Chapter no 17

Crown of Midnight

Chaol knew Celaena was in a foul mood without even having to speak to her. Actually, he hadn’t dared speak to her since before the ball had started, other than to position her outside on the patio, hidden in the shadows of a pillar. A few hours in the winter night would cool her down.

From his spot inside, tucked into an alcove near a servants’ entrance, he could keep an eye on the glittering ball in front of him, as well as the assassin standing watch just outside the towering balcony doors. Not that he didn’t trust her—but having Celaena in one of these moods always set him on edge, too.

She was currently leaning against the pillar, arms crossed—not hiding in the shadows as he’d told her to. He could see the tendrils of her breath curling in the night air, and the moonlight glinting off the hilt of one of the daggers she wore at her side.

The ballroom had been decorated in hues of white and glacier blue, with swaths of silk floating from the ceiling and ornate glass baubles hanging between. It was something out of a winter dream, and it was in honor of Hollin, of all people. A few hours of entertainment and a small fortune spent for a boy who was currently sulking on his little glass throne, shoveling sweets down his throat as his mother smiled at him.

He’d never tell Dorian, but Chaol dreaded the day when Hollin would grow into a man. A spoiled child was easy enough to deal with, but a spoiled, cruel leader would be another matter entirely. He hoped that between him and Dorian, they could check whatever corruption was already rotting away in Hollin’s heart—once Dorian ascended to the throne.

The heir was on the dance floor, fulfilling his obligation to court and crown by dancing with whatever ladies demanded his attention. Which, not surprisingly, was almost all of them. Dorian played his role well and smiled throughout the waltzes, a graceful and competent partner, never once complaining or turning any lady away. The dance finished, Dorian bowed to his partner, and before he could take one step, another courtier

was curtsying in front of him. If Chaol had been in Dorian’s shoes, he would have winced, but the prince just grinned, took the lady’s hand, and swept her around the floor.

Chaol glanced outside again and straightened. Celaena wasn’t by the pillar.

He stifled a snarl. Tomorrow, they were going to have a nice, long chat about the rules and the consequences of abandoning posts while on guard duty.

A rule that he was also breaking, he realized as he slipped from the alcove and out the door that had been left ajar to allow fresh air into the toasty ballroom.

Where in hell had she gone? Perhaps she’d actually seen some sign of trouble—not that there’d ever been an attack on the palace, and not that anyone would ever be foolish enough to try during a royal ball.

But he still put a hand on the hilt of his sword as he approached the columns at the top of the stairs leading down into the frosted garden. She’d been standing right here, and—

Chaol spotted her.

Well, she’d certainly abandoned her post. But not to face some potential threat.

Chaol crossed his arms. Celaena had left her post to dance.

The music was loud enough that it reached them out here, and at the foot of the steps, Celaena waltzed with herself. She even held the edge of her dark cloak in one hand as if it were the skirts of a ball gown, her other hand poised on the arm of an invisible partner. He didn’t know if he should laugh, yell, or just go back inside and pretend he’d never seen it.

She turned, an elegant sweeping motion that brought her to face him, and halted.

Well, the last option was no longer a possibility. Laughter or yelling, then. Though neither felt appropriate now.

Even in the moonlight, he could see her scowl. “I’m bored to tears and nearly dead with cold,” she said, dropping her cloak.

He remained atop the stairs, watching her.

“And it’s your fault,” she went on, stuffing her hands into her pockets. “You made me come out here, and someone left the balcony door open so I could hear all that lovely music.” The waltz was still playing, filling the frozen air around them with sound. “So you should really reconsider who’s to blame. It was like putting a starving man in front of a feast and

telling him not to eat. Which, by the way, you actually did when you made me go to that state dinner.”

She was babbling, and her face was dark enough for him to know she was beyond mortified that he’d caught her. He bit his lip to keep from smiling and walked down the four steps to the gravel path of the garden. “You’re the greatest assassin in Erilea, and yet you can’t stand watch for a few hours?”

