Celaena’s throat tightened, and she put a hand on Nehemia’s shoulder. “No one has called me friend in a long time,” the assassin said. “I—” An inky black crept into the corner of her memory, and she struggled against it. “There are parts of me that I . . .” She heard it then, the sound that haunted her dreams. Hooves pounding, thunderous hooves. Celaena shook her head and the sound stopped. “Thank you, Nehemia,” she said with sincerity. “You’re a true friend.”
Her heart was raw and trembling, and the darkness faded.
Nehemia suddenly groaned. “The queen asked me to watch some acting troupe perform one of her favorite plays tonight. Will you go with me? I could use a translator.”
Celaena frowned. “I’m afraid that—”
“You cannot go.” Nehemia’s voice was tinted with annoyance, and Celaena gave her friend an apologetic look.
“There are certain things that—” Celaena began, but the princess shook her head.
“We all have our secrets—though I’m curious why you’re so closely watched by that captain and locked in your rooms at night. If I were a fool, I’d say they’re afraid of you.”
The assassin smiled. “Men will always be silly about such things.” She thought about what the princess had said, and worry slipped into her stomach. “So are you actually on good terms with the Queen of Adarlan? You didn’t really . . . make an effort to start off that way.”
The princess nodded, lifting her chin. “You know that the situation between our countries isn’t pleasant right now. While I might have been a little distant with Georgina at first, I realized that it might be in Eyllwe’s best interest if I make more of an effort. So, I’ve been speaking with her for some weeks now, hoping to make her aware of how we might improve our relations. I think inviting me tonight is a sign that I might be making some progress.” And, Celaena realized, through Georgina, Nehemia would also get the King of Adarlan’s ear.
Celaena bit her lip, but then quickly smiled. “I’m sure your parents are pleased.” They turned down a hall and the sound of barking dogs filled the air. “Where are we?”
“The kennels.” Nehemia beamed. “The prince showed me the pups yesterday—though I think he was just looking for an excuse to get out of his mother’s court for a while.”
It was bad enough they were walking together without Chaol, but to enter the kennels . . . “Are we allowed to be here?”
Nehemia straightened. “I am Princess of Eyllwe,” she said. “I can go wherever I please.”
Celaena followed the princess through a large wooden door. Wrinkling her nose at the sudden smell, the assassin walked past cages and stalls filled with dogs of many different breeds.
Some were so large that they came up to her hip, while others had legs the length of her hand with bodies as long as her arm. The breeds were all fascinating and beautiful, but the sleek hounds aroused awe within her breast. Their arched undersides and slender, long legs were full of grace and speed; they did not yap as the other dogs did, but sat perfectly still and watched her with dark, wise eyes.
“Are these all hunting dogs?” Celaena asked, but Nehemia had disappeared. She could hear her voice, and the voice of another, and then saw a hand extended from within a stall to beckon Celaena inside. The assassin hurried to the pen and looked down over the gate.
Dorian Havilliard smiled at her as Nehemia took a seat. “Why, hello, Lady Lillian,” he purred, and set aside a brown-and-gold puppy. “I didn’t expect to see you here. Though with Nehemia’s passion for hunting, I can’t say I’m surprised she finally dragged you along.”
Celaena stared at the four dogs. “These are the mutts?”
Dorian picked one up and stroked its head. “Pity, isn’t it? I still can’t resist their charm.”
Carefully, watching Nehemia laugh as two dogs leapt upon her and buried her beneath tongues and wagging tails, the assassin opened the pen door and slipped inside.
Nehemia pointed to the corner. “Is that dog sick?” she asked. There was a fifth pup, a bit larger than the others, and its coat was a silky, silvery gold that shimmered in the shadows. It opened its dark eyes, as if it knew it was being spoken about, and watched them. It was a beautiful animal, and had Celaena not known better, she would have thought it purebred.
“It’s not sick,” Dorian said. “It just has a foul disposition. It won’t come near anyone—human or canine.”
“With good reason,” Celaena said, stepping over the legs of the Crown Prince and nearing the fifth pup. “Why should it touch someone like you?”
“If it won’t respond to humans, then it will have to be killed,” Dorian said offhandedly, and a spark went through Celaena.
“Kill it? Kill it? For what reason? What did it do to you?”
“It won’t make a suitable pet, which is what all of these dogs will become.”
“So you’d kill it because of its temperament? It can’t help being that way!” She looked around. “Where’s its mother? Perhaps it needs her.”
“Its mother only sees them to nurse and for a few hours of socialization. I usually raise these dogs for racing and hunting—not for cuddling.”
“It’s cruel to keep it from its mother!” The assassin reached into the shadow and scooped the puppy into her arms. She held it against her chest. “I won’t let you harm it.”
“If its spirit is strange,” Nehemia offered, “it would be a burden.”
“A burden to whom?”
“It’s nothing to be upset about,” Dorian said. “Plenty of dogs are painlessly laid to rest each day. I don’t see why you would object to that.”
“Well, don’t kill this one!” she said. “Let me keep it—if only so you don’t kill it.”
