And then there was the Champion who’d tried to escape this afternoon. Dorian shuddered at the thought of what it must have been like to witness it—and at the mess Chaol had to deal with, from the injured soldier to the sponsor who’d lost his Champion to the dead man himself. What had his father been thinking when he decided to host this contest?
Dorian glanced at his mother, seated on a throne beside his own. She certainly didn’t know anything about it, and probably would have been horrified if she knew what kind of criminals were living under her roof. His mother was still beautiful, though her face was a bit wrinkled and cracked with powder, and her auburn hair had a few silver streaks. Today she was swathed in yards of forest-green velvet and floating scarves and shawls of gold, and her crown upheld a sparkling veil that gave Dorian the distinct impression she was wearing a tent upon her head.
Before them, the nobility strutted across the floor of the court, gossiping, scheming, seducing. An orchestra played minuets in a corner, and servants slipped through the gathered nobles in a dance of their own as they refilled and cleared plates and cups and silverware.
Dorian felt like an ornament. Of course, he was wearing an outfit of his mother’s choosing, sent to him this morning: a vest of dark bluish-green velvet, with almost ridiculously billowy white sleeves bursting from the blue-and-white-striped shoulders. The pants, mercifully, were light gray, though his chestnut suede boots looked too new for masculine pride.
“Dorian, my dear. You’re sulking.” He gave Queen Georgina an apologetic grin. “I received a letter from Hollin. He sends his love.”
“Did he say anything of interest?”
“Only that he loathes school and wishes to come home.”
“He says that every letter.”
The Queen of Adarlan sighed. “If your father didn’t prevent me, I’d have him home.”
“He’s better off at school.” When it came to Hollin, the farther away he was, the better.
Georgina surveyed her son. “You were better behaved. You never disobeyed your tutors. Oh, my poor Hollin. When I am dead, you’ll care for him, won’t you?”
“Dead? Mother, you’re only—”
“I know how old I am.” She waved a ring-encrusted hand. “Which is why you must marry. And soon.”
“Marry?” Dorian ground his teeth. “Marry whom?”
“Dorian, you are the Crown Prince. And already nineteen, at that. Do you wish to become king and die without an heir so Hollin can take the throne?” He didn’t answer. “I thought so.” After a moment, she said, “There are plenty of young women who might make a good wife. Though a princess would be preferred.”
“There are no princesses left,” he said a bit sharply.
“Except for the Princess Nehemia.” She laughed and put a hand on his. “Oh, don’t worry. I wouldn’t force you to marry her. I’m surprised your father allows for her to still bear the title. The impetuous, haughty girl—do you know she refused to wear the dress I sent her?”
“I’m sure the princess has her reasons,” Dorian said warily, disgusted by his mother’s unspoken prejudice. “I’ve only spoken to her once, but she seemed . . . lively.”
“Then perhaps you shall marry her.” His mother laughed again before he could respond.
Dorian smiled weakly. He still couldn’t figure out why his father had granted the King of Eyllwe’s request that his daughter visit their court to become better acquainted with the ways of Adarlan. As far as ambassadors went, Nehemia wasn’t exactly the best choice. Not when he’d heard rumors of her support of the Eyllwe rebels—and her efforts to shut down the labor camp at Calaculla. Dorian couldn’t blame her for that, though, not after he’d seen the horror that was Endovier, and the destruction it had wrought upon Celaena Sardothien’s body. But his father never did anything without a reason—and from the few words he’d exchanged with Nehemia, he couldn’t help but wonder if she had her own motivations in coming here, too.
“It’s a pity that Lady Kaltain has an agreement with Duke Perrington,” his mother went on. “She’s such a beautiful girl—and so polite. Perhaps she has a sister.”
Dorian crossed his arms, swallowing his repulsion. Kaltain stood at the far end of the court, and he was all too aware of her eyes creeping over every inch of him. He shifted in his seat, his tailbone aching from sitting for so long.
“What about Elise?” the queen said, indicating a blond young woman clad in lavender. “She’s very beautiful. And can be quite playful.”
As I’ve already learned.
“Elise bores me,” he said.
“Oh, Dorian.” She put a hand over her heart. “You’re not about to inform me that you wish to marry for love, are you? Love does not guarantee a successful marriage.”
He was bored. Bored of these women, bored of these cavaliers who masqueraded as companions, bored of everything.
He’d hoped his journey to Endovier would quell that boredom, and that he’d be glad to return home, but he found home to be the same. The same ladies still looked at him with pleading eyes, the same serving girls still winked at him, the same councilmen still slipped pieces of potential legislation under his door with hopeful notes. And his father . . . his father would always be preoccupied with conquest—and wouldn’t stop until every continent bore Adarlan’s flag. Even gambling over the so-called Champions had become achingly dull. It was clear Cain and Celaena would ultimately face each other, and until then . . . well, the other Champions weren’t worth his time.
“You’re sulking again. Are you upset over something, my pet? Have you heard from Rosamund? My poor child—how she broke your heart!” The queen shook her head. “Though it was over a year ago . . .” He didn’t reply. He didn’t want to think about Rosamund—or about the boorish husband she’d left him for.
