She turned again, and Rolfe sneered, “Did Sam die still pining after you, or did you finally stop treating him like filth?”
There was a choking sound, and a slam and rattle of glasses. She looked slowly to find Rowan with his hand around Rolfe’s neck, the captain pressed onto the map, the figures scattered everywhere, Rowan’s snarling teeth close to ripping off Rolfe’s ear.
Fenrys smirked a bit. “I told you to choose your words carefully, Rolfe.”
Aedion seemed to be doing his best to ignore his father as he said to the captain, “Nice to meet you.” Then he strolled toward where Aelin, Dorian, and Lysandra waited by the door.
Rowan leaned in, murmuring something in Rolfe’s ear that made him blanch, then shoved him a bit harder into the table before stalking for Aelin.
Rolfe set his hands on the table, pushing up to bark some surely stupid words at them, but went rigid. As if some pulse thrashed through his body.
He turned his hands over, fitting the edges of his palms together.
His eyes lifted—but not to her. To the windows.
To the bells that had begun ringing in the twin watchtowers flanking the mouth of the bay.
The frantic pealing set the streets beyond them halting, silencing.
Each bleat’s meaning was clear enough.
Rolfe’s face went pale.
Aelin watched as black—darker than the ink that had been etched there—spread across his fingers, to his palms. Black such as only the Valg could bring.
Oh, there was no doubt now that the map worked.
She said to her companions, “We leave. Now.”
Rolfe was already storming toward her—toward the door. He said nothing as he flung it open, striding onto the quay, where his first mate and quartermaster were already sprinting for him.
Aelin shut the door behind Rolfe and surveyed her friends. And the cadre.
It was Fenrys who spoke first, rising to his feet and watching through the window as Rolfe and his men rushed about. “Remind me never to get on your bad side.”
Dorian said quietly, “If that force reaches this town, these people—”
“It won’t,” Aelin said, meeting Rowan’s stare. Pine-green eyes held her own.
Show them why you’re my blood-sworn, she silently told him.
A hint of a wicked smile. Rowan turned to them. “Let’s go.”
“Go,” Fenrys blurted, pointing to the window. “Where?”
“There’s a boat,” Aedion said, “anchored on the other side of the island.” He inclined his head toward Lysandra. “You’d think they’d notice a skiff being tugged out to sea by a shark last night, but—”
The door banged open, and Rolfe’s towering figure filled it. “You.”
Aelin put a hand on her chest. “Me?”
“You sent that magic out there; you summoned them.”
She barked a laugh, pushing off the table. “If I ever learn such a useful talent, I’d use it for summoning my allies, I think. Or the Mycenians, since you seem so adamant they don’t exist.” She glanced over his shoulder—the sky was still clear. “Good luck,” she said, stepping around him.
Dorian blurted, “What?”
Aelin looked the King of Adarlan over. “This isn’t our battle. And I won’t sacrifice my kingdom’s fate over a skirmish with the Valg. If you have any sense, you won’t, either.” Rolfe’s face contorted with wrath—even as fear, deep and true, shone in his eyes. She took a step toward the chaotic streets but paused, turning to the Pirate Lord. “I suppose the cadre will be coming with me, too. Since they’re now my allies.”
Silently, Fenrys and Gavriel approached, and she could have sighed with relief that they did so without question, that Gavriel was willing to do whatever it took to stay near his son.
Rolfe hissed, “You think withholding your assistance will sway me into helping you?” But far beyond the bay, between the distant, humped islands, a cloud of darkness gathered.
“I meant what I said, Rolfe. I can do fine without you, armada or no. Mycenians or no. And this island has now become dangerous for my cause.” She inclined her head toward the sea. “I’ll offer a prayer to Mala for you.” She patted the hilt of Goldryn. “A bit of advice, from one professional criminal to the other: cut off their heads. It’s the only way to kill them. Unless you burn them alive, but I bet most would jump ship and swim to shore before your flaming arrows can do much damage.”
“And what of your idealism—what of that child who stole two hundred slaves from me? You’d leave the people of this island to perish?”
“Yes,” she said simply. “I told you, Rolfe, that Endovier taught me some things.”
Rolfe swore. “Do you think Sam would stand for this?”
“Sam is dead,” she said, “because men like you and Arobynn have power. But Arobynn’s reign is now over.” She smiled at the darkening horizon. “Seems like yours might end rather soon as well.”
Rowan snarled, taking all of a step before Rolfe flinched away.
Rushing footsteps sounded, then Rolfe’s quartermaster filled the doorway. He panted as he rested a hand on the threshold, the other gripping the sea dragon-shaped pommel of his sword. “We are knee-deep in shit.”
Aelin paused. Rolfe’s face tightened. “How bad?” the captain asked.
He wiped the sweat from his brow. “Eight warships teeming with soldiers—at least a hundred on each, more on the lower levels I couldn’t see. They’re flanked by two sea-wyverns. All moving so fast that it’s like storm winds carry them.”
Aelin cut a glance at Rowan. “How quickly can we get to that boat?”
Rolfe was gazing at the few ships in his harbor, his face deathly pale. At Ship-Breaker out in the bay, the chain currently beneath the calm surface. Fenrys, seeing the captain’s stare, observed, “Those sea-wyverns will snap that chain. Get your people off this island. Use every skiff and sloop you have and get them out.”
