“You think so?” he said after a moment, looking at their clasped hands.
She tightened her grasp. “Why, if I wasn’t—”
“Why aren’t you two dancing?”
Chaol dropped her hand. She had difficulty turning away from him. “And with whom would I dance, Your Highness?”
Dorian was alarmingly handsome in his pewter tunic. One might say it matched her dress. “You look radiant,” he said. “And you look radiant as well, Chaol.” He winked at his friend. Then Dorian’s gaze met hers, and Celaena’s blood turned into shooting stars. “Well? Do I need to lecture you about how stupid it was to sneak into the ball, or can I just ask you to dance with me instead?”
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” Chaol said.
“Why?” they asked in unison. Dorian stepped a little closer to her. Even though she was ashamed of herself for believing such awful things about Nehemia, knowing that Dorian and Chaol were safe made the misery worth it.
“Because it attracts too much attention, that’s why.” Celaena rolled her eyes, and Chaol glared at her. “Do I have to remind you who you are?”
“No. You remind me every day,” she retorted. His brown eyes darkened. What was the point in being nice to her if he was only going to insult her the next moment?
Dorian put a hand on her shoulder and gave Chaol a charming smile. “Relax, Chaol,” he said, and his hand slipped to rest on her back, his fingers grazing her bare skin. “Just take the night off.” Dorian turned her from the captain. “It’ll do you some good,” he said over his shoulder, though the merriness faded from his tone.
“I’m getting a drink,” muttered Chaol, and walked away. She watched the captain for a moment. It would be a miracle if he considered her a friend. Dorian caressed her back, and she looked at him. Her heart jumped into a gallop, and Chaol dissolved from her thoughts, like dew beneath the morning sun. She felt bad for forgetting him—but . . . but . . . Oh, she wanted Dorian, she couldn’t deny it. She wanted him.
“You look beautiful,” Dorian said quietly, running an eye over her in a way that made her ears burn. “I haven’t been able to stop staring at you.”
“Oh? And I thought you hadn’t even noticed me.”
“Chaol got there first when you arrived. And besides, I had to work up the nerve to approach you.” He grinned. “You’re very intimidating. Especially with the mask.”
“And I suppose it didn’t help that you had a line of ladies waiting to dance with you.”
“I’m here now, aren’t I?” Her heart tightened, and she realized it wasn’t the answer she’d been hoping for. What did she want from him?
He held out his hand, inclining his head. “Dance with me?”
Was there music playing? She’d forgotten. The world had shrunk into nothing, dissolved by the golden glow of candles. But there were her feet, and here was her arm, and her neck, and her mouth. She smiled and took his hand, still keeping one eye on the ball around them.
He was lost—lost in a world of which he’d always dreamed. Her body was warm beneath his hand, and her fingers were soft around his. He spun her and led her about the floor, waltzing as smoothly as he could. She didn’t falter a single step, nor did she seem to care about the many angry female faces that watched as dance after dance passed and they didn’t switch partners.
Of course, it wasn’t polite for a prince to dance with only one lady, but he couldn’t focus on anything beyond his partner and the music that carried them onward.
“You certainly have a lot of stamina,” she said. When had they last spoken? It could have been ten minutes or an hour ago. The masked faces around them blurred together.
“While some parents hit their children, mine also punished me with dancing lessons.”
“Then you must have been a very naughty boy.” She glanced around the ball, as if she were looking for something—or someone.
“You’re gracious with your compliments tonight.” He twirled her. The skirts of her gown sparkled underneath the chandelier.
“It’s Yulemas,” she said. “Everyone’s kind on Yulemas.” A flash of what he could have sworn was pain shone in her eyes, but it was gone before he could be certain of it.
He caught her around the waist, his feet moving to the beat of the waltz. “And how’s your present?”
“Oh, she hid under my bed, then in the dining room, which is where I left her.”
“You locked the dog in your dining room?”
“Should I have kept her in my bedroom, where she could ruin the carpets? Or in the gaming room, where she might eat the chess pieces and choke?”
“Perhaps you should have sent her to the kennels, where dogs belong.”
“On Yulemas? I couldn’t think of sending her back to that wretched place!”
He suddenly felt the urge to kiss her—hard—upon the mouth. But this—what he felt, it could never be real. Because once the ball was over, she would go back to being an assassin, and he would still be a prince. Dorian swallowed hard. For tonight, though . . .
He held her closer. Everyone transformed into mere shadows on the wall.
Frowning, Chaol watched his friend dance with the assassin. He wouldn’t have danced with her, anyway. And he was glad he hadn’t worked up the nerve to ask her, not after seeing the color that Duke Perrington’s face turned upon discovering the pair.
A courtier named Otho stepped beside Chaol. “I thought she was with you.”
“Who? Lady Lillian?”
“So that’s her name! I’ve never seen her before. Is she newly arrived to court?”
“Yes,” said Chaol. Tomorrow, he’d have a word with her guards about letting Celaena out tonight. Hopefully by then, he’d be less inclined to knock their heads together.
“How are you doing, Captain Westfall?” Otho said, clapping him on the back a bit too hard. His breath reeked of wine. “You don’t dine with us anymore.”
