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Celaena groaned as something cold and wet brushed her cheek and moved to lick her face. She opened an eye and found the puppy looking down at her, its tail wagging. Adjusting herself in the bed, she winced at the sunlight. She hadn’t meant to sleep in. They had a Test in two days, and she needed to train. It was their last Test before the final duel—the Test that decided who the four finalists would be.

Celaena rubbed an eye and then scratched the dog behind the ears. “Have you peed somewhere and wish to tell me about it?”

“Oh no,” said someone as the bedroom door swung open—Dorian. “I took her out at dawn with the other dogs.”

She smiled weakly as he approached. “Isn’t it rather early for a visit?”

“Early?” He laughed, sitting on the bed. She inched away. “It’s almost one in the afternoon! Philippa told me you’ve been sleeping like the dead all morning.”

One! She’d slept that long? What about lessons with Chaol? She scratched her nose and pulled the puppy onto her lap. At least nothing had happened last night; if there had been another attack, she would have heard about it already. She almost sighed with relief, though the guilt of what she’d done—how little faith she’d had in Nehemia—still made her a tad miserable.

“Have you named her yet?” he asked—casual, calm, collected. Was he acting that way for show, or was their kiss just not that important to him?

“No,” she said, keeping her face neutral, even though she wanted to scream from the awkwardness. “I can’t think of anything appropriate.”

“What about,” he said, tapping his chin, “Gold . . . ie?”

“That’s the stupidest name I’ve ever heard.”

“Can you think of something better?”

She picked up one of the dog’s legs and examined the soft paws. She squished the padded foot beneath her thumb. “Fleetfoot.” It was a perfect name. In fact, it felt as if the name had existed all along, and she’d finally been clairvoyant enough to stumble across it. “Yes, Fleetfoot it is.”

“Does it mean anything?” he asked, and the dog raised her head to look at him.

“It’ll mean something when she outruns all of your purebreds.” Celaena scooped the dog into her arms and kissed her head. She bounced her arms up and down, and Fleetfoot stared up into her eyes with a wrinkled brow. She was absurdly soft and cuddly.

Dorian chuckled. “We’ll see.” Celaena set the dog down on the bed. Fleetfoot promptly crawled under the blankets and disappeared.

“Did you sleep well?” he asked.

“Yes. Though it seems you didn’t, if you were up so early.”

“Listen,” he began, and Celaena wanted to throw herself from the balcony. “Last night . . . I’m sorry if I was too forward with you.” He paused. “Celaena, you’re grimacing.”

Had she been making a face? “Er—sorry.”

“It did upset you, then!”

“What did?”

“The kiss!”

Phlegm caught in her throat, and the assassin coughed. “Oh, it was nothing,” she said, thumping her chest as she cleared her throat. “I didn’t mind it. But I didn’t hate it, if that’s what you’re thinking!” She immediately regretted saying it.

“So, you liked it?” He grinned lazily.

“No! Oh, go away!” She flung herself onto her pillows, pulling the blankets above her head. She was going to die from embarrassment.

Fleetfoot licked her face as she hid in the darkness of the sheets. “Come now,” he said. “From your reaction, one would think you’d never been kissed.”

She threw back the blankets, and Fleetfoot burrowed farther beneath. “Of course I’ve been kissed,” she snapped, trying not to think about Sam and what she’d shared with him. “But it wasn’t by some stuffed shirt, pompous, arrogant princeling!”

He looked down at his chest. “Stuffed shirt?”

“Oh, hush up,” she said, hitting him with a pillow. She moved to the other side of the bed, got up, and walked to the balcony.

She felt him watching her, staring at her back and the three scars she knew her low-cut nightgown did nothing to hide. “Are you going to remain here while I change?”

She faced him. He wasn’t looking at her the way he had the night before. There was something wary in his gaze—and something unspeakably sad. Her blood thrummed in her veins. “Well?”

“Your scars are awful,” he said, almost whispering.

She put a hand on a hip and walked to the dressing room door. “We all bear scars, Dorian. Mine just happen to be more visible than most. Sit there if you like, but I’m going to get dressed.” She strode from the room.

