“Check another carnival. We’ve had this crew for months.”
“She is small,” it went on, those too-human eyes flickering. “Crippled on one leg.”
“We don’t know anyone like that.”
They’d hunt her to the ends of the earth.
“Then line up your crew so we might … inspect them.”
Make them walk. Look them over. Look for a dark-haired young woman with a limp and whatever other markers her uncle had provided.
“You’ve scared them all away. It might be days before they return. And, again,” Lorcan said, hatchet flicking a bit higher, “there is no one in my caravan who matches such a description.” Behind him, Nik and Ombriel were silent, their terror a reek that shoved itself up his nose. Lorcan willed Marion to remain hidden.
The ilken smiled—the most hideous smile Lorcan had beheld in all his centuries. “We have gold.” Indeed, the ilken beside it had a hip-pouch sagging with it. “Her name is Elide Lochan. Her uncle is Lord of Perranth. He will reward you handsomely to turn her over.”
The words hit Lorcan like stones. Marion—Elide had … lied. Had managed to keep him from even sniffing the lie on her, had used enough truths and her own general fear to keep the scent of it hidden—
“We know no one by such a name,” Lorcan said again.
“Pity,” the sentinel crooned. “For if you had her in your company, we would have taken her and left. But now…” The ilken smiled at its three companions, and their dark wings rustled. “Now it seems we have flown a very long way for nothing. And we are very hungry.”
Elide had squeezed herself into a hidden floor compartment in the largest of the wagons and prayed that no one discovered her. Or began burning things. Her frantic breathing was the only sound. The air grew tight and hot, her legs trembled and cramped from staying curled in a ball, but still she waited, still she kept hidden.
Lorcan had run out—he’d just run into the fray. She’d fled the tent in time to see four ilken—winged ilken—descend upon the camp. She had not lingered long enough to see what happened after.
Time passed—minutes or perhaps hours, she couldn’t tell.
She had done this. She had brought these things here, to these people, to the caravan…
The screaming grew louder, then faded. Then nothing.
Lorcan might be dead. Everyone might be dead.
Her ears strained, and she tried to quiet her breathing to listen for any sounds of life, of action beyond her small, hot hiding space. No doubt, it was usually reserved for smuggling contraband—not at all intended for a human being.
She couldn’t stay hidden much longer. If the ilken slaughtered them all, they’d search for any survivors. Could likely sniff her out.
She would have to make a run for it. Have to break out, observe what she could, and sprint for the dark fields and pray no others waited out there. Her feet and calves had gone numb minutes before and now tingled incessantly. She might very well not even be able to walk, and her stupid, useless leg—
She listened again, praying to Anneith to turn the ilken’s attention elsewhere.
Only silence greeted her. No more screaming.
Now. She should go now, while she had the cover of darkness.
Elide did not give her fear another heartbeat to whisper its poison into her blood. She had survived Morath, survived weeks alone. She’d make it, she had to make it, and she wouldn’t at all mind being the queen’s gods-damned dishwasher if it meant she could live—
Elide uncoiled, shoulders aching as she quietly eased the trapdoor up, the little area rug sliding back. She scanned the interior of the wagon—the empty benches on either side—then studied the night beckoning beyond. Light spilled from the camp behind her, but ahead … a sea of blackness. The field was perhaps thirty feet away.
Elide winced as the wood groaned while she hefted the trapdoor high enough for her to slither, belly-down, over the floorboards. But her robe snagged, yanking her into a stop. Elide gritted her teeth, tugging blindly. But it had caught inside the crawl space. Anneith save her—
“Tell me,” drawled a deep male voice behind her, from near the driver’s seat. “What would you have done if I were an ilken soldier?”
Relief turned her bones to liquid, and Elide held in her sob. She twisted to find Lorcan covered in black blood, sitting on the bench behind the driver’s seat, legs spread before him. His axe and sword lay discarded beside him, coated in that black blood as well, and Lorcan idly chewed on a long stalk of wheat as he gazed at the canvas wall of the wagon.
“The first thing I might have done in your place,” Lorcan mused, still not looking at her, “would have been to ditch the robe. You’d fall flat on your face if you ran—and the red would be as good as ringing the dinner bell.”
She tugged at the robe again, and the fabric ripped at last. Scowling, she patted where it had come free and found a loose bit of wood paneling.
“The second thing I might have done,” Lorcan went on, not even bothering to wipe away the blood splattered on his face, “is tell me the gods-damned truth. Did you know those ilken beasts love to talk with the right encouragement? And they told me some very, very interesting things.” Those dark eyes at last slid to her, utterly vicious. “But you didn’t tell me the truth, did you, Elide?”
Her eyes were wide, her face leeched of color beneath the cosmetics. She’d lost the headdress somewhere, and her dark sheet of hair slid free of some of its pins as she climbed from the hidden compartment. Lorcan watched every movement, assessing and weighing and debating what, exactly, to do with her.
Liar. Cunning little liar.
Elide Lochan, rightful Lady of Perranth, crawled out, slamming the trapdoor shut and glaring at him from where she knelt on the floor. He glared right back. “Why should I have trusted you,” she said with impressive coldness, “when you were stalking me for days in the forest? Why should I have told you a thing about me when you could have sold me to the highest bidder?”
