Chaol hated hunting parties. Many of the lords could barely handle a bow, let alone be stealthy. It was painful to watch them—and the poor hounds bursting through the brush, trying to scatter game that the lords would miss anyway. Usually, just to get things over with, he would discreetly kill a few animals and then pretend Lord So-and-So had done it. But the king, Perrington, Roland, and Dorian were all out in the game park today, which meant he had to keep close to them.
Whenever he rode close enough to the lords to overhear their laughing and gossiping and harmless scheming, he sometimes let himself wonder if that was how he would have wound up had he not chosen this path. He hadn’t seen his younger brother in years; had his father allowed Terrin to turn into one of these idiots? Or had his father sent him to train as a warrior, as all lords of Anielle had done in the centuries after the wild mountain men had preyed upon the city on the Silver Lake?
As Chaol trailed behind the king, his new Asterion stallion earning many admiring and envious glances from the hunting party, Chaol allowed himself to consider—for one heartbeat—what his father would make of Celaena. His mother was a gentle, quiet woman, whose face had become a blurred memory in the years since he’d last seen her. But he still remembered her lilting voice and soft laugh, and the way she’d sung him to sleep when he was ill. Even though their marriage had been arranged, his father had wanted someone like his mother—someone submissive. Which meant that someone like Celaena … He cringed to even consider his father and Celaena in a room together. Cringed, and then smiled, because that was a battle of wills that could go down in legend.
“You’re distracted today, Captain,” the king said as he emerged from between the trees. He was massive; the king’s size always surprised Chaol, for some reason.
He was flanked by two of Chaol’s guards—one of which was Ress, who looked more nervous than triumphant at being selected to protect the king today, though he was trying his hardest not to show it. It was why Chaol had also chosen Dannan, the other guard—older and weathered and possessing near-legendary patience. Chaol bowed to his sovereign, and then gave Ress a slight nod of approval. The young guard sat up straighter, but remained alert—his focus now upon their surroundings, the lords riding nearby, the sounds of dogs and arrows.
The king pulled his black horse alongside Chaol’s, falling into a meandering walk. Ress and Dannan fell back a respectable pace, still close enough to intercept any lurking threat. “Whatever will my lords do without you to kill their quarry for them?”
Chaol tried to hide his smile. Perhaps he hadn’t been as discreet as he thought. “Apologies, milord.”
Atop his warhorse, the king looked every inch the conqueror he was. There was something in his eyes that sent a chill down Chaol’s spine—and made him realize why so many foreign rulers had offered him their crowns instead of facing him in battle.
“I am having the Princess of Eyllwe questioned in my council room tomorrow night,” the king said quietly enough that only Chaol could hear, turning his stallion to follow after the pack of hounds that rushed through the thawing woods. “I want six men outside the room. Make sure there are no complications or interruptions.” The look the king gave him suggested exactly the sort of complication he had in mind—Celaena.
Chaol knew it was risky to ask questions, but he said, “Is there anything specific that I should prepare my men for?”
“No,” the king said, nocking an arrow to his bow and firing at a pheasant that surged up from the brush. A clean shot—right through the eye. “That will be all.”
The king whistled to his hounds and followed after the prey he’d killed, Ress and Dannan close behind.
Chaol stilled his stallion, watching the mountain of a man ride through the thicket. “What was that about?” Dorian said, suddenly beside him.
Chaol shook his head. “Nothing.”
Dorian reached over his shoulder to the quiver strapped there and drew an arrow. “I haven’t seen you for a few days.”
“I’ve been busy.” Busy with his duties, and busy with Celaena. “I haven’t seen you around, either.” He made himself meet Dorian’s gaze.
Dorian’s lips were pursed, his face stony as he quietly said, “I’ve been busy, too.” The Crown Prince turned his horse away, heading in another direction, but paused. “Chaol,” he said, looking over his shoulder. Dorian’s eyes were frozen, his jaw clenched. “Treat her well.”
“Dorian,” he started, but the prince rode off to join Roland. Suddenly alone in the teeming forest, Chaol watched his friend disappear.
Chaol didn’t tell Celaena what the king had said, though part of him twisted until it hurt. The king wouldn’t hurt Nehemia—not when she was such a public and well-liked figure. Not when he’d warned Chaol about that anonymous threat to Nehemia’s life. But he had a feeling that whatever was going to be said in the council room wasn’t going to be pleasant.
Celaena knowing or not knowing made no difference, he told himself as he lay curled around her in his bed. Even if Celaena knew, even if she told Nehemia, it wouldn’t stop the conversation from taking place, and it wouldn’t make the nameless threat go away. No, it would just make things worse if they knew—worse for all of them.
Chaol sighed, untangling his legs from Celaena’s as he sat up and grabbed his pants from where he’d thrown them on the floor. She stirred, but didn’t move. That was a miracle in itself, he realized—that she felt safe enough to sleep soundly with him.
He paused to gently kiss her head, then picked up the rest of his clothes from around the room and dressed, even though the clock had chimed only three not long ago.
Perhaps it was a test, he thought as he slipped out the door of his chambers. Perhaps the king was testing Chaol to see where his loyalties lay—if he could still trust him. And if he learned that Celaena and Nehemia were aware of the interrogation tomorrow, then there would be only one way for them to have learned …
He just needed some fresh air, to feel the briny breeze off the Avery on his face. He’d meant it when he told Celaena about someday leaving Rifthold with her. And he’d go to his death defending her secret about the men she wasn’t killing.
Chaol reached the dark, silent gardens and strode between the hedges. He’d kill any man who hurt Celaena; and if the king ever gave him the order to dispatch her, then he’d plunge his sword into his own heart before he would obey. His soul was bound to hers by some unbreakable chain. He snorted, imagining what his father would think when he learned that Chaol had taken Adarlan’s Assassin for his wife.
The thought stopped Chaol dead in his tracks. She was only eighteen. He forgot that sometimes, forgot that he was older than her, too. And if he asked her to marry him right now … “Gods above,” he muttered, shaking his head. That day was a long way off.
But he couldn’t help imagining it—the glimmer of the future and how it would be to forge a life together, to call her his wife, to hear her call him husband, to raise a brood of children who would probably be far too clever and talented for their own good (and for Chaol’s sanity).
He was still envisioning that impossibly beautiful future when someone grabbed him from behind and pressed something cold and reeking against his nose and mouth, and the world went black.
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