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The forest was still and frozen around Dorian, and snow collapsed from the trees in large clumps as he passed by. His eyes darted among the branches and bushes. He’d needed to come out for a hunt today, if only to let the freezing air rush through him.

He saw her face each time he closed his eyes. She haunted his thoughts, made him wish to do grand and wonderful things in her name, made him want to be a man who deserved to wear a crown.

But Celaena—he didn’t know how she felt. She kissed him—greedily, at that—but the women he’d loved in the past had always been eager. They’d gazed at him adoringly, while she just looked at him like a cat watching a mouse. Dorian straightened, detecting nearby movement. A stag stood ten yards away, feeding on bark. He stopped his horse and drew an arrow from its quiver. But he slackened the bow.

She was to duel tomorrow.

If harm came to her . . . No, she could hold her own; she was strong and smart and quick. He’d gone too far; he should never have kissed her. Because now, no matter how he might have once envisioned his future, or who he thought he’d spend it with, he couldn’t imagine being with anyone else—wanting anyone else.

Snow began falling. Dorian glanced at the gray sky and rode on through the silent game park.

Celaena stood before her balcony doors, staring down at Rifthold. The roofs were still snow-covered, and lights twinkled in every home. It might have looked beautiful, had she not known what corruption and filth dwelt within it. And what monstrosity ruled over it all. She hoped Nox was far, far away. She’d told her guards she didn’t want any visitors tonight, and to turn away even Chaol and Dorian if they arrived. Someone had knocked, once, but she didn’t answer, and they had soon left without trying again. She put her hand on a pane of glass, savoring its frozen bite. The clock struck twelve.

Tomorrow—or was it today already?—she’d face Cain. She’d never sparred with him in practice. The other Champions had been too eager to get a piece of him. While Cain was strong, he wasn’t as fast as she was. But he had stamina. She’d have to dodge him for a while. She just prayed all that running with Chaol would keep her from tiring before him. If she lost—

Don’t even give yourself that option.

She leaned her forehead against the glass. Would it be more honorable to fall in the duel than to return to Endovier? Or would it be more honorable to die than to become the King’s Champion? Who would he have her kill?

She’d had a say as Adarlan’s Assassin. Even with Arobynn Hamel running her life, she’d always had a say in what jobs she took. No children. No one from Terrasen. But the king could tell her to kill anyone. Did Elena expect her to say no to him when she was his Champion? Her stomach rose in her throat. Now wasn’t the time for this. She had to focus on Cain, on wearing him down.

But try as she might, all she could think about was that half-starved, hopeless assassin who’d been dragged out of Endovier one autumn day by a snarling Captain of the Guard. What would she have said to the prince’s bargain, had she known she would come to stand poised to lose so much? Would she have laughed if she’d known that other things—other people—would come to mean as much as her freedom?

Celaena swallowed the lump in her throat. Perhaps there were other reasons to fight tomorrow. Perhaps a few months in the castle hadn’t been enough. Perhaps . . . perhaps she wanted to stay here for reasons other than her eventual freedom. That was one thing that hopeless assassin from Endovier would have never believed.

But it was true. She wanted to stay.

And that would make tomorrow so much harder.


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