Chapter no 7

Crown of Midnight

Celaena awoke before dawn with a pounding headache. It took one look at the mostly melted candle on her nightstand to know that her encounter in the tomb hadn’t been some awful dream. Which meant that far beneath her room, there was a talking door knocker imbued with an ancient animation spell. And that Elena had yet again found a way to make her life infinitely more complicated.

Celaena groaned and buried her face in her pillow. She’d meant what she said last night. The world was beyond helping. Even if … even if she’d seen firsthand just how dangerous things could become—how much worse it could be. And that person in the hall …

She flipped onto her back, and Fleetfoot poked her cheek with a wet nose. Idly stroking the dog’s head, Celaena stared up at the ceiling and the pale gray light seeping through the curtains.

She didn’t want to admit it, but Mort was right. She’d gone to the tomb just to have Elena deal with the creature in the hallway—to be reassured that she wouldn’t have to do anything.

My plans, the king had said. And if Elena was warning her to uncover them, to find the source of his power … then they had to be bad. Worse than the slaves in Calaculla and Endovier, worse than putting down more rebels.

She watched the ceiling for another few moments, until two things became clear.

The first was that if she didn’t uncover this threat, it might be a fatal mistake. Elena had just said she had to find it. She hadn’t said anything about destroying it. Nothing about facing the king. Which was a relief, Celaena supposed.

And the second was that she needed to speak with Archer—to get closer and start figuring out a way to fake his death. Because if he truly was a part of this movement that knew what the king was up to, then perhaps he could save her the trouble of spying on the king and piecing together whatever clues she could find. But once she took that step

toward approaching Archer … Well, then everything would certainly become a lethal game.

So Celaena quickly bathed and then dressed in her finest, warmest clothes before calling for Chaol.

It was time for her to conveniently run into Archer Finn.



Thanks to the snow from the night before, some poor souls had been conscripted into shoveling Rifthold’s most fashionable districts. Businesses stayed open year-round, and despite the slick sidewalks and slushy cobblestone streets, the capital city was just as vibrant that afternoon as it was at the height of summer.

Still, Celaena wished it were summer, since the wet streets soaked the hem of her ice-blue gown, and it was so cold that not even her white fur cloak could keep out the chill. As they walked down the crowded main avenue, she kept close to Chaol. He had been pestering her again to let him help with Archer, and inviting him along today was the most harmless thing she could do to get him off her back about it. She’d insisted he wear normal clothes instead of his captain’s uniform.

To him, that meant showing up in a black tunic.

Thankfully, no one paid them much heed—not when there were so many people, and so many stores. Oh, how she adored this avenue, where all the fine things in the world were sold and bartered! Jewelers, hatters, clothiers, confectioneries, cobblers … Unsurprisingly, Chaol stomped right past every shop window, not even glancing at the delights displayed inside.

As usual, there was a crowd outside the Willows—the tea court where she knew Archer was having his lunch. He seemed to dine here every day with a few other male courtesans. Of course, it had nothing to do with the fact that most of Rifthold’s elite patronesses also dined here.

She grabbed Chaol’s arm as they drew near the tea court. “If you walk up looking like you’re going to pummel someone,” she crooned, linking her elbow through his, “then he’ll certainly know something is amiss. And, again, do not say anything to him. Leave the talking and the charming to me.”

Chaol raised his brows. “So I’m just here for decoration?” “Be grateful I consider you a worthy accessory.”

He grumbled something under his breath that she was fairly certain she would not want to hear, but still slowed his pace to a rather elegant


Outside the arched stone-and-glass entrance to the tea court, fine carriages loitered in the street, people hopping in and out of them. They could have taken a carriage—should have taken a carriage, given how cold it was and the fact of her now-sodden gown. But she’d foolishly wanted to walk, to see the city on the arm of the Captain of the Guard, even if he spent the entire time looking like a threat was lurking around every corner and down every alley. Come to think of it, a carriage probably would have made a better entrance, too.

Entry to the Willows required a hard-to-attain membership; Celaena had taken her tea there several times while growing up, thanks to Arobynn Hamel’s name. She could still recall the clink of porcelain, the hushed gossip, the mint-and-cream painted room, and the floor-to-ceiling windows that overlooked an exquisite garden.