“What’s there to watch?” she hissed. “Couples sneaking out to fondle each other between the hedges? Or His Royal Highness, dancing with every eligible maiden?”

“You’re jealous?”

She barked a laugh. “No! Gods, no. But I can’t say it’s particularly fun to watch him. Or watch any of them enjoying themselves. I think I’m more jealous of that giant buffet no one is even touching.”

He chuckled and glanced up the stairs, to the patio and the ballroom doors beyond. He should be back inside already. But here he was, toeing that line he couldn’t stay away from.

He’d managed to stay on this side of it last night, even though seeing her cry during Rena Goldsmith’s song had stirred him so bone deep it was like he’d found a part of him he hadn’t even realized was missing. He’d made them run an extra mile this morning, not to punish her for it, but because he couldn’t stop thinking about the way she’d looked at him. She sighed loudly and studied the moon. It was so bright it drowned out the stars. “I heard the music and I just wanted to dance for a few minutes. To just … forget everything for one waltz and pretend to be a normal girl. So”—she glared at him now—“go ahead and snarl and snap at me about it. What will my punishment be? Three extra miles

tomorrow? An hour of drills? The rack?”

There was a sort of bleak bitterness in her words that didn’t sit well with him. And yes, they would have a conversation about abandoning posts, but right now—right now …

Chaol stepped up to the line.

“Dance with me,” he said, and held out his hand to her.

Celaena stared at Chaol’s outstretched hand. “What?”

The moonlight caught in his golden eyes, setting them shining. “What didn’t you understand?”

Nothing. Everything. Because when he’d said it, it hadn’t been the way Dorian had asked her to dance at the Yulemas ball. That had merely been an invitation. But this … His hand remained reaching toward her.

“As far as I recall,” she said, lifting her chin, “at Yulemas, I asked you to dance, and you flat-out refused me. You said it was too dangerous for us to be seen dancing together.”

“Things are different now.” Again, another layered statement she couldn’t begin to sort through now.

Her throat tightened, and she looked at his extended hand, flecked with callouses and scars.

“Dance with me, Celaena,” he said again, his voice rough.

When her eyes found his, she forgot about the cold, and the moon, and the glass palace looming above them. The secret library and the king’s plans and Mort and Elena faded into nothing. She took his hand, and there was only the music and Chaol.

His fingers were warm, even through his gloves. He slid his other hand around her waist as she braced one of hers on his arm. She looked up at him when he began to move—a slow step, then another, and another, easing into the steady rhythm of the waltz.

He stared back at her, neither of them smiling—somehow beyond smiling at that moment. The waltz built, louder, faster, and Chaol steered her into it, never stumbling.

Her breathing turned uneven, but she couldn’t look away from him, couldn’t stop dancing. The moonlight and the garden and the golden glow from the ballroom blurred together, now miles away. “We’ll never be a normal boy and girl, will we?” she managed to say.

“No,” he breathed, eyes blazing. “We won’t.”

And then the music exploded around them, and Chaol took her with it, spinning her so that her cloak fanned out around her. Each step was flawless, lethal, like that first time they’d sparred together so many months ago. She knew his every move and he knew hers, as though they’d been dancing this waltz together all their lives. Faster, never faltering, never breaking her stare.

The rest of the world quieted into nothing. In that moment, after ten long years, Celaena looked at Chaol and realized she was home.

Dorian Havilliard stood at the ballroom window, watching Celaena and Chaol dance in the garden beyond, their dark cloaks flowing around

them like they were no more than two wraiths spinning through the wind. After hours of dancing, he’d finally managed to get free of the ladies demanding his attention, and had come to the window to get some much-needed fresh air.

He’d intended to go outside, but then he’d seen them. That had been enough to still his steps—but not enough to make him walk away. He knew he should. He should walk away and pretend he hadn’t seen it, because even though it was just a dance …

Someone stepped beside him, and he glanced over in time to see Nehemia stop at the window. After months of being scarce around the court due to the rebel massacre in Eyllwe, she’d made an appearance tonight. She was resplendent in a cobalt gown with gold-thread accents, her hair coiled and braided in a coronet atop her head. Her delicate golden earrings glittered in the light of the chandelier, drawing his eye to her elegant neck. Nehemia was easily the most stunning woman in the ballroom, and he hadn’t failed to notice how many men—and women— had been watching her all night.

