Brows narrowed, Celaena aimed the cue at the white ball. The pole slid easily between her fingers as she steadied her hand on the felt surface of the table. With an awkward lurch of her arm, she jabbed the rod forward. She missed completely.
Cursing, Celaena tried again. She hit the cue ball in such a way that it gave a pathetic half roll to the side, gently knocking into a colored ball with a faint click. Well, at least she’d hit something. It was more successful than her research on the Wyrdmarks had been.
It was past ten, and, in need of a break from hours of training and researching and fretting about Cain and Elena, she’d come into the gaming room. She was too tired for music, she couldn’t play cards alone, and—well, billiards seemed to be the only plausible activity. She’d picked up the cue with high hopes that the game wouldn’t be too difficult to learn.
The assassin pivoted around the table and took aim again. She missed. Gritting her teeth, she considered snapping the cue in half across her knee. But she’d been attempting to play for only an hour. She’d be incredible by midnight! She’d master this ridiculous game or she’d turn the table into firewood. And use it to burn Cain alive.
Celaena jabbed the cue, and hit the ball with such force that it zoomed toward the back wall of the table, knocking three colored balls out of its way before it collided with the number three ball, sending it shooting straight for a hole.
It stopped rolling at the edge of the pocket.
A shriek of rage ripped from her throat, and Celaena ran over to the pocket. She first screamed at the ball, then took the cue in her hands and bit down upon the shaft, still screaming through her clamped teeth. Finally the assassin stopped and slapped the three ball into the pocket.
“For the world’s greatest assassin, this is pathetic,” said Dorian, stepping from the doorway.
She yelped and swung toward him. She wore a tunic and pants, and her hair was unbound. He leaned against the table, smiling as she turned a deep shade of red. “If you’re going to insult me, you can shove this—” She lifted the cue in the air and made an obscene gesture that finished her sentence.
He rolled his sleeves before picking up a cue from the rack on the wall. “Are you planning on biting the cue again? Because if you are, I’d like to invite the court painter so I can forever remember the sight.”
“Don’t you dare mock me!”
“Don’t be so serious.” He aimed at the ball and sent it gracefully into a green one, which dropped into a pocket. “You’re immensely entertaining when you’re hopping mad.”
To his surprise and delight, she laughed. “Funny to you,” she said, “infuriating for me.” She moved and took another shot. And missed.
“Let me show you how to do it.” He strode over to where she stood and set his stick down, taking hers in his hand. Nudging her out of the way, his heart beating a bit faster, he positioned himself where she stood. “You see how my thumb and index finger are always holding the upper end of the cue? All you have to do is—”
She knocked him out of the way with a swish of her hips and took the rod from him. “I know how to hold it, you buffoon.” She tried to hit the ball and missed yet again.
“You’re not moving your body the correct way. Here, just let me show you.”
Though it was the oldest and most shameless trick in the book, he reached over her and put his hand on top of the one that gripped the cue. He then positioned the fingers of her other hand on the wood before lightly gripping her wrist. To Dorian’s dismay, his face became warm.
His eyes shifted to her, and, to his relief, he found that she was as red as he, if not more so.
“If you don’t stop feeling and start instructing, I’m going to rip out your eyes and replace them with these billiard balls.”
“Look, all you have to do is . . .” He walked her through the steps, and she hit the ball smoothly. It went into a corner and rebounded into a pocket. He removed himself from her and smirked. “See? If you do it properly, it’ll work. Try again.” He picked up his cue. She snorted, but still positioned herself, aimed, and hit it. The cue ball shot all around the table, creating general chaos. But at least she made contact.
He grabbed the triangle and held it in the air. “Care for a game?”
The clock struck two before they stopped. He had ordered an array of desserts to be brought in the midst of their playing, and though she protested, she gobbled down a large piece of chocolate cake and then ate half of his piece, too.
He won every game, yet she hardly noticed. As long as she hit the ball, it resulted in shameless bragging. When she missed—well, even the fires of Hell couldn’t compare to the rage that burst from her mouth. He couldn’t remember a time when he’d laughed so hard.
When she wasn’t cursing and sputtering, they spoke of the books they’d both read, and as she jabbered on and on, he felt as if she hadn’t spoken a word in years and was afraid she’d suddenly go mute again. She was frighteningly smart. She understood him when he spoke of history, or of politics—though she claimed to loathe the subject—and even had a great deal to say about the theater. He somehow wound up promising to take her to a play after the competition. An awkward silence arose at that, but it quickly passed.
Dorian was slumped in an armchair, resting his head on a hand. She lay sprawled across the chair facing his, her legs dangling off an arm. She stared at the fire, her eyelids half-closed. “What are you thinking?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” she said. She let her head drop onto the arm of the chair. “Do you think Xavier and the other Champion murders were intentional?”
“Perhaps. Does it make a difference?”
“No.” She lazily waved her hand in the air. “Never mind.”
Before he could ask more, she fell asleep.
He wished he knew more about her past. Chaol had only told him that she came from Terrasen, and that her family was dead. He hadn’t the faintest clue what her life was like, how she became an assassin, how she learned to play the pianoforte . . . It was all a mystery.
He wanted to know everything about her. He wished she’d just tell him. Dorian stood and stretched. He placed their cues on the rack, arranged the balls, and returned to the slumbering assassin. He shook her gently, and she groaned in protest. “You may want to sleep there, but you’ll sorely regret it in the morning.”
Barely opening her eyes, she stood and shuffled to the door. When she nearly walked into the doorpost, he decided that a guiding arm was needed before she broke something. Trying not to think of the warmth of her skin beneath his hand, he directed her to her bedroom and watched her stagger into bed, where she collapsed on top of the blankets.
“Your books are there,” she mumbled, pointing at a stack by her bed. He slowly entered the chamber. She lay still, her eyes closed. Three candles burned on various surfaces. With a sigh, he moved to blow them out before approaching her bed. Was she sleeping?
“Good night, Celaena,” he said. It was the first time he’d addressed her by her name. It came off his tongue nicely. She mumbled something that sounded like “nahnuh,” and did not move. A curious necklace glittered in the hollow of her throat. He felt as if it were familiar somehow, like he’d seen it before. With a final glance, he picked up the stack of books and left the room.
If she became his father’s Champion, and later gained her freedom, would she remain the same? Or was this all a facade to get what she wanted? But he couldn’t imagine that she was pretending. Didn’t want to imagine that she was pretending.
The castle was silent and dark as he walked back to his room.
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