He said something to her, but she found that her ears had stopped hearing. His skin seemed to harden and glaze over, and his eyes became unforgiving marble orbs. Even the thinning hair was frozen in stone. She gaped as the white mouth continued to move, revealing a throat of carved marble. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m not feeling well.”
“Shall I fetch you water?” The duke stood. “Or shall I go?”
“No!” she said, almost crying out. Her heart twitched. “What I mean is—I’m well enough to enjoy your company, but you must forgive my absentmindedness.”
“I wouldn’t call you absentminded, Lady Kaltain,” he said, sitting down. “You’re one of the cleverest women I’ve met. His Highness told me the same thing yesterday.”
Kaltain’s spine snapped and straightened. She saw Dorian’s face and the crown that sat upon his head. “The prince said that—about me?”
The duke put a hand on her knee, stroking it with his thumb. “Of course, then Lady Lillian interrupted before he could say more.”
Her head spun. “Why was she with him?”
“I don’t know. I wish it were otherwise.”
She must do something, something to stop this. The girl moved fast—too fast for her maneuvering. Lillian had snared the Crown Prince in her net, and now Kaltain must cut him free. Perrington could do it. He could make Lillian disappear and never be found. No—Lillian was a lady, and a man with as much honor as Perrington would never harm one of noble birth. Or would he? Skeletons danced in circles around her head. But what if he thought Lillian weren’t a lady . . . Her headache flared to life with a sudden burst that sucked the air from her lungs.
“I had the same reaction,” she said, rubbing her temple. “It’s hard to believe someone as disreputable as the Lady Lillian won the heart of the prince.” Maybe the headaches would stop once she was at Dorian’s side. “Perhaps it would do some good if someone spoke to His Highness.”
“I heard from someone that her background is not as . . . pure as it should be.”
“What have you heard?” Perrington demanded.
Kaltain played with a jewel hanging from her bracelet. “I didn’t get specifics, but some of the nobility don’t believe her to be a worthy companion of anyone in this court. I’d like to learn more about the Lady Lillian, wouldn’t you? It’s our duty as loyal subjects of the crown to protect our prince from such forces.”
“Indeed it is,” the duke said quietly.
Something wild and foreign issued a cry within her, shattering through the pain in her head, and thoughts of poppies and cages faded away.
She must do what was necessary to save the crown—and her future.
Celaena looked up from an ancient book of Wyrdmark theories as the door creaked open, the hinges squealing loud enough to wake the dead. Her heart skipped a beat, and she tried to appear as casual as possible. But it was not Dorian Havilliard who entered, nor was it a ferocious creature.
The door finished opening and Nehemia, clad in a gold-worked wonder, stood before her. She didn’t look at Celaena, nor did she move as she stood in the doorway. Her eyes were upon the floor, and rivers of kohl ran down her cheeks.
“Nehemia?” Celaena asked, getting to her feet. “What happened to the play?”
Nehemia’s shoulders rose and fell. Slowly, she lifted her head, revealing red-rimmed eyes. “I—I didn’t know where else to go,” she said in Eyllwe.
Celaena found breathing a bit difficult as she asked, “What happened?”
It was then that Celaena noticed the piece of paper in Nehemia’s hands. It trembled in her grasp.
“They massacred them,” Nehemia whispered, her eyes wide. She shook her head, as if she were denying her own words.
Celaena went still. “Who?”
Nehemia let out a strangled sob, and a part of Celaena broke at the agony in the sound.
“A legion of Adarlan’s army captured five hundred Eyllwe rebels hiding on the border of Oakwald Forest and the Stone Marshes.” Tears dripped from Nehemia’s cheeks and onto her white dress. She crumpled the piece of paper in her hand. “My father says they were to go to Calaculla as prisoners of war. But some of the rebels tried to escape on the journey, and . . .” Nehemia breathed hard, fighting to get the words out. “And the soldiers killed them all as punishment, even the children.”
Celaena’s dinner rose in her throat. Five hundred—butchered.
Celaena became aware of Nehemia’s personal guards standing in the doorway, their eyes gleaming. How many of the rebels had been people that they knew—that Nehemia had somehow helped and protected?
“What is the point in being a princess of Eyllwe if I cannot help my people?” Nehemia said. “How can I call myself their princess, when such things happen?”
“I’m so sorry,” Celaena whispered. As if those words broke the spell that had been holding the princess in place, Nehemia rushed into her arms. Her gold jewelry pressed hard into Celaena’s skin. Nehemia wept. Unable to say anything, the assassin simply held her—for as long as it took for the pain to ease.
Celaena sat by a window in her bedroom, watching the snow dance in the night air. Nehemia had long since returned to her own rooms, tears dried and shoulders squared once more. The clock chimed eleven and Celaena stretched, but then stopped as pain seized her stomach. She bent over, focusing on her breathing, and waited for the cramp to pass. She’d been like this for over an hour now, and she pulled her blanket tighter around herself, the heat of the roaring fire not adequately reaching her seat by the window. Thankfully, Philippa entered, extending a cup of tea.
