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Enjoy this exclusive preview of Crown of Midnight by Sarah J. Maas!
Chaol Westfall sprinted through the game park, Celaena keeping pace beside him. The chill morning air was like shards of glass in his lungs; his breath clouded in front of him. They'd bundled up as best they could without weighing themselves down—mostly just layers of shirts and gloves—but even with sweat running down his body, Chaol was freezing.
Chaol knew Celaena was freezing, too—her nose was tipped with pink, color stood high on her cheeks, and her ears shone bright-red. Noticing his stare, she flashed him a grin, those stunning turquoise eyes full of light. "Tired?" she teased. "I knew you weren't bothering to train while I was away."
He let out a breathy chuckle. "You certainly didn't train while you were on your mission. This is the second time this morning that I've had to slow my pace for you."
A blatant lie. She kept up with him easily now, nimble as a stag bounding through the woods. Sometimes he found it immensely hard not to watch her—to watch the way she moved.
"Keep telling yourself that," she said, and ran a little faster.
He increased his speed, not wanting her to leave him behind. Servants had cleared a path through the snow blanketing the game park, but the ground was still icy and treacherous underfoot.
He'd been realizing it more and more recently—how much he hated it when she left him behind. How he hated her setting off on those cursed missions and not contacting him for days or weeks. He didn't know how or when it had happened, but he'd somehow started caring if she came back or not. And after all that they'd already endured together...
He'd killed Cain at the duel. Killed him to save her. Part of him didn't regret it—part of him would do it again in a heartbeat. But the other part still woke him up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat that felt too much like Cain's blood.
She looked over at him. "What's wrong?"
He fought the rising guilt. "Keep your eyes on the path or you'll slip."
For once, she obeyed him. "You want to talk about it?"
Yes. No. If there were anyone who could understand the guilt and rage he grappled with when he thought about how he'd killed Cain, it'd be her. "How often," he said in between breaths, "do you think about the people you've killed?"
She whipped her head to him, then slowed. He didn't feel like stopping, and might have kept running, but she grabbed his elbow and forced him to pause. Her lips formed a thin line. "If you think passing judgment on me before I've had breakfast is in any way a good idea—"
"No," he interrupted, panting hard. "No—I didn't mean it like..." He swallowed a few breaths. "I wasn't judging." If he could just get his damn breath back, he could explain what he'd meant.
Her eyes were as frozen as the park around him, but then she tilted her head to the side. "Is this about Cain?"
Hearing her speak the name made him clench his jaw, but he managed a nod.
The ice in her eyes melted completely. He hated the sympathy in her face, the understanding.
He was the Captain of the Guard—he was bound to have killed someone at some point. He'd already seen and done enough in the name of the king—he'd fought men, hurt them. So he shouldn't be even having these feelings, shouldn't be telling her, especially. There was a line between them, somewhere—and he was fairly certain that he'd been toeing it more and more these days.
"I'll never forget the people I've killed," she said. Her breath curled in the air between them. "Even the ones that I killed to survive. I still see their faces, still remember the exact blow it took to kill them." She looked to the skeletal trees. "Some days, it feels like another person did those things. And most of those lives, I'm glad I ended. No matter the cause, though, it—it still takes away a little piece of you each time. So I don't think I'll ever forget them."
Her gaze found his again, and he nodded.
"But, Chaol," she said, and tightened her grip on his arm—a grip he hadn't realized she'd still been holding. "What happened with Cain, that wasn't an assassination, or even a cold- blooded murder." He tried to step back, but she held firm. "What you did wasn't dishonorable— and I'm not just saying that because it was my life you were saving." She paused for a long moment. "You will never forget killing Cain," she said at last, and when her eyes met his, his heart pounded so hard he could feel it across his whole body, "but I will never forget what you did to save me, either."
The urge to lean into her warmth was staggering. He made himself step back, away from the grip of her hand, made himself nod again. There was a line between them. The king might not think twice about their friendship, but crossing that final line could be deadly for both of them—it could make the king question his loyalty, his position, everything.
And if it ever came down to having to choose between his king and Celaena... He prayed to the Wyrd that he'd never be faced with that decision. Staying firmly on this side of the line was the logical choice. The honorable one, too, since Dorian... He'd seen the way Dorian still looked at her. He wouldn't betray his friend like that.
"Well," Chaol said with forced lightness, "I suppose having Adarlan's Assassin in my debt could be useful."
She gave him a bow. "At your service."
His smile was genuine this time.
"Come on, Captain," she said, starting into a slow jog. "I'm hungry and I don't feel like freezing my ass off out here."
He chuckled under his breath, and they ran on through the park.
When they finished their run, Celaena's legs were wobbling and her lungs were so raw from the cold and exertion that she thought they might be bleeding. They slowed to a brisk walk as they headed back to the toasty interior of the palace—and the giant breakfast that she was very much looking forward to devouring before going shopping.
They entered the castle gardens, weaving their way through the gravel paths and towering hedges. She kept her hands tucked under her arms. Even with the gloves, her fingers were frozen stiff. And her ears positively ached. Perhaps she'd start wearing a scarf over her head—even if Chaol would tease her mercilessly about it.
She glanced sidelong at her companion, who had peeled off his outer layers of clothing to reveal the sweat-drenched shirt clinging to his body. They rounded a hedge, and Celaena rolled her eyes when she saw what waited on the path ahead.
Every morning, more and more ladies found excuses to be walking through the gardens just after dawn. At first, it had just been a few young women—who'd taken one look at Chaol and his sweaty, clingy clothes and halted their walk. Celaena could have sworn their eyes had bulged out of their heads and their tongues had rolled onto the ground.
Then the next morning, they'd appeared along the path again—wearing even nicer dresses. The day after that, more girls showed up. And then several more. And now every direct route from the game park to the castle had at least one set of young women patrolling, waiting for him to walk by.
"Oh, please," Celaena hissed as they passed two women, who looked up from their fur muffs to bat their eyelashes at him. They must have awoken before dawn to be dressed so finely.
"What?" Chaol asked, his brows raising.
She didn't know if he merely didn't notice, or if he didn't want to say anything, but... "The gardens are rather busy for a winter morning," she said carefully.
He shrugged. "Some people go a little stir-crazy being cooped up inside all winter."
Or they just enjoy the sight of the Captain of the Guard and his muscles.
But all she said was, "Right," and then shut her mouth. No need to point it out if he was that oblivious. Especially when some of the ladies were exceptionally pretty.
"Are you going into Rifthold to spy today?" Chaol asked softly, when the path was mercifully clear of giggling, blushing girls.
She nodded. "I want to get a sense of his schedule, so I'll probably trail him."
"Why don't I help you?"
"Because I don't need your help." She knew he'd probably interpret it as arrogance—and it partially was—but... if he did get involved, then it'd complicate things.
"I know you don't need my help. I just thought you might want..." He trailed off, then shook his head, as if reprimanding himself. She found herself wanting to know what he'd been about to say, but it was best to let the topic drop.
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