Rolfe slowly turned to Aelin, his sea-green eyes simmering with hate. And resignation. “Is this an attempt to call my bluff?”
Aelin toyed with the end of her braid. “No. It’s convenient timing, but no.”
Rolfe surveyed them all—the power that could level this island if they chose. His voice was hoarse as he at last spoke. “I want to be admiral. I want this entire archipelago. I want Ilium. And when this war is over, I want Lord in front of my name, as it was before my ancestors’ names long ago. What of my payment?”
Aelin surveyed him in turn, the entire room deathly quiet compared to the chaos of outside. “For every Morath ship you sack, you can keep whatever gold and treasure is aboard it. But weapons and ammunition go to the front. I’ll give you land, but no royal titles beyond those of Lord of Ilium and King of the Archipelago. If you bear any offspring, I will recognize them as your heirs—as I would any children Dorian might bear.”
Dorian nodded gravely. “Adarlan will recognize you and your heirs, and this land as yours.”
Rolfe ground out, “You send those bastards down to the inky black, and my fleet is yours. I cannot guarantee the Mycenians will rise, though. We’ve been scattered too far and too long. Only a small number live here, and they will not stir without proper … motivation.” He glanced toward the bar, as if he’d expected to see someone behind it.
But Aelin held out her hand, smiling faintly. “Leave that to me.”
Tattooed skin met scarred flesh as Rolfe shook her hand. Hard enough to break bones, but she did it right back. Sent a little flame searing into his fingers.
He hissed, pulling back his hand, and Aelin grinned. “Welcome to Her Majesty’s army, Privateer Rolfe.” She gestured to the open door. “Shall we?”
Aelin was insane, Dorian realized. Brilliant and wicked, but insane.
And perhaps the greatest, most unremorseful liar he’d ever encountered.
He’d felt her summons sweep through the world. Felt fire hum against his skin. There was no mistaking who it belonged to. And there was no mistaking that it had gone right to the Dead End, where the forces dwelling there would know there was one person alive with that kind of flame at her disposal, and track the magic back here.
He didn’t know what had triggered it, why she’d chosen now, but—
But Rowan had informed Aelin how the Valg haunted Rolfe. How he had this city watched day and night, terrified of their return. So Aelin had used it to her advantage. The Mycenians—holy gods. They were little more than a bedtime story and cautionary tale. But here they were, carefully hidden away. Until Aelin had smoked them out.
And as the Pirate Lord and Queen of Terrasen shook hands and she grinned at Rolfe, Dorian realized he … perhaps he could do with a bit more wickedness and insanity, too.
This war would not be won on smiles and manners.
It would be won by a woman willing to gamble with an entire island full of people to get what she needed to save them all. A woman whose friends were equally willing to play along, to rip their souls to shreds if it meant saving the greater population. They knew the weight of the lives panicking around them if they gambled wrong. Aelin perhaps more than anyone else.
Aelin and Rolfe stalked through the open tavern doorway and into the street beyond. Behind him, Fenrys let out a low whistle. “Gods help you, Rowan, that woman is…”
Dorian didn’t wait to hear the rest as he followed the pirate and the queen into the street, Aedion and Lysandra trailing. Fenrys kept at a distance from the others, but Gavriel remained close, his gaze still fixed on his son. Gods, they looked so much alike, moved alike, the Lion and the Wolf.
Rolfe barked to his men waiting in a line before him, “Every ship that can bear men sails now.” He rattled off orders, delegating his men to various ships long bereft of crew to run them, including his own, while Aelin stood there, hands braced on her hips, watching them all.
She said to the captain, “What’s your fastest ship?”
He pointed at his own.
She held his stare, and Dorian waited for the wild, reckless plan. But she said without looking at any of them, “Rowan, Lysandra, Fenrys, and Gavriel, you’re with me. Aedion, you get on the northern watchtower and man the mounted harpoon. Any ship gets too close to the chain, you blast a hole through their gods-damned side.” Dorian stiffened as she at last addressed him, seeing the orders already in her eyes. He opened his mouth to object, but Aelin said simply, “This battle is no place for a king.”
“And it’s one for a queen?”
There was no amusement, nothing but icy calm as she handed him a sword he hadn’t realized she’d been carrying at her side. Damaris.
Goldryn was still strapped across her back, its ruby glowing like a living ember as she said, “One of us has to live, Dorian. You take the southern watchtower—stay at the base, and get your magic ready. Any forces that try to cross the chain, you take them out.”
Not with steel, but magic. He fastened Damaris to his sword belt, its weight foreign. “And what are you going to do?” he demanded. As if in answer, his power writhed in his gut, like an asp curling to strike.
Aelin glanced at Rowan, at his tattooed hand. “Rolfe, get whatever iron chains you have left from your slave-mongering. We’re going to need them.”
For her—for Rowan. As a check against their magic, if it got out of control.
Because Aelin … Aelin was going to sail that ship right into the heart of the enemy fleet and blow them all out of the water.
She was a liar, and a murderer, and a thief, and Aelin had a feeling she’d be called much worse by the end of this war. But as that unnatural darkness gathered on the horizon, she wondered if she might have bitten off more than she and all her fanged friends could chew.
She did not give her fear an inch of space.
Did not do anything but let black fire ripple through her.
Securing this alliance was only part of it. The other part, the bigger part … was the message. Not to Morath.