Chaol stood before the king’s throne, almost boring himself to tears as he gave yesterday’s report. He tried not to think about last night—how the brief touch of Celaena’s fingers through his hair and on his face had sent a pang of desire through him so strong he’d wanted to grab her and pin her on the couch. It had taken all his self-control to keep his breathing steady, to keep pretending that he was asleep. After she’d left, his heart had been pounding so hard it took him an hour to calm enough to actually sleep.
Looking at the king now, Chaol was glad he’d controlled himself. The line between him and Celaena was there for a reason. Crossing it could call into question his loyalty to the king before him—not to mention the way it would impact his friendship with Dorian. The prince had made himself scarce this past week; Chaol would have to make a point today to go see him.
Dorian and the king were where his loyalty lay. Without his loyalty, he was no one. Without it, he’d given up his family, his title, for nothing. Chaol finished explaining his security plans for the carnival that would arrive today, and the king nodded. “Very well, Captain. Make sure your men watch the castle grounds, too. I know what sort of filth likes to
travel with these carnivals, and I don’t want them wandering around.” Chaol bowed his head. “Consider it done.”
Normally, the king would dismiss him with a grunt and a wave, but today, the man merely studied him, an elbow propped on the arm of his glass throne. After a moment of silence—during which Chaol wondered if a castle spy had somehow been looking through the keyhole when Celaena touched him—the king spoke.
“Princess Nehemia needs to be watched.”
Of all the things the king could have said, this was not what Chaol had expected. But he kept his face blank and did not question the words that implied so much.
“Her … influence is starting to be felt in these halls. And I am beginning to wonder if perhaps the time has come to remove her back to
Eyllwe. I know that we already have some men watching her, but I also received word that there was an anonymous threat on her life.”
Questions roared through him, along with a rising sense of dread. Who had threatened her? What had Nehemia said or done to warrant the threat?
Chaol stiffened. “I haven’t heard anything about that.”
The king smiled. “No one has. Not even the princess herself. It seems she’s made some enemies outside the palace as well.”
“I’ll have extra guards watch her rooms and patrol her wing of the castle. I’ll alert her immediately of—”
“There is no need to alert her. Or anyone.” The king gave him a pointed look. “She might try to use the fact that someone wants her dead as a bargaining chip—might try to make herself into a martyr of sorts. So tell your men to stay quiet.”
He didn’t think Nehemia would do that, but Chaol kept his mouth shut. He’d tell his men to be discreet.
And he wouldn’t tell the princess—or Celaena. Just because he was friendly with Nehemia, just because she was Celaena’s friend, it didn’t change anything. While he knew that Celaena would be furious that he didn’t tell her, he was the Captain of the Guard. He had fought and sacrificed nearly as much as Celaena had to get to this position. He’d let her get too close by asking her to dance—he’d let himself get too close.
Chaol blinked, then bowed low. “You have my word, Your Majesty.”
Dorian panted, swinging the sword through the air in a precise parry that sent the guard scrambling. His third match, and his third opponent about to go down. He hadn’t slept last night, nor had he been able to sit still this morning. So he’d come to the barracks, hoping to have someone wear him down enough for exhaustion to take over.
He parried and deflected the guard’s assault. It had to be a mistake. Maybe he’d dreamed it all up. Maybe it had just been a combination of the right elements at the wrong time. Magic was gone, and there was no reason that he should have that power, when not even his father had been gifted with magic. Magic had been dormant in the Havilliard bloodline for generations.
Dorian got past the guard’s defense in an easy maneuver, though when the young man raised his hands in defeat, the prince had to wonder
if he’d let him win. The thought sent a growl rippling through him. He was about to demand another match when someone sauntered over to them. “Mind if I join?”
Dorian stared at Roland, whose rapier looked like it had hardly ever been used. The guard took one look at Dorian’s face, bowed, and found someplace else to be. Dorian watched his cousin, the black ring on Roland’s finger. “I don’t think you want to dance with me today, cousin.” “Ah,” Roland said, frowning. “About yesterday … I’m sorry for that.
Had I known the labor camps were such a sensitive matter for you, I never would have broached the subject or worked with Councilor Mullison. I called off the vote after you left. Mullison was furious.”
Dorian raised his brows. “Oh?”
Roland shrugged. “You were right. I don’t know anything about what it’s like in those camps. I only took up the cause because Perrington suggested that I work with Mullison, who stood to gain a lot from the expansion because of his ties to the iron industry.”
“And I’m supposed to believe you?”
Roland gave him a winning smile. “We are family, after all.”
