Celaena smiled and took Ress’s arm as he extended it to her. She tried not to laugh when he puffed out his chest. But as they neared the Great Hall and the sounds of a waltz could be heard, a swarm of bees took flight in her stomach. She couldn’t forget why she was here. She’d played this part in the past, but it had ended in killing a stranger—not confronting a friend.
The red-and-gold glass doors appeared, and she could see the wreaths and candles that bedecked the massive hall. It would have been easier if she could have slipped into the ball through a side door and remained unnoticed, but she hadn’t had time to go exploring through the secret tunnels to find another way out of her rooms, and she certainly couldn’t find another way into the ball now without raising suspicions. Ress stopped and bowed. “This is where I leave you,” he said as seriously as he could, though he kept looking at the ball that lay at the foot of the stairs. “Have a lovely night, Miss Sardothien.”
“Thank you, Ress.” She felt an urge to vomit and run back to her rooms. Instead, she graciously nodded her farewell. She just had to make it down the stairs, and find a way to convince Chaol to let her stay. Then she could keep an eye on Nehemia all night.
Her shoes seemed frail, and Celaena took a few steps back, ignoring the guards at the door as she lifted her feet high and set them down to test the strength of the shoes. When she was assured that not even a jump through the air could snap the heel, she approached the top of the stairs.
Tucked into her bodice, the makeshift knife poked her skin. She prayed to the Goddess, to every god she knew, to the Wyrd, to whatever was responsible for her fate, that she wouldn’t have to use it.
Celaena squared her shoulders and stepped forward.
What was she doing here?
Dorian almost dropped his drink as he saw Celaena Sardothien atop the stairs. Even with the mask, he recognized her. She might have her faults, but Celaena never did anything half-heartedly. She’d outdone herself with that dress. But what was she doing here?
He couldn’t tell if it were a dream or reality until several heads, then many, turned to look. Though the waltz was playing, those not dancing quieted themselves as the mysterious masked girl lifted her skirts and took a step, then another. Her dress was made of stars plucked from the sky, and the whorls of crystals in her gray mask glittered.
“Who is that?” breathed a young courtier beside him.
She looked at no one as she descended the staircase, and even the Queen of Adarlan stood to see the late arrival, Nehemia also rising from her seat beside her. Had Celaena lost her mind?
Walk to her. Take her hand. But his feet were leaden, and Dorian could do nothing except watch her. His skin flushed beneath his small black mask. He didn’t know why, but seeing her made him feel like a man. She was something out of a dream—a dream in which he was not a spoiled young prince, but a king. She reached the bottom of the stairs, and Dorian took a step forward.
But someone had already arrived, and Dorian clenched his jaw tight enough for it to hurt as she smiled and bowed to Chaol. The Captain of the Guard, who hadn’t bothered to wear a mask, extended his hand. Celaena stared only at Chaol with those starlit eyes, and her long, white fingers floated through the air to meet his. The crowd began chattering as Chaol led her from the stairs, and they disappeared into the throng. Whatever conversation they were about to have, it wasn’t going to be pleasant. He’d be better off staying out of it.
“Please,” said another courtier, “tell me that Chaol doesn’t suddenly have a wife.”
“Captain Westfall?” said the courtier who had spoken earlier. “Why would a pretty thing like that marry a guard?” Remembering who stood beside him, he glanced at Dorian, who was still staring, wide-eyed, at the stairs. “Who is she, Your Highness? Do you know her?”
“No, I don’t,” whispered Dorian, and walked away.
The waltz was driving and so loud she had difficulty hearing herself think as Chaol pulled her into a shadowy alcove. Not surprisingly, he hadn’t worn a mask—it would be too silly for him. Which made the fury on his face all too visible.
“So,” he seethed, holding tightly to her wrist, “do you want to tell me how you got it into your mind that this was a good idea?”
She tried shaking off his hand, but he wouldn’t let go. Across the great hall, Nehemia sat with the Queen of Adarlan, occasionally glancing in Celaena’s direction. Because she was nervous—or just surprised to see her?
“Relax,” she hissed at the Captain of the Guard. “I only wanted to have some fun.”
“Fun? Crashing a royal ball is your idea of fun?”
Arguing wouldn’t help; she could tell that his anger was mostly about being embarrassed that she’d managed to slip out of her rooms in the first place. So she gave him a pitiful pout. “I was lonely.”
He choked. “You couldn’t spend one evening on your own?”
She twisted her wrist out of his grasp. “Nox is here—and he’s a thief! How could you let him come—with all this jewelry flashing about—and not me? How can I be the King’s Champion if you don’t trust me?” Actually, that was a question she really wanted to know the answer to.
Chaol covered his face with a hand and let out a long, long sigh. She tried not to smile. She’d won. “If you take one step out of line—”
She grinned in earnest. “Consider it your Yulemas present to me.”
Chaol gave her a weighing look, but slumped his shoulders. “Please don’t make me regret this.”
She patted his cheek, sweeping past him. “I knew I liked you for some reason.”
He said nothing, but followed her back into the crowd. She’d been to masked balls before, but there was still something unnerving about not being able to see the faces of those around her. Most of the court, Dorian included, wore masks of varying sizes, shapes, and colors—some of simple design, others elaborate and animal-shaped. Nehemia still sat with the queen, wearing a gold-and-turquoise mask with a lotus motif. They appeared to be engaged in polite conversation, and Nehemia’s guards stood to the side of the dais, already looking bored.
