a shame that Dorian had left so quickly an hour ago; she hadn’t even had the chance to speak to him. Which was especially irksome, given that she’d spent the better part of the morning dressing for court: her raven-black hair was neatly coiled around her head, and her skin glowed golden from the subtle shimmering powders she’d dusted on her face. Though the bindings on her pink-and-yellow gown crushed her ribs, and the pearls and diamonds around her neck strangled her, she kept her chin high, poised. Dorian had left, but having Perrington show up was an unexpected surprise. The duke rarely visited court; this had to be important.
Kaltain rose from her chair by the fire as the duke bowed to the queen and strode toward the doors. As she stepped into his path, he paused at the sight of her, his eyes gleaming with a hunger that made her want to cringe. He bowed low. “Milady.”
“Your Grace,” she smiled, forcing all that repulsion down deep, deep, deep.
“I hope you’re well,” he said, offering his arm to lead her out of the hall. She smiled again, taking it. Though he was somewhat rotund, hard muscle lay in the arm beneath her hand.
“Very well, thank you. And yourself? I feel I haven’t seen you in days and days! What a wonderful surprise to have you visit the court.”
Perrington gave her a yellow smile. “I’ve missed you as well, milady.”
She tried not to wince as his hairy, meaty fingers rubbed her pristine skin, and instead delicately inclined her head toward him. “I hope Her Majesty was in good health; was your conversation a pleasant one?”
Oh, it was so dangerous to pry, especially when she was here on his good graces. Meeting him last spring had been a stroke of luck. And convincing him to invite her to court—mostly by implying what might await him once she was out of her father’s household and without a chaperone—hadn’t been that difficult. But she wasn’t here to simply enjoy the pleasures of the court. No, she was tired of being a minor lady, waiting to be married off to the highest bidder, tired of petty politics and easily manipulated fools.
“Her Majesty is quite well, actually,” Perrington said, leading Kaltain toward her rooms. Her stomach clenched a bit. Though he didn’t hide that he wanted her, he hadn’t pushed her into bed—yet. But with a man like Perrington, who always got what he wanted . . . she didn’t have much time to find a way to avoid owning up to the subtle promise she’d made him earlier that year. “But,” the duke went on, “with a son of marriageable age, she’s busy.”
Kaltain kept her face plain. Calm. Serene. “Can we expect any news of an engagement in the near future?” Another dangerous question.
“I certainly hope so,” the duke grumbled, his face darkening beneath his ruddy hair. The jagged scar along his cheek stood out starkly. “Her Majesty already has a list of girls deemed appropriate—” The duke halted, remembering whom he spoke to, and Kaltain batted her eyelashes at him.
“Oh, I’m quite sorry,” she purred. “I didn’t mean to pry into the Royal Household’s affairs.” She patted his arm, her heart kicking into a full gallop. Dorian had been given a list of appropriate brides? Who was on it? And how could she . . . No, she’d think of that later. For now, she had to find out who stood between her and the crown.
“It’s nothing to apologize for,” he said, his dark eyes shining. “Come—tell me what you’ve been doing these past few days.”
“Not much of note. Though I met a very interesting young woman,” she said casually, leading him down a window-lined stairway into the glass section of the castle. “A friend of Dorian’s—the Lady Lillian, he called her.”
The duke went positively rigid. “You met her?”
“Oh, yes—she’s quite kind.” The lie rolled off of her tongue. “When I spoke to her today, she mentioned how much the Crown Prince likes her. I hope for her sake she was on the queen’s list.” While she’d wanted some information about Lillian, she hadn’t expected this.
“The Lady Lillian? Of course she isn’t.”
“The poor thing. I suspect her heart will be broken. I know it’s not my place to pry,” she went on, the duke growing redder and more furious by the moment, “but I heard it not an hour ago from Dorian himself that . . .”
“That what?” A thrill went through her at his anger—not anger at her, but at Lillian. At the weapon she’d just had the good fortune to stumble across.
“That he’s very attached to her. Possibly in love with her.”
“It’s true!” She gave a morose shake of the head. “How tragic.”
“Foolish is what it is.” The duke stopped at the end of the hallway that led to Kaltain’s room. His anger loosened his tongue. “Foolish and daft and impossible.”
“Someday I will explain why.” A clock chimed, off-kilter, and Perrington turned in its direction. “I have a council meeting.” He leaned close enough to whisper in her ear, his breath hot and damp against her skin. “Perhaps I’ll see you tonight?” He dragged a hand down her side before he walked away. She watched him go, and when he disappeared, she let out a shuddering sigh. But if he could get her close to Dorian . . .
She had to find out who her competition was, but first she had to find a way to get Lillian’s claws out of the prince. List or no list, she was a threat.
And if the duke hated her as much as it seemed, she might have powerful allies when the time came to make sure Lillian released her hold on Dorian.
Dorian and Chaol didn’t say much as they walked to dinner in the Great Hall. Princess Nehemia was safely in her chambers, surrounded by her guards. It’d been quickly agreed that while it was foolish of Celaena to spar with the princess, Chaol’s absence was inexcusable, even with the dead Champion to investigate.
“You seemed rather friendly with Sardothien,” Chaol said, his voice cold.
“Jealous, are we?” Dorian teased.
“I’m more concerned for your safety. She might be pretty and might impress you with her cleverness, but she’s still an assassin, Dorian.”
“You sound like my father.”
“It’s common sense. Stay away from her, Champion or no.”
“Don’t give me orders.”
“I’m only doing it for your safety.”
“Why would she kill me? I think she likes being pampered. If she hasn’t attempted to escape or kill anyone, then why would she do it now?” He patted his friend on the shoulder. “You worry too much.”
“It’s my occupation to worry.”
“Then you’ll have gray hair before you’re twenty-five, and Sardothien certainly will not fall in love with you.”
“What nonsense are you talking?”
“Well, if she does try to escape, which she won’t, then she’ll break your heart. You’d be forced to throw her in the dungeons, hunt her down, or kill her.”
“Dorian, I don’t like her.”
Sensing his friend’s growing irritation, Dorian changed the subject. “What about that dead Champion—the Eye Eater? Any idea yet who did it, or why?”
Chaol’s eyes darkened. “I’ve studied it again and again over the past few days. The body was totally destroyed.” The color leeched from Chaol’s cheeks. “Innards scooped out and gone; even the brain was . . . missing. I’ve sent a message to your father about it, but I’ll continue investigating in the meantime.”
“I bet it was just a drunken brawl,” Dorian said, though he had been in plenty of brawls himself and had never known anyone to go about removing someone’s innards. A trickle of fear formed in the back of Dorian’s mind. “My father will probably be glad to have the Eye Eater dead and gone.”
“I hope so.”
Dorian grinned and put an arm around the captain’s shoulders. “With you looking into it, I’m sure it’ll be solved tomorrow,” he said, leading his friend into the dining hall.
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