From her place at the back of the balcony, Celaena could still see as the woman in red brushed a hand down the front of her skirts. “I should have worn my white dress,” she said loudly enough for everyone in Rifthold to hear. “Dorian likes white.” She adjusted a pleat in her skirt. “But I’ll wager that everyone’s wearing white.”
“Shall we go change, milady?” asked one of the blondes.
“No,” snapped the woman. “This dress is fine. Old and shabby as it is.”
“But—” said the other blonde, then stopped as her mistress’s head whipped around. Celaena approached the rail again and peered over. The dress hardly looked old.
“It won’t take long for Dorian to ask me for a private audience.” Celaena now leaned over the edge of the balcony. The guards watched the three girls, rapt for another reason entirely. “Though I worry how much Perrington’s courting will interfere; but I do adore the man for inviting me to Rifthold. My mother must be writhing in her grave!” She paused, and then said: “I wonder who she is.”
“Your mother, milady?”
“The girl the prince brought into Rifthold. I heard he traveled all over Erilea to find her, and that she rode into the city on the Captain of the Guard’s horse. I’ve heard nothing else about her. Not even her name.” The two women lagged behind their mistress and exchanged exasperated looks that informed the assassin this conversation had been held many times before. “I don’t need to worry,” the woman mused. “The prince’s harlot won’t be well-received.”
The ladies in waiting stopped beneath the balcony, batting their eyelashes at the guards. “I need my pipe,” the woman murmured, rubbing her temples. “I feel a headache coming on.” Celaena’s brows rose. “Regardless,” the woman continued, striding away, “I shall have to watch my back. I might even have to—”
The women screamed, the guards whirled with their crossbows pointed, and Celaena looked skyward as she retreated from the rail and into the shadows of the balcony doorway. The flowerpot had missed. This time.
The woman cursed so colorfully that Celaena clamped a hand over her mouth to keep from laughing. The servants cooed, wiping mud from the woman’s skirts and suede shoes. “Be quiet!” the woman hissed. The guards, wisely, didn’t let their amusement show. “Be quiet and let’s go!”
The women hurried off as the prince’s harlot strode into her chambers and called for her servants to dress her in the finest gown they could find.
Celaena stood before the rosewood mirror, smiling.
She ran a hand down her gown. Sea-foam white lace bloomed from the sweeping neckline, washing upon her breast from the powder-green ocean of silk that made up the dress. A red sash covered the waist, forming an inverted peak that separated the bodice from the explosion of skirts beneath. Patterns of clear green beads were embroidered in whorls and vines across the whole of it, and bone-colored stitching stretched along the ribs. Tucked inside her bodice was the small makeshift hairpin dagger, though it poked mercilessly at her chest. She lifted her hands to touch her curled and pinned hair.
She didn’t know what she planned to do now that she was dressed, especially if she’d probably have to change before the competition started, but—
Skirts rustled from the doorway, and Celaena raised her eyes in the reflection to see Philippa enter behind her. The assassin tried not to preen—and failed miserably. “It’s such a pity you are who you are,” Philippa said, turning Celaena to face her. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you managed to ensnare some lord into marriage. Maybe even His Highness, if you were charming enough.” She adjusted the green folds of Celaena’s dress before kneeling down to brush the assassin’s ruby-colored slippers.
“Well, it seems rumor has already suggested that. I overheard a girl saying that the Crown Prince brought me here to woo me. I thought the entire court knew about this stupid competition.”
Philippa rose. “Whatever the rumors are, it’ll all be forgotten in a week—just you wait. Let him find a new woman he likes and you’ll vanish from the whisperings of the court.” Celaena straightened as Philippa fixed a stray curl. “Oh, it’s not meant as an offense, poppet. Beautiful ladies are always associated with the Crown Prince—you should be flattered that you’re attractive enough to be considered his lover.”
“I’d rather not be seen that way at all.”
“Better than as an assassin, I’d wager.”
She looked at Philippa and then laughed.
Philippa shook her head. “Your face is much more pretty when you smile. Girlish, even. Far better than that frown you always have.”
“Yes,” Celaena admitted, “you might be right.” She made to sit down upon the mauve ottoman.
“Ah!” Philippa said, and Celaena froze, standing upright. “You’ll wrinkle the fabric.”
“But my feet hurt in these shoes.” She frowned pitifully. “You can’t intend for me to stand all day? Even through my meals?”
“Only until someone tells me how lovely you look.”
“No one knows you’re my servant.”
“Oh, they know I’ve been assigned to the lover the prince brought to Rifthold.”
Celaena chewed on her lip. Was it a good thing that no one knew who she truly was? What would her competition think? Perhaps a tunic and pants would have been better.
Celaena reached to move a curl that itched her cheek, and Philippa batted her hand away. “You’ll ruin your hair.”
The doors to her apartment slammed open, followed by an already familiar snarling and stomping about. She watched in the mirror as Chaol appeared in the doorway, panting. Philippa curtsied.
“You,” he began, then stopped as Celaena faced him. His brows lowered as his eyes traveled along her body. His head cocked, and he opened his mouth as if to say something, but only shook his head and scowled. “Upstairs. Now.”