Chaol kept close to her as she found an empty spot in the crowd and stopped. It was a good vantage point. She could see everything from here—the dais, the main stairs, the dance floor . . .
Dorian was dancing with a small brunette with outrageously large br**sts that he took no pains to avoid glancing at every so often. Hadn’t he noticed her arrival? Even Perrington had seen her when Chaol dragged her into that corner. Thankfully, the captain had subtly moved her away before she had to interact with him.
Across the room, she met Nox’s eye. He was flirting with a young woman wearing a dove mask, and he raised his glass in salute before turning back to the girl. He’d opted for a blue mask that concealed only his eyes.
“Well, try not to have too much fun,” Chaol said beside her, crossing his arms.
Hiding her scowl, Celaena crossed her arms as well and began her vigil.
An hour later, Celaena was beginning to curse herself for a being a fool. Nehemia was still sitting with the queen, and hadn’t looked again in Celaena’s direction. How had she even considered that Nehemia—Nehemia, of all people!—would attack everyone?
Celaena’s face burned with shame beneath the mask. She didn’t deserve to call herself a friend. All the dead Champions and mysterious evil powers and this ridiculous competition had made her go mad.
Celaena smoothed the fur on her dress, frowning slightly. Chaol remained beside her, saying nothing. Though he’d allowed her to stay, she doubted he’d soon forget this. Or that the guards wouldn’t get the tongue-lashing of their lives later tonight.
Celaena straightened as Nehemia suddenly rose from her seat beside the queen’s throne, her guards snapping to attention. She bowed her head to the queen, the light of the chandeliers making her mask glisten, and then strode off the dais.
Celaena felt each of her heartbeats hammering in her veins as Nehemia wove through the crowd, her guards close behind—and halted in front of Celaena and Chaol.
“You look beautiful, Lillian,” Nehemia said in the common tongue, her accent as thick as it had ever been. It felt like a slap in the face; she’d spoken with perfect fluency that night in the library. Was she warning Celaena to keep quiet about it?
“As do you,” Celaena said tightly. “Are you enjoying the ball?”
Nehemia played with a fold in her dress. And, from the look of the rich blue fabric, it was probably a gift from the Queen of Adarlan. “Yes, but I’m not feeling well,” the princess said. “I’m going back to my rooms.”
Celaena gave her a stiff nod. “I hope you feel better,” was all she could think of to say. Nehemia looked at her for a long moment, her eyes shining with what seemed like pain, and then left. Celaena watched her walk up the stairs, and didn’t tear her gaze away until the princess was gone.
Chaol cleared his throat. “Do you want to tell me what that was all about?”
“None of your business,” she replied. Something could still happen—even if Nehemia wasn’t here, something could happen. But no. Nehemia wouldn’t repay pain with more pain. She was too good for that. Celaena swallowed hard. The makeshift knife in her bodice felt like a dead weight.
Even if Nehemia wasn’t going to hurt anyone tonight, that didn’t prove her innocence.
“What’s wrong?” Chaol pressed.
Forcing herself to push aside her shame and worry, Celaena lifted her chin. With Nehemia gone, she still had to keep watch, but maybe she could attempt to have a little fun, too. “With you scowling at everyone, no one will ask me to dance.”
Chaol’s dark brows rose. “I’m not scowling at everyone.” Even as he said it, she spotted him frowning at a passing courtier who looked too long in Celaena’s direction.
“Stop it!” she hissed. “No one will ever ask me to dance if you keep doing that!”
He gave her an exasperated look and strode off. She followed him to the border of the dance floor. “Here,” he said, standing at the edge of the sea of swirling gowns. “If anyone wants to ask you to dance, you’re in plain sight.”
From this spot she could also still make sure no feral beasts were about to rip into the crowd. But he didn’t need to know that. She glanced at him. “Would you like to dance with me?”
He laughed. “With you? No.”
She looked at the marble floor, her chest tight. “You needn’t be so cruel.”
“Cruel? Celaena, Perrington is just over there. I’m sure he’s not happy about you being here, so I wouldn’t risk drawing his attention any more than necessary.”
Chaol’s eyes softened. “If he weren’t here, I would have said yes.”
“I can easily arrange that, you know.”
He shook his head as he adjusted the lapel on his black tunic. Just then Dorian waltzed by, sweeping the brunette with him. He didn’t even glance at her.
“Anyway,” Chaol added, jerking his chin at Dorian, “I think you have far more attractive suitors vying for your attention. I’m boring company to keep.”
“I don’t mind being here with you.”
“I’m sure you don’t,” Chaol said dryly, though he met her stare.
“I mean it. Why aren’t you dancing with anyone? Aren’t there ladies whom you like?”
“I’m the Captain of the Guard—I’m not exactly a catch for any of them.” There was some sorrow in his eyes, though it was well concealed.
“Are you mad? You’re better than everyone in here. And you’re—you’re very handsome,” she said, taking his hand in her free one. There was beauty in Chaol’s face—and strength, and honor, and loyalty. She stopped hearing the crowd, and her mouth became dry as he stared at her. How had she missed it for so long?