The Great Hall was packed at dinner that night. Though Celaena usually preferred to eat in her rooms, when she heard that Rena Goldsmith would be performing during the meal to honor Prince Hollin’s return, she crammed herself into one of the long tables in the back. It was the only place where the lesser nobility, some of Chaol’s higher-born men, and any others who wanted to brave the viper’s nest of the court were allowed to sit.
The royal family dined at their table atop the dais in the front of the hall with Perrington, Roland, and a woman who looked like she might be Roland’s mother. From the other side of the room, Celaena could hardly see little Prince Hollin, but he seemed to be pale, rotund, and blessed with a head full of ebony curls. It seemed rather unfair to put Hollin next to Dorian—where comparisons could easily be made—and though she’d heard every nasty rumor about Hollin, she couldn’t help but feel a shred of pity for the boy.
Chaol, to her surprise, opted to sit beside her, five of his men joining them at the table. Though there were several guards posted around the room, she had no doubt that the ones at her table were just as alert and watchful as those stationed by the doors and dais. Her tablemates were all polite to her—wary, but polite. They didn’t mention what had happened last night, but they did quietly ask how she was feeling. Ress, who had guarded her during the competition, seemed genuinely relieved that she was better, and was the chattiest of them all, gossiping as much as any old court hen.
“And then,” Ress was saying, his boyish face set with fiendish delight, “just as he got into her bed, stark naked as the day he was born, her father walked in”—winces and groans came from the guards, even Chaol himself—“and he dragged him out of bed by his feet, took him down the hall, and dumped him down the stairs. He was shrieking like a pig the whole time.”
Chaol leaned back in his seat, crossing his arms. “You would be, too, if someone were dragging your naked carcass across the ice-cold floor.”
He smirked as Ress tried to deny it. Chaol seemed so comfortable with the men, his body relaxed, eyes alight. And they respected him, too— always glancing at him for approval, for confirmation, for support. As Celaena’s chuckle faded, Chaol looked at her, his brows high. “You’re one to laugh. You moan about the cold floors more than anyone I know.” She straightened as the guards gave hesitant smiles. “If I recall correctly, you complain about them every time I wipe the floor with you
when we spar.”
“Oho!” Ress cried, and Chaol’s brows rose higher. Celaena gave him a grin.
“Dangerous words,” Chaol said. “Do we need to go to the training hall to see if you can back them up?”
“Well, as long as your men don’t object to seeing you knocked on your ass.”
“We certainly do not object to that,” Ress crowed. Chaol shot him a look, more amused than warning. Ress quickly added, “Captain.”
Chaol opened his mouth to reply, but then a tall, slim woman walked onto the small stage erected along one side of the room.
Celaena craned her neck as Rena Goldsmith floated across the wooden platform to where a massive harp and a man with a violin waited. She’d seen Rena perform only once before—years ago, at the Royal Theater, on a cold winter night like this. For two hours, the theater was so still that it seemed as if everyone had stopped breathing. Rena’s voice had floated through Celaena’s head for days afterward.
From their table, Celaena could hardly see Rena—just enough to tell that she wore a long green dress (no petticoats, no corset, no ornamentation save for the woven leather belt circling her narrow hips), and that her red-gold hair was unbound. Silence rippled through the hall, and Rena curtsied to the dais. When she took her seat before the green-and-gold harp, the spectators were waiting. But how long would the court’s interest hold?
Rena nodded to the reedy violinist, and her long, white fingers began plucking out a melody on the harp. After a few notes the rhythm established itself, followed by the slow, sad sweep of the violin. They wove together, blending, lifting up, up, up, until Rena opened her mouth.
And when she sang, the whole world faded.
Her voice was soft, ethereal, the sound of a lullaby half-remembered. The songs she sang, one by one, held Celaena in place. Songs of distant lands, of forgotten legends, of lovers forever waiting to be reunited.
Not a single soul stirred in the hall. Even the servants remained along the walls and in doorways and alcoves. Rena paused between songs only long enough to allow a heartbeat of applause before the harp and the violin began anew, and she hypnotized them all once more.
And then Rena looked toward the dais. “This song,” she said softly, “is in honor of the esteemed royal family who invited me here tonight.”
This song was an ancient legend—an old poem, actually. One Celaena hadn’t heard since childhood, and never set to music.