His body ached; his head throbbed from the slaughter he’d barely managed to survive. The ilken had gone down—but not willingly. And the one he’d kept alive, the one Nik and Ombriel had begged him to kill and be done with, had told him very little, actually.
But Lorcan had decided his wife didn’t need to know that. Decided it was time to see what she might reveal if he let some lies of his own fool her.
Elide glanced at his weapons, at the reeking blood coating him like oil. “You killed them all?”
He lowered the wheat stalk from his mouth. “Do you think I’d be sitting here if I hadn’t?”
Elide Lochan wasn’t some mere human trying to return to her homeland and serve her queen. She was a royal-blooded lady who wanted to get back to that fire-breathing bitch in the North to offer whatever aid she could. She and Aelin would be well suited for each other, he decided. The sweet-faced liar and the insufferable, haughty princess.
Elide slumped onto the bench, massaging her feet and calves.
“I’m risking my neck for you,” he said too quietly, “and yet you decided not to tell me that your uncle isn’t just a mere commander at Morath, but Erawan’s right hand—and you are his prized possession.”
“I told you enough of the truth. Who I am makes no difference. And I am no one’s possession.”
His temper yanked at the leash he’d been careful to keep short before tracking her scent to this wagon. Outside, the others were hurriedly packing, readying to flee into the night before the villagers decided to blame them for the disaster. “It does make a difference who you are. With your queen on the move, your uncle knows she’d pay a steep price to get you back. You are not a mere breeding asset—you are a negotiation tool. You might very well be what brings that bitch to her knees.”
Rage flashed in her fine-boned face. “You keep plenty of secrets, too, Lorcan.” She spat his name like a curse. “And I still haven’t been able to decide if I find it insulting or amusing that you think I’m too stupid to notice. That you thought I was some fear-addled girl, too grateful for the presence of such a strong, brooding warrior to even question why you were there or what you wanted or what your stake in all this is. I gave you exactly what you wanted to see: a lost young woman in need of help, perhaps a bit skilled at lying and deceit, but ultimately not worth more than a few seconds’ consideration. And you, in all your immortal arrogance, didn’t think twice. Why should you, when humans are so useless? Why should you even bother, when you planned to abandon me the moment you got what you needed?”
Lorcan blinked, bracing his feet on the floor. She didn’t back down an inch.
He couldn’t remember the last time anyone had spoken to him like that. “I would be careful what you say to me.”
Elide gave him a hateful little smile. “Or what? You’ll sell me to Morath? Use me as your ticket in?”
“I hadn’t thought to do that, but thank you for the idea.”
Her throat bobbed, the only sign of her fear. And she said clearly and without a hint of hesitation, “If you try to bring me to Morath, I will end my own life before you can carry me over the Keep’s bridge.”
It was the threat, the promise, that checked his anger, his utter rage that … that she had indeed played into his expectations of her, his arrogance and prejudices. He said carefully, “What is it that you’re carrying that makes them hunt you so relentlessly? Not your royal blood, not your magic and use for breeding. The object you carry with you—what is it?”
Perhaps it was a night for truth, perhaps death hovered close enough to make her a bit reckless, but Elide said, “It’s a gift—for Celaena Sardothien. From a woman kept imprisoned in Morath, who had waited a long time to repay her for a past kindness. More than that, I don’t know.”
A gift for an assassin—not the queen. Perhaps nothing of note, but— “Let me see it.”
They stared each other down again. And Lorcan knew that if he wanted, he could wait until she was asleep, take it for himself, and vanish. See what might make her so protective of it.
But he knew … some small, stupid part of him knew that if he took from this woman who had already had too much stolen from her … He didn’t know if there was any coming back from that. He’d done such despicable, vicious things over the centuries and hadn’t thought twice. He’d reveled in them, relished them, the cruelty.
But this … there was a line. Somehow … somehow there was a gods-damned line here.
She seemed to pick up on his decision—with whatever gift she had. Her shoulders slumped, and she stared blankly at the canvas wall as the sounds of their group now grew closer, their urging to hurry and pack, leave what could be spared.
Elide said quietly, “Marion was my mother’s name. She died defending Aelin Galathynius from her assassin. My mother bought Aelin time to run—to get away so she could one day return to save us all. My uncle, Vernon, watched and smiled as my father, the Lord of Perranth, was executed outside our castle. Then he took my father’s title and lands and home. And for the next ten years, my uncle locked me in the highest tower of Perranth Castle, with only my nursemaid for company. When I broke my foot and ankle, he did not trust healers enough to let them treat it. He kept bars on the tower windows to keep me from killing myself, and shackled my ankles to keep me from running. I left for the first time in a decade when he shoved me into a prison wagon and dragged me down to Morath. There, he made me work as a servant—for the humiliation and terror he delights in. I planned and dreamed of escaping every day. And when the time came … I took my chance. I did not know about the ilken, had only heard rumors of fell things being bred in the mountains beyond the Keep. I have no lands, no money, no army to offer Aelin Galathynius. But I will find her—and help her in whatever way I can. If only to keep just one girl, just one, from ever enduring what I did.”