Celaena opened the doors to her dressing room, surveying the glittering gowns hanging along the walls. Chaol would be beyond furious if she infiltrated the ball, but she could handle it. She could handle it if he decided to throw her in the dungeons for a little while, too.
Because somehow, the thought of him getting hurt—or worse—made her willing to risk just about anything.
“Will you not even smile on Yulemas?” she asked Chaol as they walked out of the castle and toward the glass temple at the center of the eastern garden.
“If my teeth were crimson, I wouldn’t be smiling at all,” he said. “Be content with an occasional grimace.” She flashed her teeth at him, then closed her mouth as several courtiers strode past, servants in tow. “I’m surprised you’re not complaining more.”
“Complaining about what?” Why did Chaol never joke with her as Dorian did? Perhaps he truly didn’t find her attractive. The possibility of it stung more than she would have liked.
“About not going to the ball tonight.” He glanced sidelong at her. He couldn’t know what she was planning. Philippa had promised to keep it a secret—promised not to ask questions when Celaena requested she find a gown and matching mask.
“Well, apparently you still don’t trust me enough.” She meant to sound sassy, but couldn’t keep the snap from her tone. She couldn’t waste her time worrying about someone who clearly had no interest in her beyond the ridiculous competition.
Chaol snorted, though a hint of a smile appeared on his lips. At least the Crown Prince never made her feel stupid or rotten. Chaol just provoked her . . . though he had his good side, too. And she had no idea when she’d stopped loathing him so much.
Still, she knew he wouldn’t be pleased when she appeared at the ball tonight. Mask or no mask, Chaol would know it was her. She just hoped he wouldn’t punish her too severely.
Seated in a pew in the rear of the spacious temple, Celaena kept her mouth closed so tightly that it hurt. Her teeth were still red; she didn’t need anyone else noticing.
The temple was a beautiful space, built entirely from glass. The limestone covering the floor was all that remained of the original stone temple, which the King of Adarlan had destroyed when he decided to replace it with the glass structure. Two columns of about a hundred rosewood pews stretched beneath a vaulted glass ceiling that let in so much light that no candles were needed during the day. Snow lay piled upon the translucent roof, casting patterns of sunshine throughout. As the walls were also glass, the stained windows above the altar appeared to hover in midair.
She stood to peer over the heads of those sitting in front of her. Dorian and the queen sat in the first pew, a row of guards immediately behind. The duke and Kaltain sat on the other side of the aisle, and behind them were Nehemia and several others she didn’t recognize. She didn’t spy Nox, or the other remaining Champions—or Cain. They’d let her come to this, but not to the ball?
“Sit down,” Chaol growled, pulling at her green gown. She made a face and dropped onto the cushioned bench. Several people stared at her. They wore gowns and jackets so elaborate that she wondered if the ball had been moved to lunchtime.
The High Priestess walked onto the stone platform and raised her hands above her head. The folds of her midnight-blue gossamer robe fell around her, and her white hair was long and unbound. An eight-pointed star was tattooed upon her brow in a shade of blue that matched her gown, its sharp lines extending to her hairline. “Welcome all, and may the blessings of the Goddess and all her gods be upon you.” Her voice echoed across the chamber to reach even those in the back.
Celaena stifled a yawn. She respected the gods—if they existed, and when it suited her to ask for their assistance—but religious ceremonies were . . . brutal.
It had been years and years since she’d attended anything of this sort, and as the High Priestess lowered her arms and stared at the crowd, the assassin shifted in her seat. It would be the usual prayers, then the Yulemas prayers, then the sermon, then the songs, and then the procession of the gods.
“You’re squirming already,” Chaol said under his breath.
“What time is it?” she whispered, and he pinched her arm.
“Today,” the priestess said, “is the day on which we celebrate the end and the beginning of the great cycle. Today is the day on which the Great Goddess gave birth to her firstborn, Lumas, Lord of the Gods. With his birth, love was brought into Erilea, and it banished the chaos that arose from the Gates of the Wyrd.”
A weight pressed on her eyelids. She had woken up so early—and slept so little after that encounter with Nehemia . . . Unable to stop, Celaena wandered into the Land of Sleep.
“Get up,” Chaol snarled in her ear. “Now.”
She sat up with a jolt, the world bright and foggy. Several lesser nobles in her pew laughed silently. She gave Chaol an apologetic look and turned her gaze to the altar. The High Priestess had finished her sermon, and the songs of Yulemas were over. She only had to sit through the procession of the gods, and then she would be free.
“How long was I asleep?” she whispered. He didn’t respond. “How long was I asleep?” she asked again, and noticed a hint of red in his cheeks. “You were asleep, too?”
“Until you began drooling on my shoulder.”
“Such a self-righteous young man,” she cooed, and he poked her leg.
A choir of priestesses stepped off the platform. Celaena yawned, but nodded with the rest of the congregation as the choir gave their blessings. An organ sounded, and everyone leaned to stare down the aisle for the procession of the gods.
The sound of pattering footsteps filled the temple, and the congregation stood. Each blindfolded child was no more than ten years old, and though they looked rather foolish dressed in the costumes of the gods, there was something charming about it. Every year, nine children were chosen. If a child stopped before you, you received the blessings of the god and the small gift the child carried as a symbol of the god’s favor.