Dorian observed her. “If it upsets you so much, I won’t have it killed. I’ll arrange for a home, and I’ll even ask for your approval before I make a final decision.”
“You’d do that?”
“What’s the dog’s life to me? If it pleases you, then it shall happen.”
Her face burned as he rose to his feet, standing close. “You—you promise?”
He put a hand on his heart. “I swear on my crown that the pup shall live.”
She was suddenly aware of how near to touching they were. “Thank you.”
Nehemia watched them from the floor, her brows raised, until one of her personal guards appeared at the gate. “It’s time to go, Princess,” he said in Eyllwe. “You must dress for your evening with the queen.” The princess stood, pushing past the bouncing puppies.
“Do you want to walk with me?” Nehemia said in the common tongue to Celaena.
Celaena nodded and opened the gate for them. Shutting the gate, she looked back at the Crown Prince. “Well? Aren’t you coming with us?”
He slumped down into the pen, and the puppies immediately leapt on him. “Perhaps I’ll see you later tonight.”
“If you’re lucky,” Celaena purred, and walked away. She smiled to herself as they strode through the castle.
Eventually Nehemia turned to her. “Do you like him?”
Celaena made a face. “Of course not. Why would I?”
“You converse easily. It seems as if you have . . . a connection.”
“A connection?” Celaena choked on the word. “I just enjoy teasing him.”
“It’s not a crime if you consider him handsome. I’ll admit I judged him wrong; I thought him to be a pompous, selfish idiot, but he’s not so bad.”
“He’s a Havilliard.”
“My mother was the daughter of a chief who sought to overthrow my grandfather.”
“We’re both silly. It’s nothing.”
“He seems to take great interest in you.”
Celaena’s head whipped around, her eyes full of long-forgotten fury that made her belly ache and twist. “I would sooner cut out my own heart than love a Havilliard,” she snarled.
They completed their walk in silence, and when they parted ways, Celaena quickly wished Nehemia a pleasant evening before striding to her part of the castle.
The few guards that followed her remained a respectful distance away—a distance that grew greater each day. Based on Chaol’s orders? Night had recently fallen, and the sky remained a deep blue, staining the snow piled upon the panes of the windows. She could easily walk right out of the castle, stock up on supplies in Rifthold, and be on a ship to the south by morning.
Celaena stopped at a window, leaning in close to the panes. The guards stopped, too, and said nothing as they waited. The coldness from outside seeped in, kissing her face. Would they expect her to go south? Perhaps going north would be the unexpected choice; no one went north in winter unless they had a death wish.
Something shifted in the reflection of the window, and she whirled as she beheld the man standing behind her.
But Cain didn’t smile at her, not in that mocking way. Instead, he panted, his mouth opening and closing like a fish wrenched from water. His dark eyes were wide, and he had a hand around his enormous throat. Hopefully, he was choking to death.
“Is something wrong?” she asked sweetly, leaning against the wall. He glanced from side to side, at the guards, at the window, before his eyes snapped to hers. His grip on his throat tightened, as if to silence the words that fought to come out, and the ebony ring on his finger gleamed dully. Even though it should have been impossible, he seemed to have packed on an additional ten pounds of muscle in the past few days. In fact, every time she saw him, Cain seemed bigger and bigger.
Her brows knotted, and she uncrossed her arms. “Cain,” she said, but he took off down the hall like a jackrabbit, faster than he should have any ability to run. He peered a few times over his shoulder—not at her, or the confused and murmuring guards, but at something beyond.
Celaena waited until the sounds of his fleeing footsteps faded, then hurried back to her own rooms. She sent messages to Nox and Pelor, not explaining why, but just telling them to stay in their chambers that night and not open the door for anyone.
Kaltain pinched her cheeks as she emerged from the dressing room. Her servants sprayed perfume, and the young woman gulped down sugar water before putting her hand on the door. She’d been in the midst of smoking a pipe when Duke Perrington had been announced. She’d fled into the dressing room and changed her clothes, hoping the scent wouldn’t linger. If he found out about the opium, she could just blame it on the horrible headaches she’d been having lately. Kaltain passed through her bedroom into the foyer, and then into the sitting room.
He looked ready for battle, as always. “Your Grace,” she said, curtsying. The world was foggy around the edges, and her body felt heavy. He kissed her hand when she offered it, his lips soggy against her skin. Their eyes met as he looked up from her hand, and a piece of the world slipped away. How far would she go to secure her position at Dorian’s side?
“I hope I didn’t disturb you,” he said, releasing her hand. The walls of the room appeared, and then the floor and the ceiling, and she had the distinct feeling that she was trapped in a box, a lovely cage filled with tapestries and cushions.
“I was only napping, milord,” she said, sitting down. He sniffed, and Kaltain would have felt immensely nervous were it not for the drug curling around her mind. “To what do I owe the pleasure of this unexpected visit?”
“I wished to inquire after you—I didn’t see you at dinner.” Perrington crossed his arms—arms that looked capable of crushing her skull.
“I was indisposed.” She resisted the urge to rest her too-heavy head on the couch.