Celaena closed her book and sighed. What a terrible ending. She stood from the chair, unsure where she was going, and walked out of her bedroom. She’d been willing to apologize to Chaol when he found her sparring with Nehemia that afternoon, but his behavior . . . She paced through her rooms. He had more important things to do than guard the world’s most famous criminal, did he? She didn’t enjoy being cruel, but . . . hadn’t he deserved it?
She’d really made a fool out of herself by mentioning the vomiting. And she’d called him all sorts of nasty things. Did he trust her or hate her? Celaena looked at her hands and realized she had wrung them so badly that her fingers were red. How had she gone from the most feared prisoner in Endovier to this sappy mess?
She had greater matters to worry about—like the Test tomorrow. And this dead Champion. She’d already altered the hinges on all her doors so that they squealed loudly any time they opened. If someone entered her room, she’d know well in advance. And she’d managed to embed some stolen sewing needles into a bar of soap for a makeshift, miniature pike. It was better than nothing, especially if this murderer had a taste for Champion blood. She forced her hands to her sides, shaking her unease, and strode into the music and gaming room. She could not play billiards or cards by herself, but . . .
Celaena eyed the pianoforte. She used to play—oh, she’d loved to play, loved music, the way music could break and heal and make everything seem possible and heroic.
Carefully, as if approaching a sleeping person, Celaena walked to the large instrument. She pulled out the wooden bench, wincing at the loud scraping sound it made. Folding back the heavy lid, she pushed her feet on the pedals, testing them. She eyed the smooth ivory keys, and then the black keys, which were like the gaps between teeth.
She had been good once—perhaps better than good. Arobynn Hamel made her play for him whenever they saw each other.
She wondered if Arobynn knew she was out of the mines. Would he try to free her if he did? She still didn’t dare to face the possibility of who might have betrayed her. Things had been such a haze when she’d been captured—in two weeks, she’d lost Sam and her own freedom, and lost something of herself in those blurry days, too.
Sam. What would he make of all this? If he’d been alive when she was captured, he would have had her out of the royal dungeons before the king even got word of her imprisonment. But Sam, like her, had been betrayed—and sometimes the absence of him hit her so hard that she forgot how to breathe. She touched a lower note. It was deep and throbbing, full of sorrow and anger.
Gingerly, with one hand, she tapped out a simple, slow melody on the higher keys. Echoes—shreds of memories arising out of the void of her mind. Her rooms were so silent that the music seemed obtrusive. She moved her right hand, playing upon the flats and sharps. It was a piece that she used to play again and again until Arobynn would yell at her to play something else. She played a chord, then another, added in a few silver notes from her right hand, pushed once on a pedal, and was gone.
The notes burst from her fingers, staggering at first, but then more confidently as the emotion in the music took over. It was a mournful piece, but it made her into something clean and new. She was surprised that her hands had not forgotten, that somewhere in her mind, after a year of darkness and slavery, music was still alive and breathing. That somewhere, between the notes, was Sam. She forgot about time as she drifted between pieces, voicing the unspeakable, opening old wounds, playing and playing as the sound forgave and saved her.
Leaning against the doorway, Dorian stood, utterly transfixed. She’d been playing for some time with her back to him. He wondered when she’d notice him, or if she’d ever stop at all. He wouldn’t mind listening forever. He had come here with the intention of embarrassing a snide assassin, and had instead found a young woman pouring her secrets into a pianoforte.
Dorian peeled himself from the wall. For all her assassinating experience, she didn’t notice him until he sat down on the bench beside her. “You play beau—”
Her fingers slipped on the keys, which let out a loud, awful CLANK, and she was halfway to the rack of cue sticks when she beheld him. He could have sworn her eyes were damp. “What are you doing here?” She glanced to the door. Was she planning on using one of those cue sticks against him?
“Chaol isn’t with me,” he said with a quick smile. “If that’s what you’re wondering. I apologize if I interrupted.” He wondered at her discomfort as she turned red. It seemed far too human an emotion for Adarlan’s Assassin. Perhaps his earlier plan to embarrass her wasn’t foiled yet. “But you were playing so beautifully that I—”
“It’s fine.” She walked toward one of the chairs. He stood, blocking her path. She was of surprisingly average height. He glanced down at her form. Average height aside, her curves were enticing. “What are you doing here?” she repeated.
He smiled roguishly. “We decided to meet tonight. Don’t you remember?”
“I thought it was a joke.”
“I’m Crown Prince of Adarlan.” He sank into a chair before the fire. “I never joke.”
“Are you allowed to be here?”
“Allowed? Again: I’m a prince. I can do what I like.”
“Yes, but I’m Adarlan’s Assassin.”
He wouldn’t be intimidated, even if she could grab that billiards cue and skewer him with it in a matter of seconds. “From your playing, it seems that you’re a great deal more than that.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well,” he said, trying not to get lost in her strange, lovely eyes, “I don’t think anyone who plays like that can be just a criminal. It seems like you have a soul,” he teased.
“Of course I have a soul. Everyone has a soul.”
She was still red. He made her that uncomfortable? He fought his grin. This was too much fun. “How’d you like the books?”
“They were very nice,” she said quietly. “They were wonderful, actually.”
“I’m glad.” Their eyes met, and she retreated behind the back of the chair. If he didn’t know better, he would have thought himself to be the assassin! “How’s training going? Any competitors giving you trouble?”
“Excellently,” she said, but the corners of her mouth drifted downward. “And no. After today, I don’t think any of us will be giving anyone any trouble.” It took him a moment to realize she was thinking of the competitor who had been killed while trying to escape. She chewed on her bottom lip, quiet for a heartbeat, before she asked: “Did Chaol give the order to kill Sven?”
