Mischief coiled and sprang within her, but Dorian answered. “I suppose,” he drawled, turning those brilliant blue eyes on Celaena, “that it will be difficult for Lady Lillian and I as well. Perhaps more so.”
Kaltain snapped her attention to Celaena. “Wherever did you find that dress?” she purred. “It’s extraordinary.”
“I had it made for her,” Dorian said casually, picking at his nails. The assassin and the prince glanced at each other, their blue eyes reflecting the same intent. At least they had one common enemy. “It does look extraordinary on her, doesn’t it?”
Kaltain’s lips pursed for a moment, but then bloomed into a full smile. “Simply stunning. Though such pale green tends to wash out women of pallid skin.”
“The Lady Lillian’s paleness was a source of pride for her father. It makes her rather unusual.” Dorian looked to Chaol, who failed in his attempt to not appear incredulous. “Don’t you agree, Captain Westfall?”
“Agree about what?” he snapped.
“How unusual our Lady Lillian is!”
“Shame on you, Your Highness!” Celaena chided, concealing her wicked amusement beneath a giggle. “I pale in comparison to Lady Kaltain’s fine features.”
Kaltain shook her head, but looked at Dorian as she spoke. “You are too kind.”
Dorian shifted on his feet. “Well, I’ve dallied enough. I must attend to my mother.” He bowed to Kaltain, then to Chaol. Finally, he faced Celaena. She watched with raised brows as he lifted her hand to his lips. His mouth was soft and smooth upon her skin, and the kiss sent a red-hot line of fire up through her arm that singed her cheeks. She fought against the urge to step back. Or smack him. “Until our next meeting, Lady Lillian,” he said with a charming smile. She would have highly enjoyed seeing Kaltain’s face, but she dipped into a curtsy.
“We must be on our way as well,” Chaol said as Dorian strode off, whistling to himself, his hands in his pockets. “May we escort you anywhere?” It was an insincere offer.
“No,” Kaltain said flatly, the facade falling. “I’m meeting with His Grace, Duke Perrington. I do hope we’ll see more of each other, Lady Lillian,” she said, watching her with a keenness that would make any assassin proud. “We must be friends, you and I.”
“Of course,” Celaena said. Kaltain swept past them, the skirts of her dress floating in the air around her. They resumed walking, waiting until her footsteps had vanished from their ears before speaking. “Enjoyed that, did you?” Chaol growled.
“Immensely.” Celaena patted Chaol’s arm as she took it in her own. “Now you must pretend that you like me, or else everything will be ruined.”
“You and the Crown Prince share the same sense of humor, it seems.”
“Perhaps he and I will become dear friends, and you will be left to rot.”
“Dorian is more inclined to associate with ladies of better breeding and beauty.” She whipped her head to look at him. He smiled. “How vain you are.”
She glared. “I hate women like that. They’re so desperate for the attention of men that they’d willingly betray and harm members of their own sex. And we claim men cannot think with their brains! At least men are direct about it.”
“They say that her father is as rich as a king,” Chaol said. “I suppose that’s part of why Perrington is so infatuated. She arrived here in a litter bigger than most peasant huts; it was carried here from her home. A distance of almost two hundred miles.”
“I pity her servants.”
“I pity her father!” They chuckled, and he lifted the arm linked with hers a bit higher. She nodded to the guards outside her chambers as they stopped. She faced Chaol. “Are you eating lunch? I’m starved.”
He glanced at the guards, his smile fading. “I have important work to do. Like prepare a company of men for the king to bring with him on his journey.”
She opened the door, but looked at him. The tiny freckle upon his cheek moved upward as a smile spread once more.
“What?” she asked. Something smelled delicious inside her chambers, and her stomach grumbled.
Chaol shook his head. “Adarlan’s Assassin,” he chuckled, and began walking back down the hall. “You should rest,” he called over his shoulder. “The competition actually begins tomorrow. And even if you’re as fantastic as you claim to be, you’re going to need every moment of sleep you can get.”
Though she rolled her eyes and slammed the door, Celaena found herself humming throughout her meal.
Celaena felt as if she’d barely closed her eyes when a hand jabbed her side. She groaned, wincing as the drapes were thrown back to welcome the morning sun.
“Wake up.” Not surprisingly, it was Chaol.
She shimmied beneath the blankets, pulling them over her head, but he grabbed the covers and threw them to the floor. Her nightgown was wrapped around her thighs. Celaena shivered.
“It’s cold,” she moaned, holding her knees to her body. She didn’t care that she had only a few months to beat the other Champions—she needed sleep. It would have been nice if the Crown Prince had considered springing her from Endovier earlier so she could have some time to regain her strength; how long had he known about this competition, anyway?
“Get up.” Chaol ripped the pillows from beneath her head. “Now you’re wasting my time.” If he noticed how much skin she was showing, he didn’t react.
Grumbling, Celaena slithered to the edge of the bed, dangling a hand over the edge to touch the floor. “Fetch my slippers,” she mumbled. “The floor’s like ice.”
He growled, but Celaena ignored him as she got to her feet. She staggered and slouched into the dining room, where an enormous breakfast lay on the table. Chaol jerked his chin toward the food. “Eat up. The competition starts in an hour.”