“I stopped dining at your table three years ago, Otho.”
“You should come back—we miss your conversation.” It was a lie. Otho only wanted information about the foreign young lady. His reputation with women was well known in the castle—so well known that he had to seize courtiers as they arrived or go into Rifthold for a different sort of woman.
Chaol watched Dorian dip Celaena, watched the way her lips widened in a smile and her eyes burst with light as the Crown Prince said something. Even with the mask on, Chaol could see the happiness written across her face. “Is he with her?” Otho asked.
“The Lady Lillian belongs to herself, and no one else.”
“So she’s not with him?”
Otho shrugged. “That’s strange.”
“Why?” Chaol had the sudden urge to strangle him.
“Because it looks like he’s in love with her,” he said, and walked away.
Chaol’s eyes lost focus for a moment. Then Celaena laughed, and Dorian kept staring at her. The prince hadn’t once taken his eyes off her. Dorian’s expression was full of—something. Joy? Wonder? His shoulders were straight, his back erect. He looked like a man. Like a king.
It was impossible for such a thing to have occurred; and when would it have happened? Otho was a drunk and a womanizer. What did he know of love?
Dorian spun Celaena with speed and dexterity, and she snapped into his arms, her shoulders rising with exhilaration. But she wasn’t in love with him—Otho hadn’t said that. He had seen no attachment on her part. And Celaena would never be that stupid. It was Dorian who was the fool—Dorian who would have his heart broken, if he did actually love her.
Unable to look at his friend any longer, the Captain of the Guard left the ball.
Kaltain watched in rage and agony as Lillian Gordaina and the Crown Prince of Adarlan danced and danced and danced. Even with a much more concealing mask, she would have recognized the upstart. And what sort of a person wore gray to a ball? Kaltain looked down at her dress and smiled. Bright shades of blue, emerald, and soft brown, her gown and matching peacock mask had cost as much as a small house. It was all a gift from Perrington, of course, along with the jewelry that decorated much of her neck and arms. It was certainly not the dull, drab mess of crystal that the conniving harlot wore.
Perrington stroked her arm, and Kaltain turned to him with fluttering eyelashes. “You look handsome tonight, my love,” she said, adjusting a gold chain across his red tunic. His face quickly matched the color of his clothes. She wondered if she could bear the repulsion of kissing him. She could always keep refusing, just as she had for the past month; but when he was this drunk . . .
She would have to think of a way out as soon as possible. But she was no closer to Dorian than she’d been in early autumn, and would certainly make no progress with Lillian in the way.
A precipice opened before her. Her head gave a brief, faint throb of pain. There were no other options now. Lillian had to be eliminated.
When the clock chimed three and most of the guests—including the queen and Chaol—had left, Celaena finally decided that it was safe for her to leave. So she slipped from the ball when Dorian went to get a drink and found Ress waiting outside to escort her back. The halls of the castle were silent as they strode to her room, taking the empty servants’ passages to avoid any too-curious courtiers learning more about her. Even if she’d gone to the ball for the wrong reasons, she had had some fun dancing with Dorian. More than some, actually. She smiled to herself, picking at her nails as they entered the hallway that led to her rooms. The rush of having Dorian look only at her, talk only to her, treat her as if she were his equal and more hadn’t yet worn off. Maybe her plan hadn’t been such a failure after all.
Ress cleared his throat, and Celaena looked up to see Dorian standing outside her rooms, chatting with the guards. He couldn’t have stayed long at the ball if he’d beaten her back here. Her heart pounded, but she managed a coy smile as Dorian bowed to her, opened the door, and they went inside. Let Ress and the guards think what they wanted.
She unfastened the mask from her face, tossing it onto the table in the center of the foyer, and sighed as the cool air met her flushed skin. “Well?” she asked, leaning against the wall beside the door to her bedroom.
Dorian approached her slowly, halting only a hand’s breath away. “You left the ball without saying good-bye,” he said, and braced an arm against the wall beside her head. She raised her eyes, examining the black detail on the sleeve that fell just above her hair.
“I’m impressed you got up here so quickly—and without a pack of court ladies hounding after you. Perhaps you should try your hand at being an assassin.”
He shook the hair out of his face. “I’m not interested in court ladies,” he said thickly, and kissed her.
His mouth was warm, and his lips were smooth, and Celaena lost all sense of time and place as she slowly kissed him back. He pulled away for a moment, looked into her eyes as they opened, and kissed her again. It was different this time—deeper, full of need.
Her arms were heavy and light all at once, and the room twirled round and round. She couldn’t stop. She liked this—liked being kissed by him, liked the smell and the taste and the feel of him.
His arm slipped around her waist and he held her tightly to him as his lips moved against hers. She put a hand on his shoulder, her fingers digging into the muscle that lay beneath. How different things were between them than when she’d first seen him in Endovier!
Her eyes opened. Endovier. Why was she kissing the Crown Prince of Adarlan? Her fingers loosened and her arm dropped to her side.
He removed his mouth from hers and smiled. It was infectious. Dorian leaned forward again, but she smoothly put two fingers against his lips.