She curtsied, looking up at him beneath lowered lashes. “Where, pray tell, are we going?”
“Oh, don’t simper at me.” He grabbed her by the arm, guiding her out of the room.
“Captain Westfall!” Philippa scolded. “She’ll trip on her dress. At least let her hold her skirts.”
She actually did trip on her dress, and her shoes cut into her heels quite terribly, but he would hear none of her objections as he dragged her into the hall. She smiled at the guards outside her door, and her smile burst into a grin at their exchanged approving glances. The captain’s grip tightened until it hurt. “Hurry,” he said. “We can’t be late.”
“Perhaps if you’d given me ample warning, I’d have dressed earlier and you wouldn’t have to drag me!” It was hard to breathe with the corset crushing her ribs. As they hurried up a long staircase, she raised a hand to her hair to ensure that it hadn’t fallen out.
“My mind was elsewhere; you were fortunate to be dressed, though I wish you’d worn something less . . . frilly to see the king.”
“The king?” She was thankful that she hadn’t yet eaten.
“Yes, the king. Did you think you wouldn’t see him? The Crown Prince told you the competition was to start today—this meeting will mark the official beginning. The real work begins tomorrow.”
Her arms became heavy and she forgot all about her aching feet and crushed ribs. In the garden, the queer, off-kilter clock tower began chiming the hour. They reached the top of the staircase and rushed down a long hallway. She couldn’t breathe.
Nauseated, she looked out the windows that lined the passage. The earth was far below—far, far below. They were in the glass addition. She didn’t want to be there. She couldn’t be in the glass castle. “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“Because he just decided to see you now. He’d originally said this evening. Hopefully, the other Champions will be later than us.”
She felt like fainting. The king.
“When you enter,” he said over his shoulder, “stop where I stop. Bow—low. When you raise your head, keep it high and stand straight. Don’t look the king in the eye, don’t answer anything without ‘Your Majesty’ attached, and do not, under any circumstances, talk back. He’ll have you hanged if you don’t please him.”
She had a terrible headache around her left temple. Everything was sickly and frail. They were so high up, so dangerously high . . . Chaol stopped before rounding a corner. “You’re pale.”
She had difficulty focusing on his face as she breathed in and out, in and out. She hated corsets. She hated the king. She hated glass castles.
The days surrounding her capture and sentencing had been like a fever dream, but she could perfectly visualize her trial—the dark wood of the walls, the smoothness of the chair beneath her, the way her injuries still ached from the capture, and the terrible silence that had overtaken her body and soul. She had glanced at the king—only once. It was enough to make her reckless, to wish for any punishment that would take her far from him—even a quick death.
“Celaena.” She blinked, her cheeks burning. Chaol’s features softened. “He’s just a man. But a man you should treat with the respect his rank demands.” He began walking with her again, slower. “This meeting is only to remind you and the other Champions of why you’re here, and what you’re to do, and what you stand to gain. You’re not on trial. You will not be tested today.” They entered a long hallway, and she spied four guards posted before large glass doors at the other end. “Celaena.” He stopped a few feet from the guards. His eyes were rich, molten brown.
“Yes?” Her heartbeat steadied.
“You look rather pretty today,” was all he said before the doors opened and they walked forward. Celaena raised her chin as they entered the crowded room.
She saw the floor first. Red marble, its white veins illuminated in the light of the sun, which slowly vanished as the opaque glass doors groaned shut. Chandeliers and torches hung all around. Her eyes darted from one side of the large, crowded chamber to the next. There were no windows, just a wall of glass looking out into nothing but sky. No escape, save for the door behind her.
To her left, a fireplace occupied most of the wall, and as Chaol led her farther into the room, Celaena tried not to stare at the thing. It was monstrous, shaped like a roaring, fanged mouth, a blazing fire burning within. There was something greenish about the flame, something that made her spine straighten.
The captain stopped in the open space before the throne, and Celaena halted with him. He didn’t seem to notice their ominous surroundings, or if he did, he hid it far better. She pulled her gaze forward, taking in the crowd that filled the room. Stiffly, knowing that many eyes were upon her, Celaena dropped into a low bow, her skirts whispering.
She found her legs weak when Chaol put a hand on her back to motion her to rise. He led her from the center of the room, where they took up a spot beside Dorian Havilliard. The absence of dirt and three weeks’ worth of hard travel had a noticeable effect on his smooth face. He wore a red-and-gold jacket, his black hair brushed and shining. An expression of surprise crossed his features when he beheld her in her finery, but it quickly melted into a wry grin as he looked toward his father. She might have returned it, had she not been focusing so much on keeping her hands from shaking.
The king spoke at last. “Now that you’ve all finally bothered to arrive, perhaps we can begin.”
It was a voice she had heard before, deep and raspy. It made her bones crack and splinter, made her feel the astonishing cold of a winter long since past. Her eyes only dared to venture as far as his chest. It was broad, not entirely with muscle, and seemed tightly restrained within a crimson and black tunic. A cape of white fur hung from his shoulders, and a sword was sheathed at his side. Atop its hilt perched a wyvern, open-mouthed and screaming. None that came before that broad blade lived to see another day. She knew that sword.