“No,” he said. “My father commanded all the guards to shoot to kill if any of you tried to escape. I don’t think Chaol would ever have given that order,” he added, though he wasn’t sure why. But the unnerving stillness in her eyes abated, at least. When she didn’t say more, Dorian asked as casually as he could: “On that note, how are you and Chaol getting along?” Of course, it was a totally innocent question.
She shrugged, and he tried to not read too far into the gesture. “Fine. I think he hates me a bit, but given his position, I’m not surprised.”
“Why do you think he hates you?” For some reason, he couldn’t bring himself to deny it.
“Because I’m an assassin, and he’s Captain of the Guard, forced to belittle himself by minding the would-be King’s Champion.”
“Do you wish it were otherwise?” He gave her a lazy grin. That question wasn’t so innocent.
She inched around the chair, coming closer to him, and his heart jumped a beat. “Well, who wants to be hated? Though I’d rather be hated than invisible. But it makes no difference.” She wasn’t convincing.
“You’re lonely?” He said it before he could stop himself.
“Lonely?” She shook her head and finally, after all that coaxing, sat down. He fought against the urge to reach across the space between them to see if her hair was as silky as it looked. “No. I can survive well enough on my own—if given proper reading material.”
He looked at the fire, trying not to think about where she’d been only weeks before—and what that kind of loneliness might have felt like. There were no books in Endovier. “Still, it can’t be pleasant to be one’s own companion at all times.”
“And what would you do?” She laughed. “I’d rather not be seen as one of your lovers.”
“And what’s wrong with that?”
“I’m already notorious as an assassin—I don’t particularly feel like being notorious for sharing your bed.” He choked, but she went on. “Would you like me to explain why, or is it enough for me to say that I don’t take jewels and trinkets as payment for my affection?”
He snarled. “I’m not going to debate morality with an assassin. You kill people for money, you know.”
Her eyes became hard and she pointed to the door. “You may leave now.”
“You’re dismissing me?” He didn’t know whether to laugh or yell.
“Shall I summon Chaol to see what he thinks?” She crossed her arms, knowing she had won. Perhaps she’d also realized that there was fun to be had in riling him, too.
“Why should I be thrown from your rooms for stating the truth? You just called me little more than a whoremonger.” He hadn’t had this much fun in ages. “Tell me about your life—how you learned to play the pianoforte so masterfully. And what was that piece? It was so sad; were you thinking about a secret lover?” He winked.
“I practiced.” She stood, walking toward the door. “And yes,” she snapped, “I was.”
“You’re quite prickly tonight,” he said, trailing her. He stopped a foot away, but the space between them felt strangely intimate, especially as he purred, “You’re not nearly as chatty as you were this afternoon.”
“I’m not some odd commodity that you can gawk at!” She stepped closer. “I’m not some carnival exhibit, and you won’t use me as part of some unfulfilled desire for adventure and excitement! Which is undoubtedly why you chose me to be your Champion.”
His mouth fell open and he conceded a step. “What?” was all he managed.
She stalked past him and dropped into the armchair. At least she wasn’t leaving. “Did you honestly think I wouldn’t realize why you came here tonight? As someone who gave me The Crown of a Hero to read, which suggests a rather fanciful mind that yearns for adventure?”
“I don’t think you’re an adventure,” he muttered.
“Oh? The castle offers so much excitement that the presence of Adarlan’s Assassin is nothing unusual? Nothing that would entice a young prince who’s been confined to a court all his life? And what does this competition suggest, for that matter? I’m already at your father’s disposal. I won’t become his son’s jester, too.”
It was his turn to blush. Had he ever been scolded by anyone like this? His parents and tutors perhaps, but certainly not a young woman. “Don’t you know who you’re talking to?”
“My dear prince,” she drawled, examining her nails, “you’re alone in my rooms. The hallway door is very far away. I can say whatever I wish.”
He burst out laughing. She sat up and watched him, her head tilted to the side. Her cheeks were flushed, making her blue eyes even brighter. Did she know what he might have wanted to do with her if she wasn’t an assassin? “I’ll go,” he said at last, stopping himself from wondering if he could actually risk it—risk his father’s and Chaol’s wrath, and what might happen if he decided to damn the consequences. “But I’ll return. Soon.”
“I’m sure,” she said dryly.
“Good night, Sardothien.” He looked around her rooms and grinned. “Tell me something before I leave: this mystery lover of yours . . . he doesn’t live in the castle, does he?”
He instantly knew he’d said the wrong thing when some of the light vanished from her eyes. “Good night,” she said a bit coldly.
Dorian shook his head. “I didn’t mean to—”
She just waved him off, looking toward the fire. Understanding his dismissal, he strode to the door, each of his footsteps sounding in the now too-silent room. He was almost to the threshold when she spoke, her voice distant. “His name was Sam.”
She was still staring at the fire. Was Sam . . . “What happened?”
She looked at him, smiling sadly. “He died.”
“When?” he got out. He would have never teased her like that, never said a damn word if he’d known . . .
Her words were strangled as she said, “Thirteen months ago.”
A glimmer of pain flashed across her face, so real and endless that he felt it in his gut. “I’m sorry,” he breathed.
She shrugged, as if it could somehow diminish the grief he still saw in her eyes, shining so bright in the firelight. “So am I,” she whispered, and faced the fire again.
Sensing she was truly done talking this time, Dorian cleared his throat. “Good luck at the Test tomorrow.” She didn’t say anything as he left the room.
He couldn’t banish her heart-wrenching music from his mind, even when he burned his mother’s list of eligible maidens, even when he read a book long into the night, even when he finally fell asleep.
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