Family. Dorian had never really considered himself to be in an actual family. And certainly not now. If anyone found out about what had happened in that hallway yesterday, about the magic he might have, his father would kill him. He had a second son, after all. Families weren’t exactly supposed to think like that, were they?
Dorian had gone looking for Nehemia last night out of desperation, but in the light of morning, he was grateful he hadn’t seen her. If the princess had that sort of information about him, she could use it to her advantage—blackmail him all she wanted.
And Roland … Dorian began walking away. “Why don’t you save your maneuvering for someone who cares?”
Roland kept pace beside him. “Ah, but who else is more worthy than my own cousin? What greater challenge than winning you over to my schemes?” Dorian shot him a warning glare and found the young man grinning. “If only you’d seen the chaos that erupted after you left,” Roland went on. “As long as I live, I’ll never forget the look on your father’s face when you growled at them all.” Roland laughed, and, despite himself, Dorian found a smile tugging on his lips. “I thought the old bastard would combust right there.”
Dorian shook his head. “He’s hanged men for calling him such names, you know.”
“Yes, but when you’re as handsome as I am, dear cousin, you’d be surprised by how much more you can get away with.”
Dorian rolled his eyes, but considered his cousin for a few moments. Roland might be close with Perrington and his father, but … perhaps he’d just been pulled into Perrington’s schemes and needed someone to steer him right. And if his father and the other councilmen thought that they could use Roland to win support for their dark dealings, well, then it was time for Dorian to play the game, too. He could turn his father’s pawn against him. Between the two of them, surely they could sway enough of the council to oppose more unsavory proposals.
“You really called off the vote?”
Roland waved a hand. “I think you’re right that we’re pushing our luck with the other kingdoms. If we want to keep control, we need to find a balance. Shoving them into slavery won’t help; it might just turn more people toward rebellion.”
Dorian nodded slowly, and paused. “I have somewhere to be,” he lied, sheathing his sword, “but perhaps I’ll see you in the hall for dinner.”
Roland gave him an easy smile. “I’ll try to muster up a few lovely ladies to keep us company.”
Dorian waited until Roland was around the corner before heading outside, where the chaos of the courtyard sucked him up. The carnival his mother had commissioned for Hollin—her belated Yulemas present to him—had finally arrived.
It was not a massive carnival; only a few black tents, a dozen cage wagons, and five covered wagons had been set up in the open courtyard. The whole thing felt rather somber, despite the fiddler sawing away and the merry shouts of the workers scrambling to finish setting up the tents in time to surprise Hollin that evening.
People hardly looked Dorian’s way as he meandered through the throng. Then again, he was dressed in sweaty, old clothes and had his cloak wrapped tightly around him. Only the guards—highly trained and aware of everything—noticed him, but they understood his need for anonymity without being told.
A stunningly beautiful woman walked out of one of the tents—blond, slender, tall, and dressed in fine riding clothes. A mountain-sized man also emerged, carrying long poles of iron that Dorian doubted most men could even lift.
Dorian passed by one of the large covered wagons, pausing at the words written in white paint on its side:
THE CARNIVAL OF MIRRORS!
SEE ILLUSIONS AND REALITY COLLIDE!
He frowned. Had his mother even put a moment’s consideration into the gift, into how it might appear, the message it would send? Carnivals, with their illusions and tricks, always pushed the limit of outright treason. Dorian snorted. Perhaps he belonged in one of these cages.
A hand landed on his shoulder, and Dorian whirled to find Chaol smiling at him. “I thought I’d find you here.” He wasn’t surprised in the least that Chaol had recognized him.
Dorian was about to smile back when he noticed who was with the captain. Celaena was standing at one of the covered cages, listening through the black velvet curtains to whatever was inside. “What are you two doing here so early? The unveiling’s not until nightfall.” Nearby, the gargantuan man began hammering foot-long spikes into the frozen earth. “She wanted a walk, and—” Chaol suddenly gave a violent curse.
Dorian didn’t particularly want to, but he followed after Chaol as he stalked to Celaena and yanked her arm away from the black curtain. “You’ll lose your hand like that,” the captain warned her, and she glared at him.
Then she gave Dorian a close-lipped smile that felt more like a wince. He hadn’t lied to her last night about wanting to see Nehemia. But he’d also found himself wanting to see her—until she appeared with that ridiculous half-eaten cake, which she clearly had plans to devour in private.
He couldn’t begin to imagine how she’d look at him if she found out he might—might, he kept telling himself—have some trace of magic within him.