She heard it now as if for the first time: the story of a Fae woman blessed with a horrible, profound power that was sought by kings and lords in every kingdom. While they used her to win wars and conquer nations, they all feared her—and kept their distance.
It was a bold song to sing; dedicating it to the king’s family was even bolder. But the royals made no outcry. Even the king just stared blankly at Rena as though she weren’t singing about the very power he’d outlawed ten years ago. Perhaps her voice could conquer even a tyrant’s heart. Perhaps there was an unstoppable magic inherent in music and art. Rena went on, spinning the ageless story of the years that the Fae woman served those kings and lords, and the loneliness that consumed her bit by bit. And then, one day, a knight came, seeking her power on behalf of his king. As they traveled to his kingdom, his fear turned to love—and he saw her not for the power she wielded, but for the woman beneath. Of all the kings and emperors who had come courting her with promises of wealth beyond imagining, it was the knight’s gift, of seeing
her for who she was—not what she was—that won her heart.
Celaena didn’t know when she began crying. Somehow she skipped a breath, and it set her lips wobbling. She shouldn’t cry, not here, not with these people around her. But then a warm, calloused hand grasped hers beneath the table, and she turned her head to find Chaol looking at her. He smiled slightly—and she knew he understood.
So Celaena looked at her Captain of the Guard and smiled back.
Hollin was squirming beside him, hissing and grousing about how bored he was and what a stupid performance this was, but Dorian’s attention was on the long table in the back of the hall.
Rena Goldsmith’s unearthly music wove through the cavernous space, wrapping them in a spell that he would have called magic had he not known better. But Celaena and Chaol just sat there, staring at each other.
And not just staring, but something more than that. Dorian stopped hearing the music.
She had never looked at him like that. Not once. Not even for a heartbeat.
Rena was finishing her song, and Dorian tore his eyes away from them. He didn’t think anything had happened between them, not yet. Chaol was stubborn and loyal enough to never make his move—or to even realize that he looked at Celaena the same way she looked at him.
Hollin’s complaining grew louder, and Dorian took a long, long breath.
He would move on. Because he would not be like the ancient kings in the song and keep her for himself. She deserved a loyal, brave knight who saw her for what she was and did not fear her. And he deserved someone who would look at him like that, even if the love wouldn’t be the same, even if the girl wouldn’t be her.
So Dorian closed his eyes, and took another long breath. And when he opened his eyes, he let her go.
Hours later, the King of Adarlan stood at the back of the dungeon chamber as his secret guards dragged Rena Goldsmith forward. The butcher’s block at the center of the room was already soaked with blood. Her companion’s headless corpse lay a few feet away, his blood trickling toward the drain in the floor.
Perrington and Roland stood silent beside the king, watching, waiting. The guards shoved the singer to her knees before the stained stone.
One of them grabbed a fistful of her red-gold hair and yanked, forcing
her to look at the king as he stepped forward.
“It is punishable by death to speak of or to encourage magic. It is an affront to the gods, and an affront to me that you sang such a song in my hall.”
Rena Goldsmith just stared at him, her eyes bright. She hadn’t struggled when his men grabbed her after the performance or even screamed when they’d beheaded her companion. As if she’d been expecting this.
“Any last words?”
A queer, calm rage settled over her lined face, and she lifted her chin. “I have worked for ten years to become famous enough to gain an invitation to this castle. Ten years, so I could come here to sing the songs
of magic that you tried to wipe out. So I could sing those songs, and you would know that we are still here—that you may outlaw magic, that you may slaughter thousands, but we who keep the old ways still remember.”
Behind him, Roland snorted.
“Enough,” the king said, and snapped his fingers. The guards shoved her head down on the block.
“My daughter was sixteen,” she went on. Tears ran over the bridge of her nose and onto the block, but her voice remained strong and loud. “Sixteen, when you burned her. Her name was Kaleen, and she had eyes like thunderclouds. I still hear her voice in my dreams.”
The king jerked his chin to the executioner, who stepped forward. “My sister was thirty-six. Her name was Liessa, and she had two boys
who were her joy.”
The executioner raised his ax.
“My neighbor and his wife were seventy. Their names were Jon and Estrel. They were killed because they dared try to protect my daughter when your men came for her.”
Rena Goldsmith was still reciting her list of the dead when the ax fell.