Whatever nerves she felt, she kept them hidden from him as she gave an exaggerated sigh and collapsed into a chair with the grace of a large beast. Celaena scanned the table. Yet again, there were no knives. She stabbed her fork into a piece of sausage.
From the doorway, Chaol asked, “Why, might I ask, are you so tired?”
She gulped down the rest of the pomegranate juice and wiped her mouth on a napkin. “I was up until four reading,” she said. “I sent a letter to your princeling, asking for permission to borrow books from the library. He granted my wish, and sent seven books from his personal library that I’m commanded to read.”
Chaol shook his head in disbelief. “It isn’t your place to write to the Crown Prince.”
She gave him a simpering smile and took a bite of ham. “He could have ignored the letter. And besides, I’m his Champion. Not everyone feels obligated to be as nasty to me as you do.”
“You’re an assassin.”
“If I say I’m a jewel thief, will you treat me with more courtesy?” She waved a hand. “Don’t answer that.” She spooned porridge into her mouth, found it to be bland, and scooped four heaping mounds of brown sugar into the gray mess.
Would the competitors actually be worthy opponents? Before she could start worrying, she examined his black clothes. “Don’t you ever wear normal clothing?”
“Hurry up,” was all he said. The competition awaited.
Suddenly not hungry, she pushed away her bowl of porridge. “I should get dressed, then.” She turned her head to call for Philippa, but paused. “Just what sort of activities might I expect at the tournament today? So I can dress accordingly, of course.”
“I don’t know—they don’t give us the details until you arrive.” The captain rose and drummed the pommel of his sword before calling to a servant as Celaena walked into her bedroom. Behind her, Chaol spoke to the servant girl. “Dress her in pants and a shirt—something loose, nothing frilly or revealing, and bring a cloak.” The girl disappeared into the dressing room. Celaena followed after her, unceremoniously stripping down to her underclothes and enjoying it far too much when Chaol’s cheeks reddened before he turned away.
A few minutes later, Celaena frowned at herself as she hurried after the captain into the foyer. “I look ridiculous! These pants are absurd, and this shirt is awful.”
“Stop whining. No one gives a damn about your clothes.” He flung open the door to the hall, the guards outside instantly at attention. “Besides, you can take them off at the barracks. I’m sure everyone will be thrilled to see you in your undergarments.” She swore violently under her breath, pulling her green velvet cloak tight around herself, and trailed after him.
The Captain of the Guard rushed through the castle, still freezing with the early-morning chill, and they soon entered the barracks. Guards in various states of armor saluted them. An open doorway revealed a large mess hall, where many of the guards were just sitting down to breakfast.
Finally, Chaol stopped somewhere on the ground floor. The giant rectangular room they entered was the size of the Grand Ballroom. Lined with pillars that supported a mezzanine, the floor was checkered black-and-white tile, and the floor-to-ceiling glass doors that made up one entire wall were open, the gossamer curtains blowing in the chilly breeze that drifted in from the garden. Most of the twenty-three other Champions were already scattered throughout the room, sparring with what could only be their sponsors’ trainers. Everyone was carefully monitored by guards. None bothered to look at her, save for that slightly handsome young man with the gray eyes, who gave her a half smile before returning to firing arrows at a target across the room with unnerving accuracy. She lifted her chin and surveyed a rack of weapons. “You expect me to use a mace an hour after sunrise?”
Six guards appeared in the doorway behind them, joining the dozens already in the chamber, swords at the ready. “If you attempt anything foolish,” Chaol said quietly, “they’ll be here.”
“I’m just a jewel thief, remember?” She approached the rack. Foolish, foolish decision to leave all those weapons out. Swords, sword-breakers, axes, bows, pikes, hunting daggers, maces, spears, throwing knives, wooden staves . . . While she generally preferred the stealth of a dagger, she was familiar with every weapon here. She glanced around the sparring room and hid her grimace. So were most of the competitors, it seemed. As she inspected them, she caught a movement in the corner of her vision.
Cain entered the hall, flanked by two guards and a scarred, burly man who must have been his trainer. She squared her shoulders as Cain strode straight toward her, his thick lips parting in a grin.
“Good morning,” he said, his voice raspy and deep. His dark eyes snaked along her body, then found her face again. “I’d have thought you’d be running home by now.”
She gave him a close-lipped smile. “The fun’s just starting, isn’t it?” Cain returned her smile and stalked off.
It would have been so, so easy. So easy to whirl and grab him by the neck and slam his face into the ground. She didn’t even realize she was trembling with rage until Chaol stepped into her line of vision. “Save it for the competition,” he said softly, but not weakly.
“I’m going to kill him,” she breathed.
“No, you’re not. If you want to shut him up, then beat him. He’s just a brute from the king’s army—don’t waste your strength on hating him.”
She rolled her eyes. “Thank you so much for interfering on my behalf.”
“You don’t need me to rescue you.”
“It still would have been nice.”
“You can fight your own battles.” He pointed with his sword to the weapons rack. “Pick one.” His eyes shone with the challenge as she untied her cloak and tossed it behind her. “Let’s see if you can actually back up your swaggering.”