Nearby, the beautiful blond woman perched on a stool and began playing the lute. He knew that the men—and guards—starting to flock to her weren’t just there for the lovely music.
Chaol shifted on his feet, and Dorian realized that they’d been standing there silently, not saying anything. Celaena crossed her arms. “Did you find Nehemia last night?”
He had a feeling she already knew the answer, but he said, “No. I went back to my room after I saw you.”
Chaol looked at Celaena, who merely shrugged. What did that mean? “So,” Celaena said, surveying the carnival, “do we really have to wait
for your brother before we can see what’s inside all these cages? Looks
like the performers are already starting.”
And they were. All sorts of jugglers and sword-swallowers and fire-breathers milled about, while tumblers balanced on impossible things: chair backs, poles, a bed of nails.
“I think this is just practice,” Dorian said, and he hoped he was right, because if Hollin learned that anyone had started without his approval … Dorian would make sure he was far away from the castle when that tantrum occurred.
“Hmm,” Celaena said, and walked deeper into the teeming carnival. Chaol was watching the prince warily. There were questions in
Chaol’s eyes—questions that Dorian had no intention of answering—so
he strode after Celaena, because leaving the carnival would feel too much like drawing a line. They made their way to the last and largest wagon in the rough semicircle of tents and cages.
“Welcome! Welcome!” shouted an old woman, bent and gnarled with age, from a podium at the foot of its stairs. A crown of stars adorned her silver hair, and though her tanned face was saggy and speckled, there was a spark in her brown eyes.
“Look into my mirrors and see the future! Let me examine your palm so I might tell you myself!” The old woman pointed with a knotted cane at Celaena. “Care to have your fortune told, girl?” Dorian blinked—then blinked again at the sight of the woman’s teeth. They were razor-sharp, like a fish’s, and made of metal. Of—of iron.
Celaena pulled her green cloak tightly around her, but remained staring at the crone.
Dorian had heard the legends of the fallen Witch Kingdom, where bloodthirsty witches had overthrown the peaceful Crochan Dynasty and then ripped apart the kingdom stone by stone. Five hundred years later, songs were still sung of the deadly wars that had left the Ironteeth Clans the only ones standing on a killing field, dead Crochan queens all around them. But the last Crochan queen had cast a spell to ensure that as long as Ironteeth banners flew, no bit of soil would yield life to them.
“Come into my wagon, dear heart,” the old woman crooned at Celaena, “and let old Baba Yellowlegs take a look into your future.” Sure enough, peeking out from beneath her brown robe were saffron-colored ankles.
Celaena’s face had drained of color, and Chaol went to her side and took her elbow. Despite the way the protective gesture made Dorian’s gut twist, he was glad Chaol had done it. But this was all just a sham—that
woman had probably put on a fake set of iron teeth and sheer yellow stockings, and called herself Baba Yellowlegs to make carnival patrons hand over good coin.
“You’re a witch,” Celaena said, her voice strangled. She didn’t think it was a sham, apparently. No, her face was still white as death. Gods— was she actually scared?
Baba Yellowlegs laughed, a crow’s cackle, and bowed. “The last-born witch in the Witch Kingdom.” To Dorian’s shock, Celaena took a step back, closer to Chaol now, a hand going to the necklace she always wore. “Care to have your fortune read now?”
“No,” Celaena said, almost leaning into Chaol.
“Then get out of my way and let me go about my business! I’ve never seen such a cheap crowd!” Baba Yellowlegs snarled, and lifted her head to look over them. “Fortunes! Fortunes!”
Chaol took a step toward her, a hand on his sword. “Don’t be so rude to your customers.”
The crone smiled, her teeth glinting in the afternoon light as she sniffed at him. “And what would a man who smells of the Silver Lake do to an innocent old witch like me?”
A chill went down Dorian’s spine, and it was Celaena’s turn to grab on to Chaol’s arm as she tried to pull him away. But Chaol refused to move. “I don’t know what sort of sham you’re running, old woman, but you’d best mind your tongue before you lose it.”
Baba Yellowlegs licked her razor-sharp teeth. “Come and get it,” she purred.
Challenge flashed in Chaol’s eyes, but Celaena was still so pale that Dorian took her by the arm, leading her away. “Let’s go,” he said, and the old woman shifted her eyes to him. If she could indeed tell things about them, then the last place he wanted to be was here. “Chaol, let’s go.”
The witch was grinning at him as she used a long, metallic nail to pick out something from her teeth. “Hide from fate all you like,” Baba Yellowlegs said as they turned away. “But it shall soon find you!”