Farnor, God of War, stopped at the front row near Dorian, but then moved to the right, across the aisle, to give the miniature silver sword to Duke Perrington. Not surprising.
Clad in glistening wings, Lumas, God of Love, strode past her. She crossed her arms.
What a foolish tradition.
Deanna, Goddess of the Hunt and Maidens, approached. Celaena shifted from one foot to the other, wishing she hadn’t demanded that Chaol give her the aisle seat. To her dread and dismay, the girl stopped before her and removed the blindfold.
She was a pretty little thing: her blond hair hung in loose curls, and her brown eyes were flecked with green. The girl smiled at Celaena and reached to touch the assassin’s forehead. Celaena’s back began sweating as she felt hundreds of eyes upon her. “May Deanna, the Huntress and Protector of the Young, bless and keep you this year. I bestow upon you this golden arrow as a symbol of her power and good graces.” The girl bowed as she extended the slender arrow. Chaol prodded her back and Celaena grabbed the arrow. “Yulemas blessings to you,” the girl said, and Celaena nodded her thanks. She gripped the arrow as the girl bounded away. It couldn’t be used, of course. But it was made of solid gold.
It’ll fetch a nice price.
With a shrug, Celaena handed the arrow to Chaol. “I suppose I’m not allowed to have this,” she said, sitting down with the rest of the crowd.
He put it back in her lap. “I wouldn’t want to test the gods.” She stared at him for a moment. Did he look different? Something had changed in his face. Nudging him with an elbow, Celaena grinned.
Yards of silk, clouds of powder, brushes, combs, pearls, and diamonds glistened before Celaena’s eyes. As Philippa arranged the last strand of Celaena’s hair neatly around her face, secured a mask over her eyes and nose, and placed a small crystal tiara on her head, Celaena couldn’t help but feel, despite herself, like a princess.
Philippa knelt to polish the lump of crystal on Celaena’s silver slippers. “If I didn’t know better, I’d call myself a Faerie Queen. It’s like m—” Philippa caught herself before she spoke the word the King of Adarlan had so effectively outlawed, then quickly said, “I barely recognize you!”
“Good,” Celaena said. This would be her first ball where she wasn’t there to kill someone. True, she was mostly going to make sure Nehemia didn’t hurt herself or the court. But . . . a ball was a ball. Maybe if she was lucky, she could dance a little.
“Are you certain this is a good idea?” Philippa asked quietly, standing. “Captain Westfall won’t be pleased.”
Celaena gave the servant a sharp look. “I told you not to ask questions.”
Philippa huffed. “Just don’t tell them I helped you when you get dragged back here.”
Checking her irritation, Celaena strode to the mirror, Philippa bustling after her. Standing before her reflection, Celaena wondered if she was seeing correctly. “This is the most beautiful dress I’ve ever worn,” she admitted, her eyes filling with light.
It was not pure white, but rather a grayish offset, and its wide skirts and bodice were encrusted with thousands of minuscule crystals that reminded Celaena of the surface of the sea. Swirls of silk thread on the bodice made rose-like designs that could have passed for a work by any master painter. A border of ermine lined the neck and provided slender sleeves that only covered her shoulders. Tiny diamond droplets fell from her ears, and her hair was curled and swept up onto her head, strands of pearls woven in. Her gray silk mask had been secured tightly against her face. It wasn’t fashioned after anything, but the delicate crystal and pearl whorls had been crafted by a skilled hand.
“You could win the hand of a king, looking like that,” said Philippa. “Or perhaps a Crown Prince will do.”
“Where in Erilea did you find this dress?” Celaena murmured.
“Don’t ask questions,” clucked the old woman.
Celaena smirked. “Fair enough.” She wondered why her heart now felt too large for her body, and why she was so unstable in her shoes. She had to remember why she was going—she had to keep her wits about her.
The clock struck nine, and Philippa glanced toward the doorway, giving Celaena the opportunity to slip her makeshift knife down her bodice without being noticed. “How, exactly, are you going to get to the ball? I don’t think your guards will let you just walk out.”
Celaena shot Philippa a sly look. “We’re both going to pretend that I was invited by the Crown Prince—and right now you are going to make such a fuss about me being late that they won’t object.”
Philippa fanned herself, her face reddening. Celaena grasped her hand. “I promise,” she said, “if I get into any sort of trouble, I will swear to my last breath that you were deceived by me, and had no knowledge of anything.”
“But are you going to get into trouble?”
Celaena gave her most winning smile. “No. I’m just sick of being left to sit around while they have grand parties.” It wasn’t quite a lie.
“Gods help me,” Philippa muttered, and took a deep breath. “Go!” she suddenly cried, herding Celaena toward the door to the hall. “Go, you’ll be late!” She was a bit too loud to be totally convincing, but . . . Philippa flung open the door to the hallway. “The Crown Prince won’t be pleased if you’re late!” Celaena paused in the doorway, nodding at the five guards who were posted outside, then looked back at Philippa.
“Thank you,” Celaena said.
“No more dawdling!” the servant woman cried, and almost knocked Celaena off her feet as she pushed her out the doorway and slammed it shut.
Celaena turned to the guards. “You look nice,” one of them—Ress—said shyly. “Off to the ball?” grinned another. “Save a dance for me, will you?” the third added. Not one of them questioned her.