Kaltain pinched her cheeks as she emerged from the dressing room. Her servants sprayed perfume, and the young woman gulped down sugar water before putting her hand on the door. She’d been in the midst of smoking a pipe when Duke Perrington had been announced. She’d fled into the dressing room and changed her clothes, hoping the scent wouldn’t linger. If he found out about the opium, she could just blame it on the horrible headaches she’d been having lately. Kaltain passed through her bedroom into the foyer, and then into the sitting room.
He looked ready for battle, as always. “Your Grace,” she said, curtsying. The world was foggy around the edges, and her body felt heavy. He kissed her hand when she offered it, his lips soggy against her skin. Their eyes met as he looked up from her hand, and a piece of the world slipped away. How far would she go to secure her position at Dorian’s side?
“I hope I didn’t disturb you,” he said, releasing her hand. The walls of the room appeared, and then the floor and the ceiling, and she had the distinct feeling that she was trapped in a box, a lovely cage filled with tapestries and cushions.
“I was only napping, milord,” she said, sitting down. He sniffed, and Kaltain would have felt immensely nervous were it not for the drug curling around her mind. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this unexpected visit?”
“I wished to inquire after you—I didn’t see you at dinner.” Perrington crossed his arms—arms that looked capable of crushing her skull.
“I was indisposed.” She resisted the urge to rest her too-heavy head on the couch.
He said something to her, but she found that her ears had stopped hearing. His skin seemed to harden and glaze over, and his eyes became unforgiving marble orbs. Even the thinning hair was frozen in stone. She gaped as the white mouth continued to move, revealing a throat of carved marble. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not feeling well.”
“Shall I fetch you water?” The duke stood. “Or shall I go?”
“No!” she said, almost crying out. Her heart twitched. “What I mean is—I’m well enough to enjoy your company, but you must forgive my absentmindedness.”
“I wouldn’t call you absentminded, Lady Kaltain,” he said, sitting down. “You’re one of the cleverest women I’ve met. His Highness told me the same thing yesterday.”
Kaltain’s spine snapped and straightened. She saw Dorian’s face and the crown that sat upon his head. “The prince said that—about me?”
The duke put a hand on her knee, stroking it with his thumb. “Of course, then Lady Lillian interrupted before he could say more.”
Her head spun. “Why was she with him?”
“I don’t know. I wish it were otherwise.”
She must do something, something to stop this. The girl moved fast—too fast for her maneuvering. Lillian had snared the Crown Prince in her net, and now Kaltain must cut him free. Perrington could do it. He could make Lillian disappear and never be found. No—Lillian was a lady, and a man with as much honor as Perrington would never harm one of noble birth. Or would he? Skeletons danced in circles around her head. But what if he thought Lillian weren’t a lady . . . Her headache flared to life with a sudden burst that sucked the air from her lungs.
“I had the same reaction,” she said, rubbing her temple. “It’s hard to believe someone as disreputable as the Lady Lillian won the heart of the prince.” Maybe the headaches would stop once she was at Dorian’s side. “Perhaps it would do some good if someone spoke to His Highness.”
“I heard from someone that her background is not as . . . pure as it should be.”
“What have you heard?” Perrington demanded.
Kaltain played with a jewel hanging from her bracelet. “I didn’t get specifics, but some of the nobility don’t believe her to be a worthy companion of anyone in this court. I’d like to learn more about the Lady Lillian, wouldn’t you? It’s our duty as loyal subjects of the crown to protect our prince from such forces.”
“Indeed it is,” the duke said quietly.
Something wild and foreign issued a cry within her, shattering through the pain in her head, and thoughts of poppies and cages faded away.
She must do what was necessary to save the crown—and her future.
Celaena looked up from an ancient book of Wyrdmark theories as the door creaked open, the hinges squealing loud enough to wake the dead. Her heart skipped a beat, and she tried to appear as casual as possible. But it was not Dorian Havilliard who entered, nor was it a ferocious creature.
The door finished opening and Nehemia, clad in a gold-worked wonder, stood before her. She didn’t look at Celaena, nor did she move as she stood in the doorway. Her eyes were upon the floor, and rivers of kohl ran down her cheeks.
“Nehemia?” Celaena asked, getting to her feet. “What happened to the play?”
Nehemia’s shoulders rose and fell. Slowly, she lifted her head, revealing red-rimmed eyes. “I—I didn’t know where else to go,” she said in Eyllwe.
Celaena found breathing a bit difficult as she asked, “What happened?”
It was then that Celaena noticed the piece of paper in Nehemia’s hands. It trembled in her grasp.
“They massacred them,” Nehemia whispered, her eyes wide. She shook her head, as if she were denying her own words.
Celaena went still. “Who?”
Nehemia let out a strangled sob, and a part of Celaena broke at the agony in the sound.
“A legion of Adarlan’s army captured five hundred Eyllwe rebels hiding on the border of Oakwald Forest and the Stone Marshes.” Tears dripped from Nehemia’s cheeks and onto her white dress. She crumpled the piece of paper in her hand. “My father says they were to go to Calaculla as prisoners of war. But some of the rebels tried to escape on the journey, and . . .” Nehemia breathed hard, fighting to get the words out. “And the soldiers killed them all as punishment, even the children.”
Celaena’s dinner rose in her throat. Five hundred—butchered.
Celaena became aware of Nehemia’s personal guards standing in the doorway, their eyes gleaming. How many of the rebels had been people that they knew—that Nehemia had somehow helped and protected?
“What is the point in being a princess of Eyllwe if I cannot help my people?” Nehemia said. “How can I call myself their princess, when such things happen?”
“I’m so sorry,” Celaena whispered. As if those words broke the spell that had been holding the princess in place, Nehemia rushed into her arms. Her gold jewelry pressed hard into Celaena’s skin. Nehemia wept. Unable to say anything, the assassin simply held her—for as long as it took for the pain to ease.
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