“We’re not going in there,” Chaol said, and it wasn’t exactly a question.

She gave him a feline grin. “You aren’t afraid of a bunch of stuffy old ladies and giggling young women, are you?” He glared at her, and she patted his arm. “Weren’t you listening when I explained my plan? We’re just going to pretend that we’re waiting for our table. So don’t fret: you won’t have to fight off all the mean little ladies clawing at you.”

“The next time we train,” he said as they eased through the throng of beautifully dressed women, “remind me to wallop you.”

An elderly woman turned to glare at him, and Celaena gave her an apologetic and exasperated look, as if to say, Men! She then promptly dug her nails into Chaol’s thick winter tunic and hissed, “This is the part where you shut your mouth and pretend to be a woolly-headed bit of decoration. Shouldn’t be too hard for you.”

His returning pinch told her that he was really going to make her sweat the next time they were in the training room. She grinned.

After finding a spot just below the steps that led up to the double doors, Celaena glanced at her pocket watch. Archer had begun dining at two, and usually the meal was over within ninety minutes, which meant he’d be leaving any second now. She made a good show of pretending to rummage through her small coin purse, and Chaol, mercifully, kept quiet, observing the crowd around them, as if these fancy women might attack them at any moment.

A few minutes passed, and her gloved hands grew numb as people continued walking into and out of the tea court, so often that no one

bothered to notice that they were the only ones who weren’t about to go in. But then the front doors opened, and Celaena caught a glimpse of bronze hair and a dazzling smile, and she moved.

Chaol played along with expert skill, escorting her up the steps, up, up, until—

“Oomph!” she cried, slamming into a broad, muscled shoulder. Chaol even pulled her to him, a supporting hand on her back to keep her from toppling down the stairs. She looked up through her lashes, and then—

A blink, two blinks.

The exquisite face gaping at her broke into a grin. “Laena?”

She’d planned to smile anyway, but when she heard his old pet name for her … “Archer!”

She felt Chaol stiffen slightly, but she didn’t bother to glance at him. It was hard to look away from Archer, who had been and still was the most beautiful man she’d ever seen. Not handsome—beautiful. His skin glowed golden even in the height of winter, and his green eyes …

Gods above and Wyrd save me.

His mouth was a work of art, too, all sensual lines and softness that begged to be explored.

As if emerging from a daze, Archer suddenly shook his head. “We should get off the steps,” he said, extending a broad hand to gesture to the street below them. “Unless you and your companion have a reservation—”

“Oh, we’re a few minutes early, anyway,” she said, letting go of Chaol’s arm to walk back onto the street. Archer followed beside her, giving her a glance at his clothes—expertly tailored tunic and pants, knee-high boots, a heavy cloak. None of it screamed wealth, but she could tell it was all expensive. Unlike some of the flashier and softer male courtesans, Archer’s appeal had always been more ruggedly masculine.

The broad, muscled shoulders and powerful frame; the knowing smile; even his beautiful face radiated a sense of maleness that had her struggling to remember what she’d planned to say.

Even Archer seemed to be searching for words as they faced each other on the street, a few steps away from the busy crowd.

“It’s been a while,” she began, smiling again. Chaol remained a step away, utterly silent. And unsmiling.

Archer stuffed his hands into his pockets. “I almost didn’t recognize you. You were just a girl when I saw you last. You were … Gods above,

you were thirteen, I think.”

She couldn’t help herself—she looked up at him from beneath lowered lashes and purred, “I’m not thirteen anymore.”

Archer gave her a slow, sensual smile as he took her in from head to toe before saying, “It would certainly seem that way.”

“You filled out a bit more, too,” she said, returning the favor of surveying him.

Archer grinned. “Comes with the profession.” He angled his head to the side, then flicked his magnificent eyes to Chaol, who now stood with his arms crossed. She still remembered how adept Archer had been at taking in details. It was probably part of the reason he’d become the top male courtesan in Rifthold. And a formidable opponent when Celaena was training at the Assassins’ Keep.

She glanced at Chaol, who was too busy staring down Archer to notice her attention. “He knows everything,” she told Archer. Some tension flowed out of Archer’s shoulders, but the surprise and amusement were also wearing off, replaced by hesitant pity.