“Here, child,” she said. “This will help.” She placed it on the table beside the assassin and rested a hand on the armchair. “Pity what happened to those Eyllwe rebels,” she said quietly enough that no listening ears might hear. “I can’t imagine what the princess must be feeling.” Celaena felt anger bubble alongside the pain in her stomach. “She’s fortunate to have a good friend like you, though.”
Celaena touched Philippa’s hand. “Thank you.” She grabbed her teacup and hissed, almost dropping it into her lap as the scalding-hot cup bit into her hand.
“Careful now.” Philippa chuckled. “I didn’t know assassins could be so clumsy. If you need anything, send word. I’ve had my fair share of monthly pains.” Philippa ruffled Celaena’s hair and left. Celaena would have thanked her again, but another wave of cramping took over and she leaned forward as the door closed.
Her weight gain over the past three and a half months had allowed for her monthly cycles to return after near-starvation in Endovier had made them vanish. Celaena groaned. How was she going to train like this? The duel was four weeks away.
The snowflakes sparkled and shimmered beyond the glass panes of the window, twirling and weaving as they flew to the ground in a waltz that was beyond human comprehension.
How could Elena expect her to defeat some evil in this castle, when there was so much more of it out there? What was any of this compared to what was occurring in other kingdoms? As close as Endovier and Calaculla, even? The door to her bedroom opened, and someone approached.
“I heard about Nehemia.” It was Chaol.
“What are you—isn’t it late for you to be here?” she asked, pulling the blankets tight.
“I—are you sick?”
“Because of what happened to those rebels?”
Didn’t he get it? Celaena grimaced. “No. I’m truly feeling unwell.”
“It makes me sick, too,” Chaol murmured, glaring at the floor. “All of it. And after seeing Endovier . . .” He rubbed his face, as if he could clear away the memories of it. “Five hundred people,” he whispered. Stunned at what he was admitting, she could only watch.
“Listen,” he began, and started to pace. “I know that I’m sometimes aloof with you, and I know you complain about it to Dorian, but—” He turned to her. “It’s a good thing that you befriended the princess, and I appreciate your honesty and unwavering friendship with her. I know there are rumors about Nehemia’s connection to the rebels in Eyllwe, but . . . but I’d like to think that if my country was conquered, I would stop at nothing to win back my people’s freedom, too.”
She would have replied were it not for the deep pain that wrapped around her lower spine, and the sudden churning in her stomach.
“I might—” he started, looking at the window. “I might have been wrong.” The world began to spin and tilt, and Celaena closed her eyes. She’d always had horrible cramping, usually accompanied by nausea. But she wouldn’t vomit. Not right now.
“Chaol,” she began, putting a hand over her mouth as nausea swelled and took control.
“It’s just that I take great pride in my job,” he continued.
“Chaol,” she said again. Oh, she was going to vomit.
“And you’re Adarlan’s Assassin. But I was wondering if—if you wanted to—”
“Chaol,” she warned. As he pivoted, Celaena vomited all over the floor.
He made a disgusted noise, jumping back a foot. Tears sprang up as the bitter, sharp taste filled her mouth. She hung over her knees, letting drool and bile spill on the floor.
“Are you—by the Wyrd, you’re really sick, aren’t you?” He called for a servant, helping her from the chair. The world was clearer now. What had he been asking? “Come on. Let’s get you into bed.”
“I’m not ill like that,” she groaned. He sat her on the bed, peeling back the blanket. A servant entered, frowning at the mess on the floor, and shouted for help.
“Then in what way?”
“I, uh . . .” Her face was so hot she thought it would melt onto the floor. Oh, you idiot! “My monthly cycles finally came back.”
His face suddenly matched hers and he stepped away, dragging a hand through his short brown hair. “I—if . . . Then I’ll take my leave,” he stammered, and bowed. Celaena raised an eyebrow, and then, despite herself, smiled as he left the room as quickly as his feet could go without running, tripping slightly in the doorway as he staggered into the rooms beyond.
Celaena looked at the servants cleaning. “I’m so sorry,” she started, but they waved her off. Embarrassed and aching, the assassin climbed farther onto her bed and nestled beneath the covers, hoping sleep would soon come.
But sleep wouldn’t soon come, and a while later, the door opened again, and someone laughed. “I intercepted Chaol, and he informed me of your ‘condition.’ You’d think a man in his position wouldn’t be so squeamish, especially after examining all of those corpses.”
Celaena opened an eye and frowned as Dorian sat on her bed. “I’m in a state of absolute agony and I can’t be bothered.”
“It can’t be that bad,” he said, fishing a deck of cards from his jacket. “Want to play?”
“I already told you that I don’t feel well.”
“You look fine to me.” He skillfully shuffled the deck. “Just one game.”
“Don’t you pay people to entertain you?”
He glowered, breaking the deck. “You should be honored by my company.”
“I’d be honored if you would leave.”
“For someone who relies on my good graces, you’re very bold.”
“Bold? I’ve barely begun.” Lying on her side, she curled her knees to her chest.
He laughed, pocketing the deck of cards. “Your new canine companion is doing well, if you wish to know.”