“Don’t cause trouble for them,” she said quietly, her accent still thick, but much improved since she’d arrived in Rifthold. Dorian raised an eyebrow. Nehemia traced an invisible pattern on the glass pane. “You and I … We will always stand apart. We will always have …” She searched for the word. “Responsibilities. We will always have burdens that no one else can ever understand. That they”—she inclined her head toward Chaol and Celaena—“will never understand. And if they did, then they would not want them.”

They would not want us, is what you mean.

Chaol spun Celaena, and she flowed smoothly through the air before snapping back into his arms.

“I’ve already decided to move on,” Dorian said with equal quiet. It was the truth. He’d awoken this morning feeling lighter than he had in weeks.

Nehemia nodded, the gold and jewels in her hair twinkling. “Then I thank you for that.” She traced another symbol on the window. “Your cousin, Roland, told me that your father has approved Councilman Mullison’s plans to swell Calaculla’s ranks—to expand the labor camp to accommodate more … people.”

He kept his face blank. There were far too many eyes on them. “Roland told you that?”

Nehemia lowered her hand from the window. “He wants me to tell my father that I support his agenda—to get my father to make the expansion as easy as possible. I refused. He says there’s a council meeting tomorrow where they will vote on Mullison’s plans. I’m not allowed to attend.”

Dorian focused on his breathing. “Roland had no right to do that. Any of it.”

“Would you stop it, then?” Her dark eyes were fixed on his face. “Speak to your father at the council meeting; convince the others to say no.”

No one except for Celaena dared speak to him like that. But her boldness had nothing to do with his response as Dorian said, “I can’t.”

His face warmed as the words came out, but it was true. He couldn’t tackle Calaculla, not without causing a lot of trouble for both himself and Nehemia. He’d already convinced his father to leave Nehemia alone. Demanding he shut down Calaculla could force him to choose sides— and make a choice that could destroy everything he had.

“You can’t, or you will not?” Dorian sighed, but she cut him off. “If Celaena were shipped to Calaculla, would you free her? Would you put a stop to the camp? When you took her from Endovier, did you think twice about the thousands you left behind?” He had, but … but not for as long as he should have. “Innocents work and die in Calaculla and Endovier. By the thousands. Ask Celaena about the graves they dig there, Prince. Look at the scars on her back, and realize that what she went through is a blessing compared to what most endure.” Perhaps he’d just gotten used to her accent, but he could have sworn she was speaking more clearly. Nehemia pointed at the garden, at Celaena and Chaol, who had stopped dancing and were talking now. “If she was sent back, would you free her?”

“Of course I would,” he said carefully. “But it’s complicated.”

“There is nothing complicated. It is the difference between right and wrong. The slaves in those camps have people who love them just as much as you loved my friend.”

He glanced around them. Ladies were eagerly watching from behind their fans, and even his mother had noticed their lengthy conversation. Outside, Celaena had resumed her post by the pillar. At the other end of the room, Chaol slipped through one of the patio doors and took up his spot in an alcove, his face blank, as if the dance had never happened. “This isn’t the place for this conversation.”

Nehemia stared at him for a long moment before nodding. “You have power in you, Prince. More power than you realize.” She touched his chest, tracing a symbol there, too, and some of the court ladies gasped. But Nehemia’s eyes were locked on his. “It sleeps,” she whispered, tapping his heart. “In here. When the time comes, when it awakens, do not be afraid.” She removed her hand and gave him a sad smile. “When it is time, I will help you.”

With that, she walked away, the courtiers parting, then swallowing up her wake. He stared after the princess, wondering what her last words had meant.

And why, when she had said them, something ancient and slumbering deep inside of him had opened an eye.

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