“How’d you get out?” Archer asked carefully—still not mentioning anything about her profession or Endovier, despite her reassurance that Chaol knew.

“I was let out. By the king. I work for him now.”

Archer eyed Chaol again, and she took a step toward the courtesan. “He’s a friend,” she said softly. Was it suspicion or fear in his eyes? And was it merely because she worked for a tyrant that the world feared, or because he’d actually turned rebel and had something to hide? She kept herself as casual as possible, as unthreatening and relaxed as anyone might be upon encountering an old friend.

Archer asked, “Does Arobynn know you’re back?”

That was not a question she’d prepared for, or wanted to hear. She shrugged. “He has eyes everywhere; I’d be surprised if he didn’t know.”

Archer nodded solemnly. “I’m sorry. I heard about Sam—and about what happened at Farran’s house that night.” He shook his head, closing his eyes. “I’m just—sorry.”

Even though her heart twisted at his words, she nodded. “Thank you.” She put a hand on Chaol’s arm, suddenly needing just to touch him, to make sure he was still there. Needing to stop talking about this, too, she sighed and pretended to look interested in the glass doors at the top of

the steps.

“We should go inside,” she lied. She gave Archer a smile. “I know I was a miserable little brat when you trained at the Keep, but … do you want to have dinner with me tomorrow? I have the night off.”

“You certainly had your moments back then.” Archer returned her smile and sketched a bow. “I’ll have to move some appointments around, but I’d be delighted.” He reached into his cloak and pulled out a cream-colored card, engraved with his name and address. “Just send word about where and when, and I’ll be there.”



Celaena had been quiet since Archer left, and Chaol hadn’t tried to initiate conversation with her, though he was near bursting to say something.

He didn’t even know where to start.

During the whole exchange, all he’d really been able to think about was how much he wanted to slam Archer’s pretty face against the stone building.

Chaol wasn’t a fool. He knew some of her smiles and blushing hadn’t been acted. And though he had no claim on her—though making a claim would be the stupidest thing he could ever do—the thought of her being susceptible to Archer’s charms made him want to have a little chat with the courtesan.

Rather than head back to the castle, she began walking through the wealthy district in the heart of the city, her steps unhurried. After nearly thirty minutes of silence, Chaol figured he’d cooled his temper enough to be civil. “Laena?” he demanded.

Slightly civil, at least.

The gold streaks in her turquoise eyes were bright in the afternoon sun. “Of all the things we said back there, that is what bothered you most?”

It did. Wyrd keep him, it bothered the hell out of him.

“When you said you knew him, I didn’t realize you meant that well.” He fought the strange, sudden temper that was honing itself again. Even if she’d been charmed by his looks, she was going to kill Archer, he had to remind himself.

“My history with Archer will allow me to get him to provide information about whatever this rebel movement is,” she said, looking up at the fine houses they passed. The residential streets were tranquil despite the bustling city center only a few blocks down. “He’s one of the

few people who actually likes me, you know. Or he did years ago. It shouldn’t be too hard to get some inkling of what this group might be planning against the king—or who the other members might be.”

Part of him, he knew, should be ashamed for finding some relief in the fact that she was going to kill him. He was a better man than that—and he certainly wasn’t the territorial type.

And the gods knew he had no claim on her. He’d seen the look on her face when Archer had mentioned Sam.

He’d heard of Sam Cortland’s death in passing. He’d never known that Celaena and Sam had crossed paths, that Celaena had ever … ever loved that fiercely. On the night she was captured, she hadn’t been out to collect cold coin for a contract—no, she’d gone into that house to get revenge for the sort of loss he couldn’t begin to imagine.

They walked down the street, her side nearly pressed against his. He fought against the urge to lean into her, to tuck her in closer.

“Chaol?” she said after a few minutes. “Hmm?”

“You know I absolutely hate it when he calls me Laena, don’t you?”

A smile tugged at his lips, along with a flicker of relief. “So the next time I want to piss you off …”

“Don’t you even think about it.”

His smile spread, and the flicker of relief turned to something that punched him in the gut when she smiled back.

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