Some nobles started dancing, weaving in and out among each other. Many were his age, but he somehow felt as if there existed a vast distance between them. He didn’t feel older, nor did he feel any wiser, but rather he felt . . . He felt . . .
He felt as if there were something inside him that didn’t fit in with their merriment, with their willing ignorance of the world outside the castle. It went beyond his title. He had enjoyed their company early in his adolescence, but it had become apparent that he’d always be a step away. The worst of it was that they didn’t seem to notice he was different—or that he felt different. Were it not for Chaol, he would have felt immensely lonely.
“Well,” his mother said, snapping her ivory fingers at one of her ladies-in-waiting, “I’m sure your father has you busy, but when you find a moment to bother thinking of me, and the fate of your kingdom, look through this.” His mother’s lady curtsied as she extended to him a folded piece of paper, stamped with his mother’s bloodred seal. Dorian ripped it open, and his stomach twisted at the long line of names. All ladies of noble blood, all of marriageable age.
“What is this?” he demanded, fighting the urge to rip up the paper.
She gave him a winning smile. “A list of potential brides. Any one of them would be suitable to take the crown. And all, I’ve been told, are quite capable of producing heirs.”
Dorian stuffed the list of names into the pocket of his vest. The restlessness within him would not cease. “I’ll think about it,” he said, and before she could reply, he stepped from the awning-covered podium. Immediately, five young women flocked to him and began asking him to dance, how he fared, if he would attend the Samhuinn ball. Around and around their words circled, and Dorian stared at them blankly. What were their names?
He peered over their jewel-encrusted heads to find the path to the door. He’d suffocate if he remained here for too long. With only polite good-byes, the Crown Prince strode from the jangle and jingle of the court, the list of would-be brides burning a hole through his clothes and straight into his skin.
Dorian put his hands in his pockets as he strode down the halls of the castle. The kennels were empty—the dogs were at the track. He’d wished to inspect one of the pregnant hounds, though he knew it was impossible to predict the outcome of the litter until she gave birth. He hoped the pups would be pure, but their mother had a tendency to escape from her pen. She was his fastest, but he’d never been able to quell the wildness within her.
He didn’t really know where he was going now; he just needed to walk—anywhere.
Dorian loosened the top button on his vest. The clash of swords echoed from an open doorway, and he paused. He faced the Champions’ training room, and even though training was supposed to be over by now, there—
There she was.
Her golden hair shone as she wove in and out of a knot of three guards, her sword little more than a steel extension of her hand. She didn’t balk at the guards as she dodged and twirled around them.
Someone began clapping to the left, and the four dueling figures stopped, panting. Dorian watched a grin spread across the assassin’s face as she beheld the source. The sheen of sweat illuminated her high cheekbones, and her blue eyes sparkled. Yes, she was truly lovely. But—
Princess Nehemia approached, clapping. She was clad not in her usual white gown, but rather in a dark tunic and loose trousers, and she clutched an ornately carved wooden staff in one hand.
The princess clasped the assassin on the shoulder, and said something to the girl that made her laugh. Dorian looked around. Where was Chaol or Brullo? Why was Adarlan’s Assassin here with the Princess of Eyllwe? And with a sword! This could not go on, especially after that Champion’s attempted escape the other day.
Dorian approached, and smiled at the princess as he bowed. Nehemia only deigned to give him a terse nod. Not surprising. Dorian took Celaena’s hand. It smelled of metal and sweat, but he kissed it anyway, raising his eyes to her face as he did so. “Lady Lillian,” he muttered onto her skin.
“Your Highness,” she said, trying to pull her hand from his. But Dorian held fast to her calloused palm.
“Might I have a word?” he said, leading her away before she could agree. When they were out of hearing distance, he demanded, “Where’s Chaol?”
She crossed her arms. “Is this any way to speak to your beloved Champion?”
He frowned. “Where is he?”
“I don’t know. If I were to bet, though, I’d wager that he’s inspecting the Eye Eater’s mangled corpse, or disposing of Sven’s body. Besides, Brullo said I could stay here as long as I liked after we were done. I do have another Test tomorrow, you know.”
Of course he knew. “Why is Princess Nehemia here?”
“She called on me, and when Philippa told her I was here, she insisted on joining. Apparently, a woman can only go so long without a sword between her hands.” She bit her lip.
“I don’t recall you being so talkative.”
“Well, perhaps if you’d taken the time to speak with me, you’d have found me to be so.”
He snorted, but took the bait, gods damn him. “And when would have I spoken to you?”
“You do recall the little fact that we traveled together from Endovier, don’t you? And that I’ve been here for weeks now.”
“I sent you those books,” he offered.
“And did you ever ask me if I had read them?”
Had she forgotten to whom she was speaking? “I’ve spoken to you once since we’ve been here.”
She shrugged and made to turn away. Irritated, but slightly curious, he grabbed her arm. Her turquoise eyes glittered as she stared at his hand, and his heart quickened when her gaze rose to his face. Yes, sweaty as she was, she was beautiful.