“No, I’m not,” Celaena hissed, batting Chaol’s hand from her arm. It was bad enough that Dorian was there, but for Chaol to witness her coming face-to-face with Baba Yellowlegs …
She knew the stories—legends that had given her brutal nightmares as a child, a firsthand account that a former friend had once told her. Given how that friend had foully betrayed and nearly killed her, Celaena had hoped that the horrific stories about the Ironteeth witches were just more lies. But seeing that woman …
Celaena swallowed hard. Seeing that woman, feeling the sense of otherness that radiated from her, Celaena had no trouble believing that these witches were capable of consuming a human child until nothing but clean-picked bones remained.
Frozen down to her core now, she followed Dorian as he strode away from the carnival. While she’d been standing in front of that wagon, all she’d wanted, for some reason, was to get inside it. Like there was something waiting for her within. And that crown of stars the witch had been wearing … And then her amulet had started feeling heavy and warm, the way it had the night she’d seen that person in the hall.
If she ever came back to the carnival, she would bring Nehemia with her, just to see if Yellowlegs was indeed what she claimed to be. She didn’t give a damn about what was in the cages. Not anymore, not with Yellowlegs to hold her interest. She followed Dorian and Chaol without hearing a single word they said until they had somehow arrived at the royal stables, and Dorian was leading them inside.
“I was going to give it to you on your birthday,” he said to Chaol, “but why wait another two days?”
Dorian stopped before a stall. Chaol exclaimed, “Are you out of your mind?”
Dorian grinned—an expression she hadn’t seen in so long that it made her remember late nights spent tangled up with him, the warmth of his breath on her skin. “What? You deserve it.”
A night-black Asterion stallion stood within the pen, staring at them with ancient, dark eyes.
Chaol was backing away, hands raised. “This is a gift for a prince, not
Dorian clicked his tongue. “Nonsense. I’ll be offended if you don’t accept.”
“I can’t.” Chaol shifted pleading eyes to Celaena, but she shrugged.
“I had an Asterion mare once,” she admitted, and both of them blinked. Celaena went up to the stall and held out her fingers, letting the stallion sniff her. “Her name was Kasida.” She smiled at the memory,
stroking the stallion’s velvet-soft nose. “It meant ‘Drinker of the Wind’ in the dialect of the Red Desert. She looked like a storm-tossed sea.”
“How did you get an Asterion mare? They’re worth even more than the stallions,” Dorian said. It was the first normal-sounding question he’d asked her in weeks.
She looked over her shoulder at them and flashed a fiendish grin. “I stole her from the Lord of Xandria.” Chaol’s eyes grew wide, and Dorian cocked his head. It was so comical that she started laughing. “I swear on the Wyrd it’s the truth. I’ll tell you the story some other time.” She backed away, nudging Chaol toward the pen. The horse huffed at his fingers, and beast and man looked at each other.
Dorian was still watching her with narrowed brows, but when she caught him staring, he turned to Chaol. “Is it too early to ask what you’ll be doing for your birthday?”
Celaena crossed her arms. “We have plans,” she said before Chaol could reply. She didn’t mean to sound so sharp, but—well, she’d been planning the night for a few weeks now.
Chaol looked at her over a shoulder. “We do?”
Celaena gave him a venomously sweet smile. “Oh, yes. It might not be an Asterion stallion, but …”
Dorian’s eyes flashed. “Well, I hope you have fun,” he interrupted.
Chaol quickly looked back at the horse as Celaena and Dorian faced each other. Whatever familiar expressions he’d once worn were now gone. And part of her—the part that had spent so many nights looking forward to seeing that handsome face—truly mourned it. Looking at him became difficult.
She left them in the stables with a brief good night, congratulating Chaol on his new gift. She didn’t dare turn in the direction of the carnival, where the sound of the crowd suggested that Hollin had made his appearance and unveiled the cages. Instead, she sprinted up the stairs to the warmth of her rooms, trying to shut out the image of the witch’s iron teeth, and the way she’d called after them with those words about fate, so similar to what Mort had said on the night of the eclipse …
Perhaps it was intuition, or perhaps it was because she was a miserable person who couldn’t even trust the advice of a friend, but she wanted to go back to the tomb. Alone. Maybe Nehemia was wrong about the amulet being irrelevant. And she was tired of waiting for her friend to find the time to research the eye riddle.
She’d go back just once, and never tell Nehemia. Because the hole in the wall was shaped like an eye, its iris removed to form a space that would perfectly fit the amulet she wore around her neck.