Kaltain walked beside Duke Perrington through the endless tables of the palace greenhouse. The giant glass building was full of shadows and light, and she fanned herself as the steamy heat smothered her face. The man picked the most absurd places to walk. She had about as much interest in the plants and flowers as she did in a mud puddle on the side of a street.

He picked a lily—snow white—and handed it to her with a bow of his head. “For you.” She tried not to cringe at the sight of his pocked, ruddy skin and orange mustache. The thought of being stuck with him made her want to rip all the plants out by their roots and throw them into the snow.

“Thank you,” she said huskily.

But Perrington studied her closely. “You seem out of spirits today, Lady Kaltain.”

“Do I?” She cocked her head in her coyest expression. “Perhaps today pales in comparison to the fun I had at the ball last night.”

The duke’s black eyes bored into her, though, and he frowned as he put a hand on her elbow and steered her on. “You needn’t pretend with me. I noticed you watching the Crown Prince.”

Kaltain gave away nothing as she raised her manicured brows and looked sidelong at him. “Was I?”

Perrington ran a meaty finger down the spine of a fern. The black ring on his finger pulsed, and her head gave a throb of pain in response. “I noticed him, too. The girl, specifically. She’s troublesome, isn’t she?”

“Lady Lillian?” Kaltain blinked this time, unsure whether she could sag with relief just yet. He hadn’t noticed her wanting the prince, but rather that she’d noticed how Lillian and Dorian clung to each other all night.

“So she calls herself,” Perrington murmured.

“That’s not her name?” Kaltain asked before she could think.

The duke turned to her, his eyes as black as his ring. “You don’t honestly believe that girl is a purebred lady?”

Kaltain’s heart stopped. “She’s truly not?” And then Perrington smiled, and finally told her everything.

When Perrington finished, Kaltain could only stare at him. An assassin. Lillian Gordaina was Celaena Sardothien, the world’s most notorious assassin. And she had her claws in Dorian’s heart. If Kaltain wanted Dorian’s hand, then she’d need to be far, far cleverer. Simply revealing who Lillian truly was might be enough. But it might not. Kaltain couldn’t afford to take risks. The greenhouse was silent, as if it held its breath.

“How can we let this go on? How can we allow the prince to endanger himself like that?” Perrington’s face shifted for a moment, toward something pained and ugly—but it was so fast she barely noticed it above the pounding rising in her head. She needed her pipe—needed to calm down before she had a fit.

“We can’t,” Perrington said.

“But how can we stop them? Tell the king?”

Perrington shook his head, putting a hand on his broadsword as he thought for a moment. She examined a rosebush and traced a long nail along the curve of a thorn. “She’s to face the remaining Champions in a duel,” he said slowly. “And in the duel, she’ll drink a toast in honor of the Goddess and gods.” It wasn’t just her too-tight corset that stole the breath from Kaltain as the duke went on. She lowered her hand from the thorn. “I was going to ask you to preside over the toast—as a representation of the Goddess. Perhaps you could slip something into her drink.”

“Kill her myself?” Hiring someone was one thing, but to do it herself . . .

The duke raised his hands. “No, no. But the king has agreed that drastic measures should be taken, in a way that will make Dorian believe things were . . . an accident. If we were merely to give her a dose of bloodbane, not lethal, but just enough to cause her to lose control, it would give Cain the advantage he needs.”

“Cain can’t kill her on his own? Accidents happen all the time in duels.” Her head gave a sharp, intense throb that echoed through her body. Maybe drugging her might be easier . . .

“Cain thinks he can, but I don’t like taking risks.” Perrington grasped her hands. His ring was ice-cold against her skin, and she fought the urge to rip her hands from his grip. “Don’t you want to help Dorian? Once he’s free of her . . .”

Then he’ll be mine. He’ll be mine, as he should be.

But to kill for it . . . He’ll be mine.

“Then we’ll be able to get him on the right path, won’t we?” Perrington finished with a broad smile that made her instincts tell her to run and run and never look back.

But all her mind could see was a crown and throne, and the prince who would sit by her side. “Tell me what I need to do,” she said.


1 comment:

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